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It's probably no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am terrible at watching television. I'm not very good at sitting still and I live far too much in my own stories to easily surrender to someone else's. I'm familiar with the shows that get people talking because I listen to people talking, but my own Netflix intake is mostly a soothing background hum of How It's Made.
But everyone at xoJane's virtual headquarters has been talking about "Girls," a show I am mostly familiar with due to the behavior (generally not so good when it comes to taking people's concerns seriously but apparently pretty awesomely naked) of its creator, Lena Dunham. And in their discussion, something stood out to me -- that grey area people, usually women, find themselves in when no may not even seem like an option but they don't want to say yes, either.
This is how I wound up watching "Girls" on HBO.
The most recent episode opens with Natalia and Adam (who, uh, is hot, I have to admit, in that awkward long-faced, shaggy way) about to get it on. Adam seems hesitant at first, while Natalia sort of steamrollers through her little speech, but the scene is really cute. She announces that she's ready to have sex and, after a moment or two of making sure they're on the same page, Adam seems excited.
I was actually charmed at this point, albeit unwillingly. For the first almost two minutes of this show, I liked these people, who were weird and trying to figure out how to say these things to each other.
"I like how clear you are with me," Adam says when Natalia -- still awkwardly -- tells him that she doesn't like soft touches because they tickle and she just wants to take things slow.
I'm not going to do an episode recap. I found one on Rolling Stone if you need the rundown of the other story lines. I watched the previous episode as well, for some context and you can read that recap, too. Basically, I've now watched more TV then I have since, like, I was last in a hotel room with HGTV.
It was all kind of painful, actually. And then Adam and Hannah run into each other on the sidewalk, the way people in movies and TV always do.
Now, Adam is, as near as I can tell, in AA. His new girlfriend, Natalia, knows about it. He slips back into the bar after telling Hannah to put some pants on, and orders a drink with Natalia -- when she asks him if he's sure, he says he wants to be able to show her a nice time.
I've heard this logic before from people who haven't been sober very long. For some of them, it seems to reflect a disbelief that they are not in control of their drinking. And I wondered if this was the case for Adam, if he wanted things to simply be "normal," whatever normal happens to be, after his interaction with Hannah.
That's foreshadowing, isn't it? Or at least what passes for foreshadowing when you've only got 30 minutes to tell your story.
Adam doesn't show Natalia a nice time. He shows her his poorly lit, creepy-ass apartment. I've been to some creepy-ass apartments so I feel qualified to say that maybe he shouldn't be bringing girls home to bang in these conditions. Splinters (another problem Hannah had earlier in the episode) tend to be boner killers.
And then he tells her to get on all fours. And then he tells her to crawl to his bedroom.
Adam looks disconnected and mean, like he's gone somewhere else entirely in his head. Natalia looks uncertain, but she also like she's willing to play along. Their previous encounter was framed as being entirely consensual and fun -- their banter in the next scene is so happy and pleased with themselves that it made me worry about what was coming next for them. (Emotional manipulation follows a pretty standard pattern in television scripts, after all.)
I was right to worry. Because what came next was kind of a textbook example of the gray area that exists around all too many sexual encounters.
We talk about rape a lot on xoJane. And the rape we talk about is often pretty clear cut. But we also try to talk about the experiences that are more nebulous. Julieanne wrote about it, but most of us have experienced it, too. It's more than just wishing you'd said no -- it's feeling like you were not able to. That inability might come from a variety of sources: not wanting to cause a scene, not wanting to hurt someone's feelings, not being conscious enough of what is happening.
Gray rape can be a problematic term -- some people use it as a label for rape that they don't consider "real" or "as bad as real" rape. That is totally bogus. I use the term here to mean the kind of encounter that people sometimes have where consent is not given but it is assumed; it's a term used to describe "nonstandard" sexual assault and, in some ways, it is a weasel term to cover the conflict we feel about consent.
Because that is the kind of thing that happens all the time in our culture. Our rape culture. And it's the kind of thing that leaves women (not just women) uncomfortable and unsure, both about their own experiences and when they are watching something like the scene between Adam and Natalia.
It seems like no one wants to call gray rape just plain rape because then it's really serious. We'd have to talk about why it is so damn common for women to wind up in sexual situations they don't really want to participate in but feel they cannot refuse. We'd much rather just call it bad sex and move on.
That's one way that rape culture perpetuates itself. In rape culture, the default status for a woman's consent is yes. When the assumed state of women is set to "receptive," you wind up with these grey situations.
"She should have just said no," people say, placing the responsibility firmly on the woman involved -- but why? Why is the responsibility on her to say no instead of on the initiating partner to secure a yes?
We tell people that no means no, that you shouldn't have sex with someone who is protesting. This is a pretty effing low bar. There is, in fact, a world of difference between not saying no and actively saying yes.
That "saying" can be metaphorical, too -- enthusiastic consent does not have to be the kind of explicit verbal consent demonstrated in Adam and Natalia's first sexual encounter. A lot of long-term partners go with nonverbal cues and it can be pretty obvious even with new partners that everyone is engaged. I don't think that's a problem. The idea behind enthusiastic consent is, most simply, that you want someone who is an active and engaged participant, not simply someone who is willing to let you stick it in, dude.
But Adam, drunk and in some sort of half-daze, doesn't seem to be having sex with Natalia for pleasure and good times. He seems to be having sex with her to reassert his power. Which is why the scene actually has stuck with me and made me incredibly sad.
Look, bad sex happens. People try things and we don't like them; maybe we go along because we care or because we are open to experimenting or because we don't think we can say no. And people really do have sex for lots of different reasons. But when a man is having sex to reassert his power in a situation, when he fails to secure enthusiastic consent -- when he fails to even engage in much foreplay beyond throwing his partner on the bed and eating her out for 10 seconds while she protests -- all of that combines in a really ugly way.
Adam is using Natalia, for whatever reason. And he does so without concern for her enjoyment or willing participation. And I doubt he'd see anything wrong with it because she didn't say no.
That's how rape culture screws everyone over.
There will, of course, be the knee jerk response from some people that if she didn't like it, she should have told him. But I think that continues to put all the responsibility for ending rape and other forms of sexual assault on the most common victims of it. Yes, absolutely, we need to communicate with our partners. But our partners need to communicate as well.
I want to point out that our society runs on nonverbal cues. It's part of the dance of human interaction on a daily basis. So I think it's actually pretty reasonable to say that if he'd been paying attention to the woman he was fucking, Adam might have clued in to her lack of consent.
The recap doesn't talk about consent, another sign of just how pedestrian this sort of encounter is. Meanwhile, all the HBO press materials refer to this as a "misunderstanding." There are no images available from the press site of Adam and Natalia for this episode, only Hannah in her publisher's office.
The "existential realness" of this scene that the Rolling Stone recap calls out is further underscored by the complete lack of concern the people who put this scene out there are exhibiting. The lack of conversation about this scene actually makes it more disturbing when you think about how many people recognize their own experiences in this but aren't then talking about consent and how to change our culture around it.
Adam comes on Natalia's chest, as she grimaces and looks away. She pulled her own top down so he wouldn't ejaculate all over her dress. Her unhappiness with the encounter is very plain and Adam finally seems to get it.
He gets how fucked up it was -- and then he makes it all about himself. Just as he'd pressed Natalia for reassurance earlier that she really liked him, he presses her again, this time asking if she's done with him.
A woman who has just had a pretty terrible sexual encounter sits on a bed, chest smeared with semen, and tells her partner that she really didn't like what he just did. And his response, far from apologizing and making sure she is okay (or even just checking in to make sure she's not hurting), is that he feels sick and wants to know if she's going to break up with him. That's the kicker on this encounter for me, the thing that leaves me with the feeling I have watched sexual assault instead of just bad sex.
None of this has been about them as a couple. It's been about him and his control or lack thereof.
Of course women want to believe in their own power and agency. But I know from my own personal experience that sometimes, many times, it's very easy to wind up at that guy's apartment, thinking you're there for one thing and only slowly realizing that there is something going on you may not even understand. There are plenty of reasons to say no to sex, but it's easier not to say anything at all. (Sometimes, too, it is safer and you might err on the side of caution.) Your partner isn't looking for an actual yes, though, so you wind up having sex that you don't actually want.
I don't think I can accurately convey how much it depresses me that this is normal. That this is our world. That we live in this culture where something as awesome as sex gets used against women so very often. And then, our culture tells us, it is our own fault.
This is rape culture. And we have to figure out how to change it even if that way is just talking about it until we're all sick of the subject. Because there are way too many women having sex they don't want to have, who then beat themselves up more efficiently than anyone else ever could, because they didn't say no.
The Rolling Stone recap seems hopeful that Adam and Hannah will wind up with each other in the next episode, with no mention of Natalia beyond hoping she is, in fact, done with Adam. And I guess I get that, because Natalia isn't one of the main characters, she isn't who we're supposed to be rooting for. Which is, by the way, really fucked up, that we are supposed to be rooting for this guy who couldn't even be bothered to apologize to the partner he treated so badly.
I'm left feeling queasy myself, uncertain of why we're being shown this if we aren't going to talk about what it means not to have consent. I'm uneasy that this is what we're consuming as entertainment without any internal analysis of these events. Don't get me wrong -- some people are talking. But they're talking about body horror and "uncomfortable" sex, not consent itself.
"Where is the pudgy face slicked with semen and sadness?" asks Hannah's publisher, in what I think is actually a great line for all its cruelty. But at the end of "On All Fours," I think we've found something more profound and more disturbing -- just how very commonplace sex without consent really is and how eager our culture is to brush it off.