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.