I just watched the controversial and thought provoking Girls episode that’s been making the news this week, On All Fours, the one bookended by two scenes of sex with characters Adam and Natalia; one clear, connected, consensual and eager and one it’s exact opposite, disconnected, numb, disturbing and upsetting and was it sexual assault or not.

If you haven’t seen the episode, the bulk of the online dialogue this week relates to those to sexual encounters and the question posed by many is–was the second sexual encounter with Adam rape? I’ll link several articles here for you to get the gist:

Here’s a great and piercing article by Amanda Hess, Was That A Rape Scene On Girls, from Slate

Emily Heist Moss wrote this moving article, Why I Cried During Sunday’s Girls Episode.

The Good Men Project republished a poignant piece of Hugo Schwyzer’s, On Rape And Addiction and Adam from Girls.

A post from Liz Spikol showed concern that the use of the word rape may weaken what rape is, vs what happened on screen. FYI, here are actual current NY statutes on rape and sexual assault in that article.

Finally, this article by Jennifer Wright on The Gloss captured much of how I felt about the episode.

This quote in particular stood out to me:

“Some of our intense discomfort with that scene – and I don’t think anyone can watch it without finding it uncomfortable – may come down, again, to the fact that in sex you are “just supposed to figure that stuff out.” That is to say, the stuff that your partner is enjoying and the stuff they are not enjoying.

We feel that because we know that someone is supposed to be paying attention to you during the sex act…Having a partner who can tell whether or not you are hating something – when that is clear to everyone viewing the scene – seems reasonable. A failure to do that may not make you a rapist, but it certainly makes you a truly terrible sexual partner.”

This, to me, is one root of the of the issue.

That with sex we are just supposed to figure stuff out.

We don’t teach anyone in this country sexual or erotic literacy. We don’t allow for the possibility that sex is more than procreation or holy lovemaking, but a communication form in its own right. People have sex to bond and have children yes, but also because they are bored, angry, fearful, wanting to trade things, to soothe, to placate, to work through feelings, because they want to numb themselves, to hurt or help someone. Because it’s fun.

We live in a country that won’t teach sex education comprehensively, and where religiosity damns any sex other than procreative or “lovemaking” between straight married partners, and denies the rest of the way we utilize sex as a form of connection.

Sex is language, pure and simple, and we ignore that at our peril.

We also don’t teach ourselves, our children, each other, how to be increasingly self aware, rather than reactive (which would help us understand which things we are communicating through our bodies).

On a large cultural scale in the US, we don’t teach or practice self-awareness. We don’t teach or practice compassion.

The moment in the episode when Adam sees Hannah, that’s where it goes wrong. He’s triggered, hard, and instead of telling Natalia, “Hey, I need to get out of here before I drink.” he drinks and then violates her, and yes indeed it is an absolute violation not only of her (and anyone watching her face during that entire scene knows that she was scared, put off, disgusted, upset, horrified), but of himself out of a narcissistic and selfish self loathing, no matter if he takes her down with him.

Like a suicide by cop, it’s a breakup by violation.

Rape? Perhaps not according to statutes, as listed in the Philly Blog above, but a violation? Hell, yeah. A clear cut non-consensual communication of anger, projection, self involvement, objectification.

I bet there are gazillions of people in the world who’ve had encounters just like that (I have), and I’d warrant in every single gender combination as well. Violating. Confusing. Nasty. Some cross legal lines into rape. Some remain unprosecutable. Some linger in our bodies as extremely triggering memories.

Which, by the way, is NOT ok. NOT an excuse for hurting someone. NOT in any way shape or form Natalia’s fault. It’s also not anything that is put neatly in a legal box, thus much of my hopeless feelings after watching it and reading all those articles.

Finally, there’s this root, that of living in a culture of dominance.

States my good friend Heather:

“We’re a society that rewards and promotes selfishness, self-obsession, domination and obtaining power over others. We are not nearly as aware of each other as we should be. And we completely undervalue kindness, empathy, compassion, etc. And simplistic though that may be, I think that’s at the heart of all the consent issues.

For whatever reason humans have the rather horrible ability to stop perceiving our fellow human being as actual individual people. But what’s worse is our culture cultivates that. Celebrity culture, rape culture, low-wage worker exploitation…I think it all comes down to forgetting that specific groups of people are actually people.

Now, of course, there are all sorts of other cultural dynamics that go on top of that which are specific to consent and rape…but I don’t think simply addressing those other dynamics will really fix anything. I sincerely think that if we truly want to change the cultural dialogue surrounding sex, we need to address the deeper issues of the way we treat each other, rather than looking at sex in a vacuum.

When you tie that culture of dominance, of greed, and wealth and self involvement above all in with a society that supports the idea of scarcity models, purity cultures, commodifiying sex as something men take and women give (which erases the LGBT community completely) and places women AND men in a situation that requires competition rather than collaboration, then what you get is a big problem for sex and for people.

The good thing is that rape is being discussed and discoursed and argued at length. Still, when we ask, as Irin Carmon eloquently does at Salon, “Can Rape Be Stopped?” I can’t help but think that we might be looking in the wrong places with education.

Look, I want rape to stop. I don’t want anyone to rape anyone. Ever. At all.

For sure we can teach bystander interventions, of course we can alert predators that we are on the look out for them and won’t stand for their behavior, and certainly we can encourage people to take reasonable precautions in a dangerous world-we HAVE to do that as an absolute.

AND I wonder if we wind up avoiding the roots, while tending to the leaves, never really healing the blight.

These, for me, are the issues, not just for sex but so many other things: Lack of seeing sex and pleasure as a form of communication. Lack of self awareness and compassion leading to selfishness and self involvement. The focus on a dominance model of interpersonal, group, and political interaction with religiosity thrown in for bad measure.

I don’t know how we get to that society, where we attend to the roots too, not just the leaves, I really don’t.

The whole damn thing is so fraught, and I just can’t help but think we are all infected with dynamics so complex that chopping down the whole tree, or planting brand new forests may be the only way to change things.

But I do know that we can do better, we have to. We are creative, amazing creatures, we humans. We have compassion and kindness inside us, we have playfulness and peace just longing to get out. Sex can and should be a part of that shift, and the more we can move towards a society of pleasure, not power, of sharing not commodifiying, of self awareness rather than self involvement, connection and intimacy rather than disconnection and shame, the less rape and sexual assault there will be.

I’m betting on that.

And thanks to Lena Dunham for putting that story out there for us to do the work.


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13 responses to “Roots

  1. All very well said, and I don’t disagree with any of the viewpoints here. Sex can be a form of communication, and play and pleasure and dominance and procreation and lots of things. Here’s the thing about communication, though: just knowing something IS communication doesn’t make it easier or less fraught. I’m reminded of John Durham Peters’ line, “Communication is a problem we are stuck with.” We are stuck with this irreducible gap between subjectivities, between minds, the inability to ever really ever know “the other,” it confounds us and will continue to. It has, arguably, been at the root of nearly every philosophical and spiritual intervention since we started rubbing charcoal pictures onto cave walls. This observation doesn’t do much to answer the question about this TV episode, except to suggest that better communication *might* reduce the chances of these people crashing into each other with (almost) criminal consequences, but…crashing into other is a problem we are stuck with.

    • HeatherN

      Perhaps part of the way to alleviate some of the inherent problems with sex as communication, is to restructure the value we place on sex. Were we to think of it not only as communication, but as a very important form of communication that was worth serious consideration and forethought, that might help. For example, I’m spending a lot of time and effort trying to chose the right words for this reply in order to make sure that anyone who reads it understands what I am trying to say. When I write an essay for university, I take even more time and more effort…because that is an important piece of communication. A casual conversation with a friend, however, usually results in a much less careful choice of words…and I’m much more likely to bump up against that invisible wall between me and another person.

      At the moment, with sex, I think we’re kind of stuck with only two models. Either it’s the newer sex-is-casual and don’t worry about it model, or it’s the hard conservative sex-for-procreation model. I think the problem with the first is that since sex is communication with bodies, you can’t really treat it casually. I think it’s totally possible to have anonymous sex, or sex between friends or silly fun sex, or whatever…but the actual act itself, the actual moments of physical communication are still highly important because it’s bodies interacting with each other. Arguably it’s even more important than verbal forms of communication. And that’s where the casual sex model breaks down, because it treats the act as though it was unimportant.

      I also don’t think the conservative, sex for procreation and sex only in marriage, line actually treats sex all that seriously. It treats the potential consequences of sex seriously, but the act itself is so taboo as to be not discussed. Under this model, what actually happens during sex is immaterial…it’s the potential results that get all the attention. (And then, of course, a lot of the potential results that hard conservatives see in sex outside marriage are rubbish, but that’s another issue).

      So this is a long reply (I do that a lot, sorry)…that is basically saying your comment made me think and this is what I came up with. 🙂

      • It does seem that sex is rarely simple, as much as we would like it to be, even if we manage to keep it simple and inconsequential for a time. Maybe because it can be (usually is?) an especially vulnerable form of communication – somewhat vulnerable in the physical action (like a handshake is a vulnerable action), potentially vulnerable in the emotional register (lack of symmetry in intention, desire, need, etc., and that insurmountable gap of subjectivities?), and sociologically vulnerable since stories about people’s sexual behavior are a coin of the realm, affecting reputation and so on. That just complicates it as a communication problem. Can we change the value we place around it when it’s tied in with vulnerability on multiple levels?

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  3. “That with sex we are just supposed to figure stuff out.”
    Yes x 1000, it’s horrible to leave so much to chance and hope that each partner can read the others body language. I can’t tell you how many times I saw a woman TAKEN on screen in movies where she’d pull away at first and then she’d be all into it. The amount of times I heard SOME women say they like to be ravaged, etc, could easily have led me to believe men were expected to just take her without asking and she’d just enjoy it? Luckily I happened to see other media talking about consent in detail and I am also naturally someone who asks before everything as I don’t like relying on body language alone. I do wonder how many times someone has gone in for a kiss without the others consent because of a culture that teachs people to take a risk, kiss them and I guess hope for the best?

    If you aren’t ready to be touched somewhere, your partner reachs down they can very well have already touched that area before you got the “No, I’m not ready” words out. If you were totally into the making out and maybe above waist touching the other partner may assume everything is ok and then reach down and THEN finds out after the fact you weren’t ready, this can be a partner who didn’t want to go past your comfort but was following what he/she thought was how sex and relationships were meant to go. So it ends up being sexual assault, the perpetrator may have never ever intended harm, all because of silly ideas in growing up about you’re just supposed to figure it out. When people say you’re going too fast, it’s probably because you both haven’t discussed it and are just trying to figure it out. What works for you may be too much for them. When did asking at each step become unsexy? I find it sexy, I do it myself to ensure it’s all good.

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  7. HeatherN

    @Christopher: Yeah, vulnerable is a great word for it. Vulnerable, and perhaps even fragile…because it can fall apart so easily. And so can we change the value we place on sex when it is so tied into vulnerability and fragility? – I think that kind of goes back to Julie’s article about getting to the roots…because I’d argue, yes, we could, but only if we also change our culture’s way of dealing with vulnerability and fragility.

    We avoid and ignore anything we think makes us vulnerable…and part of that makes sense. We avoid it so we are safer. But we also engage in a lot of denial…and so you get people continuing to do a thing (let’s say have sex), while totally ignoring how vulnerable a form of communication it is.

    So perhaps we need to change our cultural dialogue around vulnerability before we can even approach changing our cultural dialogue around sex. And the feminist in me sees this as tied to a revaluing of what has been traditionally considered the “feminine.”

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