On Girls and not liking sexual experiences.

March 13, 2013 at 10:47 am (relationships, Uncategorized, women's issues)

I watched the most recent episode of Girls last night, and like many of you, I found it to be completely devastating. They really put all the girls, including Adam’s girlfriend, through the ringer. If you haven’t seen it, Adam gets drunk and starts getting kinky with his new girlfriend- something we’ve seen him do many times with Hannah- and she starts off being kiiiinda into it, but starts shutting down pretty quickly. He doesn’t seem to notice. By the time he ejaculates on her chest (something that has never been shown on TV before), she has essentially gone away inside.

As she wipes herself up and puts her dress back on, she says, quietly, to herself as much as him- “I don’t think I like that. I like really didn’t like that.”

The Internet has been exploding with people debating whether or not the sexual experience depicted in Girls was rape, was consensual, or was “gray area rape”, a term that encompasses everything that is not forcible rape but does leave one or more parties feeling disrespected, taken advantage of, or assaulted.

Natalia’s muttering to herself while cleaning up really resonated with me, because I’ve said the exact same thing to myself many times after a sexual experience- while driving home, while staring at myself in a bathroom mirror, while lying in bed facing the wall, while getting dressed, while crying, while laughing. I have had a lifetime of sexual experiences, and within those experiences, I have

  • been taken advantage of
  • taken advantage of someone else
  • cheated
  • been the person that made him cheat
  • felt so sexually satisfied I could sing to the heavens
  • felt like a piece of meat that has been discarded
  • felt scared
  • manipulated
  • left the guy begging for more
  • had a guy have sex at me, rather than with me
  • left in the middle of the encounter, freaked out and angry
  • expressed my love
  • expressed my anger
  • distracted myself
  • connected to someone so deeply that it felt like magic
  • never once looked at the guy’s face
  • seduced
  • made a point to not move one inch during the entire encounter, just to see if he would notice.

I have a wealth of experience, and what that experience has given me is a clear picture of what I do and don’t like sexually.

In my estimation, I have never been raped.

I don’t say this as a judgment on people who have been, or as a brag, or to let you in on “who I am” (because whether or not you’ve been raped doesn’t inform who you are), or anything other than stating the facts. I have experienced things sexually that might be considered “gray area rape”, but I don’t consider them assaults as much as I consider them lessons. It is not the world’s job to make me safe and comfortable- I create my own boundaries as I learn from experiences. (Experiences, not mistakes.) (But also mistakes.)

I also understand that the definitions are completely subjective, and I am not here to tell anyone else how to experience their own sex lives, or assaults, or TV shows about sex lives or assaults. What follows is merely how I feel about myself, and refers to sexual encounters similar to the one shown on Girls, where the girl slowly realizes she isn’t into it but doesn’t speak up or stop the sex.

I write a lot about communication, and most recently, about the danger of expecting a person you are in a relationship with to be able to read your mind, or read your body language. The gist of it is that it can be a disappointing cycle to constantly be let down by other people’s actions when you have never communicated how you want people to act around you. I think it’s important for us (as a human race, but also as a gender) to value clear communication. Clear communication puts us in control. It gets us what we want, and if we don’t get what we want, at least we know it’s because the other person chose not to listen, and not because we didn’t ask. This is what bothers me about xoJane’s thoughts on Adam and Natalia’s sexual encounter:

“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?

To me, that consent is on both people. Saying that women hold none of the responsibility to assent to sex is as bad as saying that women hold all of the responsibility to assent to sex. Yes, the guy should be reading your body language and responding to it. Yes, it’s good to check in to see how the sex is going, dudes. But if it’s a dude’s job to make sure we’re still on board, aren’t we once again just making women the passive “receivers” of sex, waiting to be asked if everything is okay?

If there are gray areas in victimhood, can’t we be open to the idea that there are gray areas in perpetratorhood as well? Is it possible that sometimes men aren’t aware of how we’re feeling if we’re not speaking up? Can we make it important for men to look for nonverbals and for women to keep men informed during sex? I don’t want to take away from the heinous act of sexual assault, or place any blame on a victim, but I just don’t know what we gain out of making something that we’ve called “gray” so black and white. In the situation we saw in Girls, both parties were initially fully participating in the sexual encounter, so why was it on Adam alone to figure out that she wasn’t into it?

I tend to read a ton into other people’s body language- I am constantly analyzing anything that is not verbal communication to see how the person “actually” feels. It’s something I’ve been trained to do both in my family, where non-verbal communication is very loud, and in my training as a therapist. But it’s not something everyone is skilled at. It’s not even something everyone realizes how to do. So often, when I’m in a situation where things feel non-verbally loaded to me, I will try to picture the scene as if a camera was watching it- as if we were on our very own reality show. Would a person watching at home be able to tell what I’m feeling in this situation? Would a camera be able to tell the emotional feeling in the room? If not, that’s when it’s time to speak up. A camera on Adam and Natalia (because it’s a TV show) would have seen a girl who slowly starts participating less until she is just lying there. You would have seen a guy that likes his sex dirty. You would have seen a bad sexual encounter, but you would not have seen a rape. You would have seen a girl realizing that this new boyfriend makes her very uncomfortable. As The Gloss perfectly put it:

“Adam may not be a rapist, but he sure is an asshole.”

At this point, you may be like “Why are you so fucking concerned with making sure that guys don’t get called rapists? Why are you putting this back on women? Aren’t we blamed enough? Aren’t you a feminist?” Yes, I am a feminist, but as a therapist, I’m not in the market to support a paradigm shift where everyone feels victimized. To me, being a victim means that you are helpless, that you have had traumatic things happen to you, and that you have to learn to rebuild from them. Why are we so hepped up to shift bad sexual experiences from being lessons we learn about our sexuality to situations in which we are traumatized victims?

I think that discussions about “gray area” sexual situations are incredibly important, but I don’t know that calling them all a type of rape is helpful to the larger conversation.

Blame doesn’t have to be firmly assigned and quantified in some situations. In some sexual encounters, the dude doesn’t know how to make love to a lady, the lady realizes it about halfway through and continues, and afterwards, one party has gained some knowledge she didn’t have before. Every bad experience is a teacher.  Not every bad experience is an assault. (Note: some are.) Learning from bad experiences doesn’t mean that you take full responsibility for it happening to you, it just means that you refuse to stop progressing, fossil-like, after something bad happens.

A few years ago I had a conversation with a dude I used to date. We had an extremely uncomfortable sexual encounter- one that ended up being the death knell for our brief relationship. He’s a gentle, wonderful, great guy that is now happily married- just the salt of the earth. We were talking about old times and I told him about how lame and shitty our final sexual encounter was for me, and how it felt weird to continue dating after it happened. He had no idea what I was talking about. He was genuinely shocked that he could have been so unaware, and didn’t even really remember the incident that had become so huge for me. Talking to him about it later taught me another lesson: not every bad sexual encounter is experienced the same way by both people. He wasn’t an evil misogynist villain, and I wasn’t a helpless, broken victim. We were just two people who had different ideas about what was hot.

It felt empowering.

 

 

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19 Comments

  1. tobyism (@tobyism) said,

    I really enjoy your approach to things here and in other posts. It is nice to find rational and thoughtful people on the Internet, not reactionary bile or sensationalism trying to get pageviews. Love you, Kumail, and Indoor Kids! (and Bagel)

  2. geekfuriouscom said,

    You’ve touched on something that is very uncomfortable for men and women to actually talk about in the open for fear of being called a rapist or rape victim.

    You can feel uncomfortable after a sexual experience without it being rape. Hell, I feel uncomfortable during pretty much every first-time with any woman. I imagine it is even worse for them.

  3. Aeshir said,

    This is really great. Thanks, Emily.

  4. Nako said,

    Thank you, I am so glad to have read this! I feel the same way and when I read the xojane article the other day I was shocked that people were calling it a rape scene.

  5. Mister Fuzzy (@Gavybear) said,

    I used to date this girl, and sometimes when we were having sex I would notice her body wouldn’t be pressing against me like it usually did, or she wouldn’t react in certain ways that I had come to expect. If I asked her what was wrong she told me to keep going. I would start to feel a slowly creeping uneasiness, and by the time I had to ask again I would “disengage” and tell her that we didn’t have to have sex if she didn’t feel like it. I don’t know if I have words for the way her response made me feel the first time this happened (not that it happened a lot, but 2 or 3 times is enough). She proceeded to tell me that she didn’t really feel like having sex, but that I had really wanted to, and that she didn’t mind. I found within myself new depths of disgust. I’m talking stick your head in the microwave God-I-wish-Sam’s Club-sold-heroin disgust. In her mind, it was like playing Arkham City with me even though of course she didn’t really want to or me watching a movie I didn’t want to see with her, but I felt really emotionally sick about it. I felt like our intimate connection had been reduced to chore and sacrifice. She tricked me into treating her like meat, assuming what was important to me was getting my opportunity to treat myself like meat. For me, the sense that I had taken advantage of her was just as degrading as being taken advantage of myself. Rationally, I know it was her problem for the assumptions she had about men and the way she treated herself, but that doesn’t do anything to lessen how it all made me feel. Anyway, I thought this post was neat and figured I’d share some of the repercussions of a male perspective of the issue.

  6. Alicia said,

    It’s situations like the one in Girls that help me speak up about sexual communication BEFORE sexual encounters. Had they had the conversation about boundaries, desires, fantasies, likes/dislikes, etc in a sober, non-sexual setting, they might have easily avoided the bad encounter. Partners need to reassure each other that it’s OK to say “Hey, I thought I’d like this, and it turns out I don’t”. Partners also need to learn how to take a statement like that and not feel it as rejection or have it ‘ruin’ the encounter. Communication (verbal and nonverbal) is the responsibility of all parties; everyone involved needs to be noticing for shifts in body language as well as checking in (whether that’s ‘Yes! More!” or “Hey, are you ok? You’re making a weird face”).

  7. Sangre deCristo said,

    Great article. Everything I was thinking and then some. Everyone has different parameters. Interestingly my boyfriend found the scene more disturbing than I did. Adam is almost a compilation of all the guys I dated in my teens and 20’s. I, however am less fragile and unassuming than Natalia. There is something semi-autistic about him. A lot of his behaviors remind me of a guy with aspergers I dated. I also found Natalia’s approach to sex equally unsettling. That kind of deeply insecure need to control and passively orchestrate things. The need to use sex as a reward for “being good all week.” It’s interesting how much people project onto a character. For all we know Natalia may only be Adam’s third sexual partner and every sexual experience he has had has been “uncomfortable”. People act like humans behave logically and we aren’t all basically playing with broken toys when entering into any relationship. I haven’t thought too much about “gray rape” before this episode had me reading several articles discussing rape. I don’t feel I have ever been raped but if I projected my experiences onto one of my friends with a different personality I would see how they would feel differently. I also will have to admit there may be some men wandering around who feel I ‘gray raped’ them in the past… something that should perhaps be brought into the larger conversation.

  8. Leezi said,

    #7 – Natalia’s approach might be insecure, but in the first encounter she was being entirely clear, I don’t see how you’re criticizing her as always “passive.” I just saw another discussion where two men agreed she had an “absurd” number of rules. All 2 rules. So she’s controlling and passive because she’s too explicit, then when she doesn’t stick to her own rules and tries to play along, she’s passive for not refusing loudly (though she did try by saying she hadn’t showered)…

    #5 – There is a big difference between your situation and the one on the show, which is that you ASKED.

    To all – Not once did Adam ask her if she was on board. There would be no blogosphere conflict had he just checked in one time. Asking would not mesh with the fact that his intention was to intimidate and to scare her, though. (For some reason, his intentions don’t seem to matter in a lot of the threads I’ve seen.) This wasn’t just about one partner’s fun sex game, he was trying to scare this real person in front of him. He didn’t give her the space to say “no,” he shut her out when she said she hadn’t showered, and some of those side shots of the scene showed how physically large he is compared to her,

    Speaking of “reading people’s minds,” if he’s using his body to intimidate her, how is she supposed to read his mind? How should she know he won’t use his size against her further, maybe turning violent, if she changes her tactic from calmly pulling away to more loudly pushing him away?

    Also, saying men should secure a “yes” as a standard practice doesn’t make women “passive receivers” because it shouldn’t be DIFFICULT to secure a yes. If the woman is being open and clear, then it’s easy to secure the yes, if you’re in a situation where it’s unclear, then it’s better for everyone if the initiator asks.

    • JC said,

      @Leezi,

      Agreed with your response to #7.

      Agreed with your initial response to #5. That is a HUGE difference. But I think the blog post (which I loved) wouldn’t disagree that Adam was being insensitive and selfish. The larger question is did he rape her?

      I agree that initiators of sexual encounters should seek to secure a clear, affirmative YES before proceeding, but I do not feel that failure to procure that yes automatically constitutes a rape (not sure that you are even saying this, though you seem to imply it). I, like Emily, have had many sexual encounters in which neither person explicitly assents to sex, after which one partner or another feels exploited somehow. In those cases, I would agree that somebody in the situation is being an asshole, but I would hesitate to call those encounters “rapes”.

      I am also a feminist. To me, there is grave danger in classifying participants in awful sexual encounters as ASSAILANTS and VICTIMS. For all our hope to empower women, it behooves us to tell women that we have agency in sex. This is not to say that rape is EVER the fault of the victim. It NEVER is. It is to say that we have power in these situations, but we negate that power if we assume, from the beginning, that ok-ing everything is solely the man’s responsibility. There are few things more pro-woman to me than affirming that we have the opportunity, in most sexual encounters, to communicate our desires fully.

    • Sangre deCristo said,

      You really think he was trying to scare her? I felt it was more of a “Here’s the real me…” kind of a situation. There are tons more direct ways he could have scared her. After being told he needs to change his apartment, her not being interested in his work, and her telling him that neither of them reflected who he was, it just seemed like a self-sabotaging “no, this is the real me…” situation. It’s pretty obvious from how he was with Hannah that most of his sexual encounters are similar. As far as Natalia’s clarity/passivity although she was explicit in discussing what she did or didn’t like, it’s a telling of a deep level of insecurity that you have to dictate what will happen before it even happens organically. There’s a difference between “Yes, now is good.” and “I suppose now is good because you have been good all week” (using sex as a reward or refusal as punishment = the ultimate in petty manipulation) and rattling off a list of rules before you even start. It seemed pretty obvious that Adam wasn’t even expecting sex yet. I don’t see how this isn’t two emotionally immature people in a stupid situation instead of rape. If the feeling of having been raped is dictated by the recipient and not the outside observer, then why so insistent on interpreting it as such. I don’t disagree that there is a need for verbal consent to become a standard part of sex, but calling every uncomfortable encounter in television/books/art rape kind of shuts down the discourse and turns it into a blame game that whitewashes human sexuality. It would probably also help if we replace “men” when talking about securing consent because it can easily be the female initiating sex whether in a hetero or lesbian situation. I wasn’t blaming Natalia for the situation. I just don’t think the way she handled everything was any more healthy or constructive than Adam. Painting it otherwise just enforces the victimy aspects and separates her from the situation entirely, going back to the blame loop.

  9. Mister Fuzzy (@Gavybear) said,

    Just FYI, my comment wasn’t meant to be a comparison to Adam’s situation in the show. I haven’t even seen this episode of Girls yet :0. I was just illustrating how easy it is to overlook the effect that grey area sexual encounters can have on men. It’s not always as simple as attentiveness or procuring a yes. People can obfuscate their likes and dislikes for a multitude of reasons.

  10. M said,

    I love this article – Thank you for stepping through this issue instead of hurtling insults and knee-jerk reactions we commonly see on the web. Manage expectations up front about anything that fucks, flies or if you need to pay for it by the hour. Especially hair cuts. Best advice I ever got.

  11. W said,

    Thank you, Emily, for yet another well-written and thoughtful piece.

    I think I see this whole discussion from a slightly skewed point of view. I was a victim (or “survivor,” or whatever you want to call it – names don’t affect anything for me) of a very real and very brutal rape. This was not a case of drinking too much (though, of course, I’m not belittling the situations that arise from doing so). I wasn’t scantily clad (I was wearing tough pants, an old t-shirt, and work boots). My crime was to walk home at dusk, alone, in an area I thought I knew well. Too much information? Well, I have a point here. From my perspective, there’s a very clear line between awkward sexual encounters and true “rape.”

    After my experience (I was 19 at the time), I had a tumultuous and insidious sex life. There was something about having control over these encounters that I lived for, and I might even say that I was struggling with an addiction to this power. No, I wasn’t a dominatrix, but I chose where and how and who and I had juuuust enough charm to make things happen when I wanted them to.

    During this time, I had several encounters that are still etched in my mind – I would get in over my head, find myself in a super uncomfortable situation, and feel disgusting the next day. Sometimes it had to do with kinky stuff (to me, emulating rape was not arousing), sometimes it was a liberal approach to safe sex, and once it was with a guy in a long-distance relationship. I even had an experience that was shockingly similar to the scene depicted in Girls. I’d always feel like a disgusting bottom-feeder after these encounters… but I wouldn’t call them rape.

    I completely agree that these things all come down to communication. If I were the person then that I am now (though I’m happily married and wouldn’t go back for anything), I would have said something. But, y’know, I didn’t. To me, that makes those mistakes MY problem, and not theirs. Every mistake I’ve ever made, sexual or otherwise, has made me feel this way… that hot rush of regret is a horrible feeling. But I can’t stress this enough: none of them came anywhere CLOSE to the reality of what happened to me in that dark alley doorway. The experiences, in my mind, don’t belong in the same general category – even if we try to use the “grey” adjective.

    This is all anecdotal, of course. I just wanted to share the above because I put the two situations in such different categories. Yes, the scene caused discomfort, and yes, Adam was being… well… Adam, but I refuse to rally behind rape allegations.

  12. Julie Gillis said,

    I love this article and I love how bold you were to post it. Here’s my take on it, which gets into that idea that sex is a language, a communication and that violation isn’t always rape, but yeah, can make you an asshole. Sex is a language and we don’t always learn to speak it well. Learning is important and mistakes do get made that fall outside the boundaries of what rape is defined as.

    http://juliegillis.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/root/

  13. Alyssa Royse said,

    BRAVO. And THANK YOU.

  14. On Girls and not liking sexual experiences. | Gynomite! | Julie Gillis said,

    [...] On Girls and not liking sexual experiences. | Gynomite!. [...]

  15. On rape, consent, the gray area and communication | Annex a Marx Idea said,

    [...] feel like quoting this interesting blog post by [...]

  16. Sally James said,

    Interestingly enough, earlier in the episode (or the week before, I can’t remember), Natalia gave Adam her very specific rules and he said he loved how clear she was with him. She answered, “what other way is there?”

    So what do you think that says in the bigger picture of their relationship? That she was strong but once she started liking him really, she let him take advantage of her? That she might have just been going along with it and then once it was over, she was still clear in her communication that she didn’t want that to happen again?

    She wasn’t raped. I don’t even think it meant anything more than a plot point to illustrate the differences between Natalia and Hannah. Interesting that there is so much discussion on this….including my own. :)

  17. Hello world! | A demolished man said,

    […] V. Gordon wrote a very interesting post on Grey Area sexual encounters, http://gynomite.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/on-girls-and-not-liking-sexual-experiences/ that led to some weird self examination, on my […]

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