The XX Factor

Did Pete Campbell Rape the Au Pair on Mad Men?

Last night on Mad Men , weaselly Pete Campbell had a sexual interlude with Gudrun, the au pair who lives next door*. The German au pair tries to reject him, but by the time he comes to her room in the middle of the night, she is worn down enough to submit to his advances. Was it rape? Or was it consensual? Over on Slate , Patrick Radden Keefe says that this dispute reminds him of the conversations surrounding Roman Polanski of late. Furthermore, Patrick’s fellow TV Cubbers are divided on the issue:

Julia, you describe the episode between Pete Campbell and the fräulein from 14C as rape. But John, you didn’t refer to it as such in your initial wrap-up. We can all agree that Joan’s husband raped her last season-there was no ambiguity there. But the encounter with the au pair was more complicated. Pete manipulated the young woman and weaseled his way into her room. But while she was reluctant to let him in, she did seem, at least to me, to reciprocate Pete’s kiss.

My former Jezebel colleague Anna Holmes says it was definitely rape .

I didn’t-and still don’t-know what to make of Pete’s rape of Gertrude the German au pair, other than that it was a profoundly disgusting, and depressing, moment, and yet wholly unsurprising … Pete’s abuses of power-courtesy of his sex, race and station in life-so often take the form of abuses against women -objects that, like the Bonwit Teller dress, can be stained and returned or discarded with little to no repercussions.

The New York Times ’ Ginia Bellafante comments :

[Pete] is certainly coercive with her, bringing up quid pro quo by odiously pointing out that he went to a lot of trouble to exchange the dress and now deserves something in return. He forces that kiss on her and even though she submits, she may very well be doing so out of fear that Pete will give her secret away and get her fired.

New York’ s Logan Hill is even less decisive about whether or not Pete raped the au pair:

Pete tries to get the au pair drunk. She refuses, so he himself gets drunk and invites himself into her apartment during the middle of the night. Powerless and coerced, she grudgingly acquiesces to his advances, then spends the next few days crying. (Is it rape? It sure isn’t nice.)

As for me, when I first saw the episode, I must admit that I did not think it was rape. However, upon reading the various recaps and rethinking the series of scripted events, I find myself leaning towards thinking it was rape. Obviously these are fictional characters, but it’s only positive that their actions are encouraging further conversation on sexual assault. Emily Bazelon discussed this gray area of non-prosecutable but still deeply troubling coercive sex in her article about the Hofstra date rape that wasn’t. As Patrick put it in his Slate recap: “The writers seem to suggest that in 1963 there was a whole range of sexual encounters between men and women that might not have looked like rape as we think of it today (a violent act the victim physically or verbally resists) but that were deeply coercive and traumatic nonetheless.”

*Correction, Oct. 5, 2009: the original version of this post said the au pair’s name was Gertrude.

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