Snogs of innocence, snogs of experience

Dana Shilling

Jersey City, New Jersey, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Consent issues; Dollhouse; Prostitution; Rape; TV

Shilling, Dana. 2009. Snogs of innocence, snogs of experience. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.


[0.2] HELENA: How might one do, sir, to lose it [virginity] to her own liking?

—Shakespeare, "All's Well that Ends Well"

[0.3] HELENA: Is there now military policy how virgins might blow up men?

—Shakespeare, "All's Well that Ends Well"

[0.4] "Jehane, on yonder hill there stands,
My castle, guarding well my lands;
What hinders me from taking you,
And doing what I list to do
To your fair willful body, while
Your knight lies dead?" A wicked smile
Wrinkled her face, her lips grew thin,
A long way out she thrust her chin:
"You know that I should strangle you
While you were sleeping, or bite through
Your throat, by God's help, Ah!" she said.

—William Morris, "The Haystack in the Flood"

1. Introduction

[1.1] Warning: Contains spoilers for "Dollhouse," "Firefly," "Blake's 7," "The 4400," and "Dawson's Creek." I don't think Shakespearean spoiler warnings are required.

[1.2] Looking back at the entire first season of the low-rated Dollhouse, one of my first reactions is that, while I was often disturbed by it, I'm sure that was the intention. But leaving aside the question of whether disturbing the audience is a legitimate creative tactic (it certainly isn't a good way to get a show renewed) I realize that the show raises many issues about sexual consent—perhaps with fully consensual sexual activities as a Goldilockean midpoint with issues of rape and dubious consent on one side and issues about prostitution on the other.

[1.3] Many fans didn't watch Dollhouse, or stopped watching early in its run, because of the vast sleaze potential of the premise. For those who have not seen the series: the Dollhouse is a kind of employment agency for Actives who can be hired, in exchange for presumably immense fees, to be programmed with any set of skills or personality traits so that they can do whatever the client wants; between engagements, the Actives are returned to a dormant state, where some flashes of their original personalities are displayed. The Actives are designated by call signals, so, for example, Caroline became Echo and Mellie became November—but there is a hybrid Echo/Caroline or November/Mellie who might even be stronger and more integrated than the original personality. To the extent that an Active's engagement involves some kind of sexual behavior, there is certainly prostitution involved, and possibly rape. The Dollhouse is also figured as a sort of play-for-pay Eden, so emotions about the sexual abuse of children can also be triggered; in their Sleeping state, the dolls suggest the ideal of childish innocence.

[1.4] But to the extent that the Actives are treated as property, it's just some of those comforting family values. In the case of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt is the patriarch: she has the Pater Potestas (the right to decide which infants will be reared and which will be exposed or killed)—that is, who continues to get Treatments and return to the presumably blissful state of freedom from adult concerns and who goes to the Attic—a Sheol or Hell dimension that is mentioned but not seen in the first season of Dollhouse.

[1.5] I suspect that it has always seemed like a stupid question to ask "Why is rape wrong?" but the obvious answer today is not the same as the previous obvious answer; in fact, it's a polar opposite. Dollhouse (by design, I think) makes the viewer uncomfortable by depicting activities that are wrong—sometimes using older concepts about sexual morality, sometimes new ones, but deploying them in ways that accentuate the clash between the two. The viewer (or voyeur?) has to decide which of these beliefs he or she actually holds. Indeed, one of the reasons Dollhouse so disturbs the potential fan is that the show looks at the dolls through the lens of more antiquated ideas about rape and prostitution. Couple that with the dolls' melding of child and sexually mature being, add a dash of mental incompetence and masquerade, and you have a recipe for fan avoidance.

2. Why is rape wrong?

[2.1] The current conventional wisdom is that rape is wrong because it is contrary to the interest in bodily autonomy: human beings are entitled to decide the conditions under which they will have sex. That is, it is grounded in an assumption that sexual pleasure is a good thing, and it is wrong to subject a person to sexual contact contrary to that person's intentions. But this assumption has not entirely replaced earlier assumptions, such as that sexual activity is always wrong and can be justified only by the need to reproduce the human race, or assumptions that sexual activity is right and good in the context of a lifelong marital commitment, but not otherwise. (Irrespective of their personal beliefs, people raised in Anglo-American culture are exposed not only to ideas about rape but to legal codes heavily influenced by this theology. The site has extensive archives of Patristic theology, including St. Ambrose, "Concerning Virginity,"; St. Augustine, "On Holy Virginity,"; St. Gregory of Nyssa, "On Virginity,"

[2.2] Traditionally, the rape of an unmarried woman was contrary to her father's interest in securing a good bride price for a virgin, and rape decreased the daughter's market value. But fortunately, the Old Testament allows a happy ending—the rapist can purchase the rape victim at a low, low discount price. In this analysis, a rapist is like someone who jumps a subway turnstile or someone who buys bootleg booze without the tax stamp; he's trying to avoid a payment obligation (Deuteronomy 22). As Susan Weidman Schneider (1985:220) notes,

[2.3] The Jewish laws concerning rape, which derive from a few verses in Deuteronomy, basically view women as helpless creatures, very much the property of their fathers or husbands. A convicted rapist must compensate a father or husband for the rape of his daughter or wife, and only an unmarried orphan is permitted to keep any fine awarded…One of the most appalling consequences of the rape laws, and one that highlighted women's dependent status, was that an unmarried woman who was raped became the bride of the man who raped her.

[2.4] The rape of a married woman—by someone other than her husband—was contrary to the husband's interest in his wife's marital fidelity, as a guarantee of the parentage of the sons who would inherit his property. Until very recently, U.S. law did not recognize marital rape as a crime—by consenting to marriage, a woman had consented to have sex whenever her husband wanted.

3. Why is prostitution wrong?

[3.1] Again, there has been a millennia-long consensus that prostitution is wrong, but for changing reasons. There has always been a demand, among men who were economically capable of paying, for at least some quantity and quality of sexual services, despite religious ideologies calling for a celibate vocation, sexual abstinence, or marriage, with fornication and adultery condemned as sinful. As for the nexus between prostitution and rape, prostitution has often obtained official tolerance on the grounds that without sexual outlet, men would ravish pure virgins.

[3.2] One aspect of the culture war in the United States is that some subcultures continue to place a high value on premarital virginity, whereas others are skeptical about the value of whatever virginal purity continues to exist. The former group would say that prostitution is wrong because it is a form of nonmarital sexuality; the latter, that it is wrong because people should have sex with partners who are genuinely fond of them for aspects of their person or character beyond wallet level. Some Dollhouse viewers say that if anything, the wrongfulness of prostitution is compounded by inducing the provider of sexual services to believe that he or she is, in fact, genuinely fond of the recipient of those services.

4. Tell me what you fear and I will tell you what you are

[4.1] Perhaps on a societal level we can paraphrase Brillat-Savarin by looking at the culture's fears rather than its diet. The rationale for a law against statutory rape is that there is an age of consent below which a person is deemed unable to understand the consequences of sexual activity, so his or her consent is irrelevant. Some states have "Romeo and Juliet" laws that decriminalize voluntary sexual contact where both parties are close in age, on the theory that adults should be held criminally liable for taking advantage of younger partners—a community interest that is not present when both partners are young.

[4.2] However, 21st-century U.S. culture is caught in a paradox: the age of sexual maturity continues to drop, while the age of social adulthood continues to increase. As the economy worsens and there are fewer and fewer jobs to be had, fewer and fewer young people will be able to achieve their own households, so social maturity will be delayed even further. So for at least several years, adolescents are both culturally idolized as the most sexually attractive members of society and are also viewed as children in need of protection from predators.

5. The special hell

[5.1] The Blake's 7 episode "Deliverance" has a character named Meegat, a priestess who decides that one of the lead characters, the antiheroic Avon, is actually the deity her people have been awaiting for centuries. Despite his quite high opinion of himself (shared by a large portion of the fandom) he spends most of the episode fending her off and trying to disabuse her of this belief.

[5.2] A Blake's 7 fan seeing the Firefly episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds" for the first time would therefore probably view Saffron as another Meegat and agree with Shepherd Book's warning that taking sexual advantage of an apparently guileless maiden is wrong—even though Saffron is, according to the laws of her hometown, Mal's wife. Mal initially agrees with this moral stance, but later comes close to yielding to Saffron's articulate (and naked) presentation of herself as a mature woman who genuinely desires him. If Saffron really were who she pretended to be, then it could be argued that Mal would be a rat to break Inara's heart by choosing Saffron over her, but he wouldn't be at fault in expressing mutual desire between consenting adults who have ended up married to each other (even if one of them didn't know it at the time).

[5.3] As it happened, however, Saffron is a scheming polygamist con artist, and it's a good thing she never met Captain Jack Harkness, or the universe would implode.

6. Damages

[6.1] Elizabeth Spencer's novella Light in the Piazza has been made into a movie and a Broadway musical. It's about two American women, a mother and daughter, in Italy in the 1950s, and the mother's moral crisis when a handsome young Italian aristocrat falls in love with her daughter. The problem, exacerbated by the difficulties of members of one culture understanding members of another culture, is that the daughter is not, or is not just, the charming innocent that her suitor sees—she experienced brain damage in an accident.

[6.2] This might be a useful analogy for Dollhouse—it could be argued that in the resting state, the dolls have suffered induced brain damage. Or as those of us who have suffered critical-level computer problems might say, there has been a clean install but only the operating system has been reinstalled, none of the programs.

[6.3] The 4400 is about a group of alien abductees who return to Earth with various occult powers. One of the abductees (Lily) became pregnant during the abduction, and her daughter, Isabelle, goes immediately from being a very scary baby to being a beautiful young woman with serious boundary issues. Isabelle becomes sexually involved with Shawn, the leader of the returned "4400s." At first, Isabelle's father (or stepfather, or Joseph-like husband of Isabelle's mother) warns Shawn not to become involved with Isabelle, who is really a mere child despite her mature appearance and seductive demeanor. Shawn doesn't listen, although he soon becomes involved in a massive Fatal Attraction–esque meltdown that suggests that Adam's first and second wives would have had a lot to talk about—that Edenic innocence and Lilith's sexualized malice are easily joined in a single being.

7. Martyr of purity

[7.1] Yet in the discourse of rape and virginity, there is often a blurring, or even a crossing over, between blaming the rapist and blaming the victim. According to the Web site (, St. Maria Goretti, "patron of youth, young women, purity, and victims of rape," died in 1902, when she was 12. An 18-year-old neighbor threatened to rape her at knifepoint. She told him she would rather die than submit; he stabbed her multiple times, and she died, although not before she forgave him. Maria Goretti was canonized in 1950. says that "she is called a martyr because she fought against Alexander's attempt at sexual assault," but the main factor in her canonization is that she forgave her attacker.

[7.2] However, unless they happened to be calling Potential Slayers in Anzio that day, it doesn't seem physically impossible for an armed assailant to rape a 12-year-old girl, so her "submission" or "refusal to submit" says a lot more about concepts of maidenly purity and womanly honor than about sexual assault.

[7.3] Even outside the context of rape, women can be blamed for tempting men into rape or into unchaste behavior. In The Winter's Tale, Polixenes says that as boys, he and Leontes were innocent twinned lambs frisking in the sun: "We knew not the doctrine of ill-doing nor dreamed that any did," and if they had continued that way, before the temptations thrown in their path by their eventual wives, they would have been free from the taint of original sin. Hermione's reply is "Of this make no conclusion, lest you say your queen and I are devils" (The Winter's Tale, 1.2.67–85).

8. Who raped whom?

[8.1] Returning to Dollhouse, I think it's clear that Sierra's handler, Hearn, raped her—Sierra obviously knew that something painful, frightening, and unwanted had occurred when she was powerless to defend herself. Insofar as the dolls are conditioned to place absolute trust in their handlers, abuse of a doll by a handler is a kind of incestuous abuse within the created family that is a constant theme in the Jossverse (although it's a shame that she blamed poor Victor, a fellow doll who wasn't guilty and really liked her!). And even DeWitt, who is hardly the most punctilious of moralists, knew that there had been a crime requiring redress—indeed, a crime against a woman requiring redress by another woman (DeWitt) using November as a tool. DeWitt commands November to kill Hearn—more or less for committing a crime that DeWitt has committed herself—and I think the episode "Briar Rose" hinted that eventually women will rescue themselves if no one does it for them (note 1).

[8.2] However, I suspect that DeWitt was reacting at least as much to the handler's misuse of valuable Dollhouse property. Topher Brink, the resident mad scientist, is allowed a strictly rationed series of treats in which he is allowed to make Sierra believe that she is his girl-geek counterpart. But what about DeWitt's addiction to sneaking out of the office (at least once in the middle of a crisis), discarding her work phone, and triggering Victor's Don Juan program so often that, as it were, his screen saver is incapable of dealing with the material burned into the screen? Shouldn't she be at work and not damaging valuable corporate property?

[8.3] Less frivolously, however, has DeWitt raped Victor? He seems to be enjoying the engagement while it occurs, and in his resting state, he doesn't know that it has occurred. Is it like a tree falling in an uninhabited forest? Or, as Othello said, that it would be okay if the entire camp enjoyed Desdemona, as long as he never found out about it?

[8.4] I stopped watching Dawson's Creek shortly after Kevin Williamson left and the shark was jumped, but I still vividly remember the season 1 plotline about Pacey and his English teacher, a development that seemed less shocking than it actually was, perhaps because Joshua Jackson did not do a very convincing job of appearing to be 15. If the teacher had gotten caught (I believe she hotfooted it out of town before it got past gossip to the indictment stage), then she would have been legally liable, as an adult having sex with a minor, although I think it would be fair to say that in moral terms she was a victim of his failure to disclose the crucial fact of his age.

[8.5] Looking back at the epigraph, in All's Well that Ends Well, did Helena rape Bertram? This is one case in which modern thinking would be more likely to find rape than traditional concepts. To the early modern mind, it would probably be deemed licit or even praiseworthy for a wife to engage in marital sex in order to produce a legitimate heir for her husband—however little her husband actually liked her. Today, however, we would be more likely to point out that Helena used deceit to induce her husband to perform a sexual act that he had explicitly refused to perform.

9. Conclusion: C'mon and rescue me?

[9.1] As the William Morris epigraph shows, the Jossverse is not the first realm of the imagination in which women are perfectly capable of physical, or even violent, response to attacks on their purity, or their autonomy—however they choose to analyze it. Nowadays, or in the imagined future (for example, Firefly's Kaylee Frye) "innocence" can be a matter of hope and optimism, not virginity, and rescue can be performed by the endangered maiden herself, or as a collaborative affair.

[9.2] One reason I found the later episodes of Dollhouse more satisfying than the earlier episodes (although even the later episodes leave many questions unanswered and issues unexplored) is that the initial presentation of the situation was obviously simplistic (and intended to be perceived as such). FBI agent Paul Ballard started out, in his own mind, as an unproblematic hero intent on saving Caroline. After losing his job, alienating everyone he knows, and seemingly turning himself into a facsimile of the kind of obsessed loner who becomes the object of the hunt for an assassin or serial killer, Ballard discovers that in many ways, Echo (or Echo/Caroline) is stronger than he is; she may not need his help and may not want it. The end of the first season also hints at a revolt of the dolls—but very much relying on their own resources.

10. Note

1.'s episode summary ( refers to Echo's use of the story of "Sleeping Beauty" in her engagement as a therapist in a facility for troubled youth, to help a traumatized—and violent—girl recover from trauma; Echo tells the girl in so many words that girls can save themselves and needn't—shouldn't—rely on a prince to save them.

11. Work cited

Schneider, Susan Weidman. 1984. Jewish and female: Choice and changes in our lives today. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Contact the Editor with questions.