The Threat of Sexual Assault in Star Trek


What’s not to love?

I’m a Johnny (Janey?) Come Lately to the ‘trekkie’ world, having caught only bits and pieces in my youth (thanks to my mom’s obsessive love for Captain Picard), but never having been willing to sit through an entire episode.  But, when I started dating The Boyfriend, I realized that my geek girl self-classification could never be truly complete without at least trying to like Star Trek.

So we started from the beginning, with Star Trek: The Original Series and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk.  We even watched the un-aired pilot, “The Cage,” starring Captain Kirk’s mentor, Captain Christopher Pike, in which the Captain is taken hostage by a group of telepathic aliens and trapped with a woman named Vina into a non-consensual mating pairing in an environment (the literal “cage” of the episode’s title) where presumably Vina has been for some time — forced into any number of likewise non-consensual sexual activity by threat of torture.

VINA: They can’t actually make you do anything you don’t want to do.
PIKE: But they try to trick me with their illusions.
VINA: And, they can punish you when you’re not co-operative. You’ll find out about that.

star-trek-the-cageNow, issues of racism and sexism in Star Trek: The Original Series have been discussed and re-discussed, so imagine my surprise upon finding zilch in Google searches for variations on “sexual assault in Star Trek.”  What was blatantly clear to this newbie on her very first viewing of the first several episodes was going unnoticed?  On an internet of limitless possibilities: where no amount of cat gifs is too many cat gifs?

Because when I say, “blatant,” I do mean blatant.

In “The Man Trap,” where a shape-shifting salt-hungry monster takes the form of Dr. McCoy’s old flame, Nancy Carter, we of course we have the casual sexual harassment of Captain Kirk’s yeoman Janice Rand:

(Green is following Rand)
RAND: Why don’t you go chase an asteroid?
REDSHIRT: Hey, Janice, is that for me?
RAND: Don’t you wish it was?
BLUESHIRT: How about that?
REDSHIRT: Yeah, how’d you like to have her as your personal yeoman?

This is followed later in the episode by the inextricable linking of sexuality and physical assault with Spock’s attack on Nancy, which, don’t worry everyone, is totally cool because it’s not actually Nancy but rather that tricky shape-shifting salt monster:

NANCY: Leonard, if you love me, make him go away.
KIRK: Come on. You want this, Nancy? Come on Nancy. Come and get it. Come and get it. Here it is.
NANCY: Leonard, help me.
. . . 
SPOCK: This is not Nancy. (hitting her repeatedly) If she were Nancy, could she take this?
MCCOY: Stop it! Stop it, Spock! Stop it! (Nancy sends Spock flying with one slap)
SPOCK: Is that Nancy, Doctor?
MCCOY: No. (she goes to Kirk again) No! (she transforms into her natural state)
(Kirk screams, McCoy fires the phaser, she changes back into Nancy) 

Then there’s “Charlie X.”  Good, Lord, “Charlie X.”  Definitely a Star Trek episode that deserves a major trigger warning for sexual assault.

So, the conceit is that Charlie, a seventeen-year-old boy, was the sole survivor of a transport ship that crashed on an planet where he grew up alone, but was secretly given mental powers by the planet’s native race, the Thasians, in order to help him survive.  So, this basically feral child just doesn’t know any better and the foibles ensue — beginning with Charlie observing two male crewmen exchanging friendly butt slaps:

CREWMAN 1: Hey, I’ll put the equipment away. See you in the rec room, huh?
CREWMAN 2: You got a deal, friend. (slaps man on bottom)
CREWMAN 1: All right. (to Charlie) Hello.
. . .
star-trek-charlie-xCHARLIE: I brought you a present.
(A bottle of perfume.)
RAND: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it, but, but I have to go. I’m on duty.
CHARLIE: Do you like that kind?
RAND: Yes, I, it’s my favourite. Where did you get it? They don’t have any in the ship’s stores.
CHARLIE: It’s a present.
RAND: I know, but where did? Gee, I’m late, Charlie. I really have to go.
CHARLIE: Can’t you stay and talk a little while?
RAND: Look, I’m off duty at fourteen hundred. Why don’t you join me in recreation room six, deck three.
CHARLIE: You got a deal, friend. (slaps her bottom)
RAND: Charlie!
CHARLIE: I thought. Don’t be angry. I didn’t, I wanted.
RAND: Charlie, you, you, you just don’t go around slapping girls on the. It’s okay, but er, just don’t do it again.
CHARLIE: Don’t be angry.
RAND: Look, why don’t you tell Captain Kirk or Doctor McCoy what you did. They’ll explain it to you. Okay?
CHARLIE: I will. 
. . . 
CHARLIE: Captain? I’m supposed to ask you something. Why shouldn’t I? I don’t know how to explain it.
KIRK: Say it right out, Charlie. That usually works.
CHARLIE: Well, in the corridor I saw. When Janice, when Yeoman Rand was. (slaps Kirk’s bottom) I did that to her. She didn’t like it. She said you’d explain it to me.
KIRK: Me. I see. Well, um, er, there are things you can do with a lady, er, Charlie, that you er. There’s no right way to hit a woman. I mean, man to man is one thing, but, er, man and woman, er, it’s, er, it’s, er. Well it’s, er, another thing. Do you understand?
CHARLIE: I don’t know. 

Dude’s just naive!  Even good ol’ Captain Kirk doesn’t know how to explain why you can’t hit women on the bottom (and why you can do so with men, which is somehow totally normal in this version of a professional environment where Title VII of the Civil Rights Act just doesn’t exist).  Why?  Because it’s a silly rule and silly rules are meant to be broken, man.  Especially by teenage boys — who we all know are just animals who can’t control themselves.

KIRK: What?
RAND: I wasn’t sure I should, er, talk to you about this.
KIRK: Charlie’s a seventeen year old boy.
RAND: Exactly, and he’s
KIRK: I talked to him about the swat.
RAND: It’s not that. Captain, I’ve seen the look before, and if something isn’t done, sooner or later I’m going to have to hurt him. Tell him to leave me alone, and that wouldn’t be good for him right now. You see, I’m his first crush, his first love, and his first . . .
KIRK: Yes, Yeoman, I’ll talk to him. I’ll look into it.
RAND: Thank you, sir.

The down-playing of the “swat,” and the re-framing of the narrative of sexual assault as one of a boy’s unrequited teenage crush on an adult woman is so deeply dangerous.  And to hear it coming out of the female character’s mouth puts a stamp of authority on it.  More disturbing is the idea that the concern here is Rand’s power to emotionally wound Charlie rather than his ability (with both the physical and mental upper hand) to victimize her.

CHARLIE: Oh, I won’t hit her like that anymore.
KIRK: No, there’s more to it than that.
CHARLIE: Everything I do or say is wrong. I’m in the way, I don’t know the rules, and when I learn something and try to do it, suddenly I’m wrong!
KIRK: Now wait, wait.
CHARLIE: I don’t know what I am or what I’m supposed to be, or even who. I don’t know why I hurt so much inside all the time.
KIRK: You’ll live, believe me. There’s nothing wrong with you that hasn’t gone wrong with every other human male since the model first came up.
CHARLIE: What if you care for someone? What do you do?
KIRK: You go slow. You be gentle. I mean, it’s not a one-way street, you know, how you feel and that’s all. It’s how the girl feels, too. Don’t press, Charlie. If the girl feels anything for you at all, you’ll know it. Do you understand?
CHARLIE: You don’t think Janice. You. She could love me!
KIRK: She’s not the girl, Charlie. The years are wrong, for one thing, and there are other things. 

Kirk’s absurd ‘birds and the bees’ talk with Charlie here further reinforces the idea that Charlie’s behavior is a natural part of developing sexuality — “there’s nothing wrong with you that hasn’t gone wrong with every other human male” — and conforms to the narrative that his actions were normal but simply too intense and his transgressions had been influenced by his own inexperience . . . not by the systematic ‘othering’ of women that produces both the larger culture of sexual assault and the individual violations of women.

KIRK: Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have and there are a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are. 

Captain Kirk codifies women as “things” to have or not have and therefore becomes a part of that society responsible for producing boys like Charlie.charlie-x-star-trek

CHARLIE: I have something for you. (a rose) Pink is your favourite, isn’t it?
RAND: You don’t walk into a room without knocking.
CHARLIE: Don’t ever lock your door on me again, Janice. I love you.
RAND: I’ll lock it when I please. What is it you want, anyway?
CHARLIE: You. I only want to be nice to you. I can give you anything. Just, just tell me.
RAND: (switching on comm.) I want you to get out.
CHARLIE [OC]: But I only want to be nice to you.
RAND [OC]: Get out, Charlie.
KIRK: Spock.
RAND [OC]: I can’t make it any plainer than that.
[Rand’s quarters]
CHARLIE: I love you.
RAND: You don’t know what the word means.
CHARLIE: Then show me.
(Kirk and Spock rush in, Charlie knocks them down.)
RAND: Charlie!
(She slaps him, so he makes her disappear.)
CHARLIE: Why did she do that? I loved her, but she wasn’t nice at all.

The classic abuser’s, “you made me do it” line of justification is alive and well on the Enterprise.  And Charlie’s final line in this scene suggests that he completely understands the way in which he can use his youth and inexperience to his advantage:

CHARLIE: I won’t tell you. Growing up isn’t so much. I’m not a man, and I can do anything! You can’t.

Worse yet, this incident is the “real McCoy” (pun intended, trekkies!) of attempted rape and no one labels it as such.  Not in the universe of Star Trek and not in the hundreds of episode summaries on contemporary internet sites.  Wikipedia’s page for “Charlie X” sums it up in one line: “(Charlie) chases down Rand. When she resists his advances, he makes her disappear.”

It is not the responsibility of television to make “very special episodes” that moralize from their fictional perch.  But it is our responsibility as viewers to consume media consciously and with a critical eye.  It doesn’t mean we don’t love our shows, movies, books, comics . . . it means that we love them so much to think them important enough to warrant the examination.

So, tell me, readers: what other uncomfortable moments of Star Trek do I have to look forward to as I make my way through the rest of the series?

7 responses to “The Threat of Sexual Assault in Star Trek

  1. Great article! Look for “The Enemy Within” where an evil clone of Kirk attempts to assault Rand. It gives the impression that although sexual assault is bad, it’s not really addressed, which is sad because Kirk is a hero of mine.

    • Oh, I’ve seen “The Enemy Within” — couldn’t fit commentary on that one into the post. Very sad b/c Rand isn’t (a), believed immediately and (b), expected to kind of ‘suck it up’ when the truth is discovered re: real Kirk vs. clone Kirk.

  2. Your bf is acting rather silly on the r/Startrek forum. You might want to address that because at this point he sounds like a spoiled child.

    • You mean this thread? I agree that no one should engage the Reddit trolls but it’s kinda hard when they are this ignorant. Dear readers, look through these comments in conjunction with the my article and you can see the kind of blow-back that is visited upon women geeks who dare to speak.

      • Filmed in the 1950s, one of the first shows where important characters are women, are part of the command structure in a time where women were relegated to secretaries. Also had the first interracial kiss on camera.

        The sexism in the original series reflects the sexism in society as a whole at the time.

        Comparing TOS with current Star Trek films and series shows clearly how much our culture has improved.

  3. I get what you are saying. Yes, it’s assault plain and simple. If you compare TOS to the other things on television of that time period, there was no discussion of race/diversity or sexual assault or sexual difference. Gene wanted to be more direct, all the sources around him say so, but still the censors and the mores of the day dictated what would be said, how far they could go. Charlie X always bothered me until I saw some of the other shows of the time, with their casual dismissal of harassment and assault of women on television. The women’s movement didn’t have much traction yet remember. I always, as a history teacher, enjoy seeing glimmers of change. I think Charlie X is the beginning of addressing something that television, the script writers, and even the audience weren’t ready to address. Keep watching TOS… it is a bright beginning in most ways.

  4. In the final example given your girlfriend proves herself wrong. Kirk and Spock stop Charlie from doing anything. If anything this episode takes the issue of sexual assault and discusses it in a way that shows how it is wrong.

    I think you’re missing the point of star trek in general, and only finding examples that fit your narrative.

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