The Walking Dead’s Negan doesn’t allow rape and punishes sexual violence harshly among The Saviors, but is consent still consent if it’s coerced?
In The Walking Dead “Sing Me A Song” this week fans finally got a look inside Sanctuary. And the inner workings of Sanctuary revealed a lot about Negan and the Saviors. As Negan showed Carl around he also was dealing with a problem with one of his wives, Amber.
Of course Negan has multiple wives. That can’t be much of a surprise to fans. And Negan thinks he’s a pretty good guy because he takes care of his wives. He doesn’t hit them. He doesn’t mistreat them. No one that doesn’t want to marry him is forced to marry him. He doesn’t allow rape at all and even tells Dwight in “The Cell” that Dwight can pick any woman he wants, as long as she says yes.
But Sherry offered to marry him so that he wouldn’t kill Dwight. Negan proposed to Sherry’s sister Tina so that she could “pay” for the insulin she needed to survive. And it seems that Amber didn’t really want to be one of Negan’s wives because she “cheated” on him with a Savior named Mark.
Negan asked Amber if she wanted to “go back” to Mark and her mom, implying that Amber was with Mark or was Mark’s wife before marrying him. He may not be physically forcing women to marry him but they are not really freely consenting to marry him either.
If consent is coerced under the threat of violence to a loved one, or out of a need to pay a debt, or out of a general desire to survive is it really consent? Is it even possible for someone living under the rule of a dictator like Negan to give consent?
Consent Requires Equality
On the surface consent is important to Negan. His dislike of sexual violence has been hinted at in the show. In the comics he makes his stance very clear. He says at one point that he finds rape abhorrent. He also punishes a Savior who attempted to rape a prisoner by shoving a knife down his throat after making him repeat over and over, “We don’t rape.”
But even though his wives consent to his proposals and agree to marry him their consent is coerced. So it’s not really consent.
In the society he has created at Sanctuary it’s not possible for women to consent freely to marry him. There’s no equality in Sanctuary. And a woman that isn’t his equal can’t freely give consent. As long as he has power over their survival their consent is coerced.
In relationships where one person has power and the other doesn’t the law says that the powerless person can’t consent to a sexual relationship. A relationship between a prisoner and a guard can never be consensual. Similarly, a relationship between a dictator and one of his subjects can’t be consensual.
The Illusion of Consent
A woman is free to say no to his proposal. But there will be a price for refusing him. If Sherry hadn’t offered to marry Negan he would have killed Dwight. Any other woman who refused him would have paid a cost as well. Or her loved ones would have paid the cost.
Maybe they would be put on a difficult work task. Maybe they would have lost points. Maybe they would have been denied medicine or medical care that they needed.
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When Negan is telling Amber that she cannot cheat on him he tells her that she can leave and go back to her mother and Mark. He tells her that he will put them all on the same job. But he doesn’t say what job. It may have been a physically demanding, degrading, or difficult job. Amber doesn’t want to be responsible for causing that so she agrees to stay.
There are perks for staying, and a high cost for leaving. It’s not a surprise that most women would choose to stay. But he’s fooling himself to think they’ve freely consented to be in his harem.
Morality is ambiguous in The Walking Dead. There is no black and white in this world. No one’s hands are clean. Negan sees himself as someone who values women.He thinks that he is protecting them.
He said in “Service” that he hates killing women. He finds rape disgusting, but he doesn’t think that he’s coercing his wives into giving consent. However, what he thinks is consent is an illusion. His wives are not really free to say no to him.