It feels like every few years there is a new scandalous movie/book/media property that drops and leaves a weird taste in adults mouths when it comes to their depictions of sex, consent and romantic relationships. It came with Twilight (boyfriends stalking you, climbing into your room and reminding you how badly they want to kill you) with 50 Shades of Grey (rich guys showing up at your workplace to talk you into a less-than-healthy version of a kinky BDSM power dynamic) and now, most recently, with Netflix’s 365 Days (365 DNI). The Polish-Italian film tells the story of a young woman kidnapped by an Italian mobster who threatens her family and gives her a year to fall in love with him (very Beauty and the Beast meets Fifty Shades) and, uh, she eventually does.
The film has made headlines for it’s really graphic depictions of non-consensual and dubiously consensual sex acts shown in a soft-core porn kind of way. Deadline reported that Duffy, Welsh singer and rape survivor who shared her harrowing experiences being abducted and sexually assaulted, wrote to the streaming service asking them to reconsider featuring the film on their platform. In her letter, she wrote:
“Today, I really don’t know what to think, say or do, other than to reach out and explain to you in this letter how irresponsible it was of Netflix to broadcast the film 365 Days. I don’t want to be in this position to have to write to you, but the virtue of my suffering obliges me to do so, because of a violent experience that I endured of the kind that you have chosen to present as ‘adult erotica’. 365 Days glamorizes the brutal reality of sex trafficking, kidnapping and rape. This should not be anyone’s idea of entertainment, nor should it be described as such, or be commercialized in this manner.”
Now, of course, the bodice-ripper genre (playing on the fantasy of “being taken” and dubious seductions and power dynamics that make consensual power-play impossible) is one that has lived in our media and culture for as long as we’ve been a sexually repressed society that denies pleasure (particularly for women) and glamorizes and romanticizes violence. We as adult sexual beings have complicated relationships with them for obvious reasons — for many they can be hot! They offer an escapist role-play, they let some people (even many survivors of assault) explore these scary, traumatic scenarios in a way that feels safe. For adults who are maybe more equipped to read up on healthy negotiation of boundaries, safe, sane and consensual BDSM play and approach the larger cultural contexts that separate the realm of fantasy (including pre-negotiated power dynamics in sexual scene that allow people to experience pain and pleasure safely) from the realm of what is romantic and desirable treatment from a partner , this movie is a very different experience than it is for others — particularly the young people who have found the film (and are sharing their reactions on TikTok).
It’s complicated because, of course, art and film depicting something is not always the same as endorsing it. The larger context of a film with non-consensual (and coercion, threatening someone or their loved ones in exchange for sexual acts is not consensual), with scenes shot and displayed in a sensual way does make for a very different experience and make the story being told settle in a less comfortable way. It’s not the same as seeing non-con pornography (consensual non-con) in the context of a porn site (where you expect to see it and know it is existing in that pornographic fantasy land where the behaviors are hyper-sexual and not real.)
The film being on Netflix, though, poses another issue. For adult viewers (and teens with adult-viewing permissions) it’s very accessible, in the trending category and only marked by the TV-MA warning. Paired with our abysmal lack of sex education (particularly any that emphasizes safety, power dynamics, consent, pleasure and sexual media literacy) can make this particular film feel even more off — because it’s just right there, nearby The Lovebirds, To All the Boys I Loved Before and Sleeping With Other People and other romcoms and romdrams.
What do you do when your teen watches something like this?
So when a film like this — it’s right to exist and exist on this particular platform is a debate for someone else’s blog on some other day — is within reach of young people and part of the continuing escalation of a bastardized mainstreaming kink culture (but without all the grounding, human connection and consent work that makes it healthy and rewarding for informed participants), what are we supposed to do to make sure our young sexual citizens aren’t internalizing the wrong messages?
Well, the consensus from just about anyone who is an expert on young adults and sex: Ignore how personally excruciating for you it might be and talk to them. Because the only thing that can help young people form a clearer and healthier identity as a sexual human (and to help educate them about everything good and fun and pleasurable sex can be) is by offering up healthy alternatives to the toxic narratives that are so readily accessible. Whether it’s porn (and they do watch a lot of that) or the mature themes on TV and in film, these aren’t things they can really avoid or just not encounter.
And, as Peggy Orentstein told SheKnows this past winter following the release of her book Boys & Sex, the porn use among teen boys especially is something to pay attention to — because it allows them to equate the pornographic acts they’re seeing (that may or may not be pleasurable for the actors) with what’s normal and expected of them during sex in their formative years.
“So the trouble is, it’s not sex. There’s all kinds of porn — there’s ethical porn, there’s feminist porn, there’s whatever. But that’s not what they’re accessing,” she said. “They’re accessing what’s free and easy to come by. And that is presenting sex as something men do to women; it presents female pleasure as a performance for male satisfaction, obviously, does all the things we know — distorted bodies, lack of connection, a lot of acts that really frankly, wouldn’t feel very good to anybody. And we have to get in there as parents and advocates of kids and help them understand what’s real and what’s not real about that. And what is missing in those scenarios. Because they are using that as sex education. Their parents aren’t talking to them and schools sure aren’t talking to them and they are bringing those ideas with them into the bedroom.”
So with these movies in the world and very accessible, you can do what you can to make sure that your sexually active child isn’t believing these behaviors are something they need to perform for a partner and that they can be critical media consumers as they make their own sexual journeys.