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What a children's show can teach us about sex and healthy relationships

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This article mentions sexual assault and rape. It also includes spoilers for Steven Universe.

Steven Universe has never shied away from issues regarding sexuality, introducing topics such as unconventional family dynamics and gender fluidity into the lore and backstories of the characters since the beginning.

In the recent episode "Keeping it Together," which clocks in at a brief 11 minutes, we see a better discussion about healthy sexual relationships and the repercussions of forced mingling than in any show currently on TV.

The show, airing on Cartoon Network, follows the titular Steven Universe, who is half human, half gem. The Gems in this world are superpowered, alien beings who came to Earth thousands of years ago and are the personifications of crystals and minerals. Steven is being raised by three Gems — Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl — who all seek to teach him about his abilities, such as utilizing his weapon and being able to fuse with another gem, therefore creating a much more powerful being.

Here's the scene where we learn that Garnet is a fusion, which was something of a shock for longtime fans:

The fusion aspect is one of the most intriguing, acting as a stand-in for physical relationships. It’s why a part of me broke watching "Keeping it Together." I watched two characters that I have grown to love and know face a forced fusion, wherein beings were combined into a monstrous, hellish mass of limbs without their consent. One of the heroes, Garnet, usually cool and collected, trembles as it approaches, her eyes wide in fear.

"They were forced together, they were forced to fuse," she mutters. "This is wrong."

As a fusion herself — granted, a consensual, healthy fusion between two Gems who never want to be apart — she’s horrified by what she sees. Later when Steven, the audience proxy, asks her about the fusion, she speaks with anger.

"What Homeworld did, taking the shattered parts of Gems and combining them. Those Gems weren’t asked permission. Fusion is a choice. Those Gems weren’t given a choice. It isn’t right. It isn’t fusion."

And all of this in a show targeted to children.

How to deal with consent without mentioned sex

Vral Kalser over at The Mary Sue said the episode was "the single best way I can think of for such a topic to be broached," noting that the show managed to have a conversation about healthy relationships without explicitly stating anything about sex.

The episode continues the arc built up over the show, that a gem's fusion is an allegory for intimacy. When two Gems become one, what is created is a combination of their strengths and their personalities. Sometimes this is a preferred state, as with Ruby and Sapphire when they become Garnet. Other times, it’s a recipe for destruction. When a relationship is built on trust and love the result is humanoid and controlled. When a relationship is built on control or coercion? The result is monstrous.

The episode "Jailbreak" introduces the audience to Malachite, a fusion between the Gems Lapis Lazuli and Jasper. It is forced, with Jasper coercing Lapis into combining, grabbing her wrist and holding her hostage until she agrees. Jasper picks up the diminutive Lapis, dragging her through the dance that creates Malachite.

While Lapis is able to use her influence to trap it at the bottom of the sea, it has taken its toll. When we see Lapis again in "Chille Tid" she has been worn down trying to keep Jasper at bay. Malachite is a product of rage and distrust, creating a dangerous being.

As a program aimed primarily toward children, it would make sense that Steven Universe wouldn’t outright mention sex, much less sexual assault. However, the power of metaphor is such that the creators don’t have to. The focus in the show is on the relationships between the characters and the physicality that such a situation would warrant. The chemistry between characters can border on obsessive or romantic, but rarely is it sexual.

And despite this, the subtext is still there. It’s not focused on the sexual act or the violence, but rather the consent between two people at the core of the relationship. This has been a thread throughout all the fusion stories.

The episode "Alone Together" showed Steven and his human friend Connie fusing for the first time, forming an androgynous and strong being named Stevonnie that becomes the subject of awe.

This was another story that was heavily about consent, with Steven stepping back and giving Connie the will to choose whether to dance with him. They also checked in with each other during the experience to make sure they were both comfortable.

Later when Stevonnie is at a rave, a guy named Kevin — quite literally — invades their personal space, causing them to lash out and question their decisions, eventually splitting apart.

This is the closest Steven Universe has come so far to a real-world scenario where a character is coerced into a relationship. There is no magic involved besides the existence of Stevonnie. The whole episode is oddly quiet, targeting the relationships between Steven and Connie — along with Steven, Connie and Kevin — and dread that both they and the audience feel when confronted with a distressing presence.

When Stevonnie breaks apart, the two characters rejoice and dance with each other as the crowd looks on them in shock. The audience feels relieved with the happy ending, and with the fact that we won’t see Kevin again. He was someone who threatened the characters with his inability to take no for an answer.

And again, none of this was done with the use of sex.

This is a wonderful and inclusive approach

In other shows, these topics are conspicuously about the sex itself. Whether that’s because they can present it based on their audience or because it fits into the themes of the product, the focus is on the intercourse and the violence involved.

Look at shows like Game of Thrones, which prioritize the shock factor inherent with rape scenes and weave it into plot progression. Sexual assault is used to help the audience visualize the grimness of a story’s reality, and often as a lazy way to "develop" a woman’s character or storyline, or to compel a man in the story to action.

When Sansa Stark is raped on her wedding night, it’s not because the show is exploring the relationship between her and her new husband. It’s done to drive home how horrible her life is and how much the world she lives in hates women. When Jamie and Cersei engage in nonconsensual sex, it’s even worse because it’s never brought up again. Gilly rewards Sam with consensual sex after he stands up to her would-be rapists.

Chris Osterndorf attempts to deal with "television’s rape problem" in a Daily Dot essay. He states that while rape can be used in a story it should never be used "purely for shock value. Don’t use rape as a simple explanation for why a character is strong, sorrowful, or anything in between."

This isn’t an argument against showing sex in television and movies. Sexual assault is horrifically common; to eliminate it completely would be counterproductive to producing relatable media.

However, when Steven Universe discusses sex and relationships, it focuses on the communication between individuals. When Game of Thrones talks about it, it’s used to diminish the women character or worse, it’s seen completely through the male point of view.

What Sansa feels isn’t as important to the show as the fact that Theon has to watch. If the act is used to move the plot forward, it’s used in a manner that focuses on the horror of the act. It doesn’t create a conversation with the audience. It’s a one-way exchange from the creators. A common, horrific act is reduced to a lazy plot point.

Steven Universe’s fusion episodes are presenting scenarios but aren’t going for shock. When Garnet talks to Steven about how forcing Gems to fuse is wrong, or when Stevonnie feels uncomfortable, it is starting a discussion.

The show opens conversations with its young audience about what a healthy relationship looks like

When the audience is faced with the abomination in "Keeping It Together," it is under the knowledge that Garnet is the culmination of a healthy relationship. It's not just showing the audience something is wrong, it's about teaching them about what is right: Commitment, communication, consent and love. Remove those things and the result is damaging or hurtful to everyone involved.

Garnet has a breakdown because in the scene with the forced fusions because this is in opposition to what she knows. After meeting Ruby and Sapphire for the first time in "Jailbreak," we realize that Malachite is inherently wrong because she is built on anger.

Relationships and sex that come from negative, hateful or unhealthy emotions or coercion don’t just hurt the people involved, they hurt everyone around them. This is a subtle point that’s hard to make well, and it sounds like an impossible task for a children’s show. But Steven Universe does it with grace, without explicitly bringing up sex.

The show opens conversations with its young audience about what a healthy relationship looks like, stating that they are built on a foundation of trust and consent.

We are meant to idolize Steven and the Crystal Gems so when they are in stable relationships, it feels empowering. To see our heroes engaged in personal dilemmas concerning non consensual forms is even more so. It’s okay to have these conversations, and more importantly, it’s okay to respect one another.

We have victims of assault thinking that everything is their fault or that they aren’t worthy of respect. Having a show like Steven Universe address why that is false, to instill that idea into a younger audience, isn’t just good storytelling. It’s a step forward.