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
- 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
- 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
- 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.