It’s a simple truth universally acknowledged (by me) that I have a really hard time watching shows or movies that everyone else is enthusiastically watching. I never watched Game of Thrones and I didn’t start Grey’s Anatomy until 2015.
I feel like I can’t process the shows on my own and I get too caught up in the think-pieces.
If you’re like me and you’re planning on or thinking about watching Netflix and Shondaland’s Bridgerton eventually, you perhaps should stop reading now. Spoilers abound, specifically for season 1, episode 6, “Swish.” I’m talking full scene reveals here.
OKAY, DID YOU READ THAT? A lot of spoilers are ahead for Bridgerton season 1 episode 6. You cannot say I didn’t warn you. We’re also talking about sexual violence, reproductive coercion, and relationship abuse here.
I’m a sex educator and so are most of the people I follow on social media. Even a good percentage of my personal Facebook friends are sex educators or sex therapists. So when a show has a particularly sexy vibe, you can trust that I’ll hear about it at some point. Or, in Bridgerton’s case, every single time I opened social media for weeks. Netflix’s Bridgerton is based on a series of romance novels by Julia Quinn, so there are plenty of sex scenes throughout the show. People in my feed were very into it.
More than one person in my feed referred to “The Scene” as it relates to one of the sex scenes, and honestly, I haven’t figured out which yet. I’m still stuck on a very seductive glove removal situation.
But amidst all of the people freaking out about the sex, I saw another headline about the show.
It read “Daphne Bridgerton Raped Her Husband and Why It’s Important Not to Romanticize It” (published on Medium here). I didn’t read the article at the time because I hadn’t yet watched the show, but the headline sticks with you. By the time I actually started watching Bridgerton a month later, I couldn’t remember which member of the Bridgerton family was mentioned, but I knew there would be something to keep my eye out for.
Reproductive Coercion in Netflix’s Bridgerton
Reproductive coercion is a form of abuse characterized by one person in the relationship controlling the reproductive reality of the relationship in some way. It’s not just a red flag or an indicator of a potentially abusive relationship; it’s an abusive behavior all on its own. Here are some ways that can manifest:
- Someone tampering with their partner’s birth control pills
- One partner poking a hole in a condom
- One partner removing a condom during sex without the other person’s knowledge
- Telling your partner you got a vasectomy when you didn’t
- Telling your partner you got your tubes tied when you didn’t
- Telling your partner that you’re using some undetectable form of birth control (like an IUD, an arm implant, or a shot) when you’re not
And those are just the ways that reproductive coercion manifests as it relates to becoming pregnant. When it comes to what happens after conception, there’s a whole other realm of coercive and controlling behaviors, like…
- Not permitting someone to get an abortion that they want
- Forcing someone to get an abortion they don’t want
- Forcing someone to carry a pregnancy to term because you don’t believe in abortion (even if the pregnant parent later adopts the child out)
- Forcing someone into a sterilization procedure that they don’t want
In Bridgerton’s case, we’re talking about reproductive coercion as it relates to becoming pregnant. In “Swish”, Daphne and Simon have sex all over their estate. And we see, over and over again, Simon using the pull-out method.
Simon doesn’t want children. He told Daphne this earlier in the season by simply saying, “I can’t have children.” What he actually means is that he emotionally and psychologically can’t have children, not that he is sterile. (Sidenote: Unpacking the framing of that disclosure is a whole other thing, and we’re not getting into it now. I get that we need communication conflicts to push many plotlines forward, but I still find it incredibly frustrating. Just talk to each other! Jeez!)
Predictably, Daphne assumes that he means he physically is incapable of having children. And because she knows literally nothing about sex, she initially doesn’t question why he pulls out. At one point she actually asks him if orgasms hurt him because of how suddenly he pulls out. It isn’t until later that she starts to become curious and eventually asks someone to explain to her how someone physically gets pregnant.
And then she’s pissed. Later, when she and Simon are having sex, she changes positions so that she is on top and he can’t pull out to keep from ejaculating inside her. He says “wait” but she doesn’t, and after he cums, she storms away and they get into an argument. She forces him to ejaculate inside of her because she’s angry that he’s, in her view, withholding a pregnancy.
It’s common in our society for us to assume that because women are statistically more often the victims than the perpetrators of violence, that they’re incapable of causing harm to someone. That just isn’t true. People of all genders can be abusive, and in this episode, we see that dynamic put into practice. Daphne Bridgerton is violating her husband’s boundaries in this scene. In this context, it doesn’t matter that he withheld his true reason for not wanting to have children. In this context, it simply is another person wielding reproductive power over another person.
It is equally as bad to force someone to ejaculate inside you as it is to tamper with someone’s birth control pills. Both are reproductive coercion, but we rarely talk about reproductive coercion that’s done to someone with a penis.
In 19th century England, where Bridgerton is set, bearing children was considered a moral obligation. If you and your spouse weren’t able to have children, the family was often shamed (or at the very least, pitied). Plus, primogeniture meant that titles, property, and wealth only passed down to the first-born son. (That’s why it’s such a big deal for Simon to make the oath to his father that the line will die with him; the family tree disappears otherwise.)
That’s also why every single character in the Bridgerton universe (except for darling future-lesbian Eloise) is obsessed with Daphne getting pregnant. That’s also why we’re shown scenes like when Simon’s father is flipping out over his (dying) wife giving birth to a son, and why Simon’s mother literally dies in pursuit of fulfilling her social and familiar “duty” of providing an heir.
Reproductive coercion is all over this show because it was all over 19th century England.
But you’re not in 19th century England. You’re here, now.
And as 21st-century media consumers, we can’t write things off as merely “how they were back then.” You can’t watch Bridgerton and write off Daphne’s actions as just a desperate woman wanting to prove that her husband lied to her. The media we consume—even historical fiction—affects how we think of ourselves and what things we think of as normal or abnormal. Distancing ourselves from the reproductive coercion that’s all over Bridgerton doesn’t do us any good.
You can understand the historical context around reproduction and understand it in today’s context, where we know and understand much more about sexual violence. And today, what Daphne did is reproductive coercion. You might have a hard time seeing it that way because you’ve been taught to think that men can’t be victimized, but it is what it is.
If you’re talking about how realistic Bridgerton’s sex scenes are, or their obsession with purity, or even the hints of queerness that appear throughout the show, you have to talk about the control of reproductive bodies, too.
You have to talk about how Daphne, a white woman, forces her Black husband to ejaculate inside her. And you have to know that that’s sexual violence, too.