A very dear friend of mine was raped not too long ago. You guys, this is not a story I wanted to write. Nothing is less sexy than rape, and I wish I could just think and write about sexy things all the time. Rape is not sex. But sometimes we talk about rape as if it were, and it messes with our perception of the differences between the two. The existence of rape and rape apologists messes with how we view gender, our bodies, sex, sexuality, consent and so on. All this messes with the ways that we have sex. This is rape culture, and this is why it’s a problem.
A couple things brought rape and rape culture to the forefront of my thoughts this week: last Sunday’s episode of “Girls” and the Steubenville gang rape verdict.
The Steubenville case is disturbing and complex in so many ways, but there are several details that stick out to me in particular: The victim was urinated on, carried limply by her wrists and ankles, and violated repeatedly with inanimate objects. All of this was photographed, filmed and published on social media. The point here is humiliation — the rapists aren’t just doing this to get off, they’re also doing it to shame and denigrate their victim. It is disgusting. So I felt a little ill when I read about CNN’s coverage of the guilty verdict that included quotes like this one from reporter Poppy Harlow: “Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”
Let’s step back for a minute and think about that statement. Is it sad that two teenagers will not get to have the bright futures they might have had? Yes, very. But is that something that is happening to them, or is it a consequence that they caused? Their lives are falling apart because they made the decision to rape a girl. What I find sad about this situation is that their 16 years of experience didn’t teach them not to rape. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, a positive-feedback loop: Statements like Harlow’s elide the rapists’ own culpability. This is the flip side of victim blaming; Harlow does not accuse the victim of causing her abusers’ downfall — though others on the Internet have — but she does divorce the consequences from the rapists’ actions, which has a similar effect.
Let’s move on to “Girls” for a moment. The episode that aired March 10 was the first time I’ve actually appreciated something the show has done. The sex scene between Adam and Natalia was disturbing to say the least. Adam tells Natalia to get on all fours and crawl to his bed, which she does, although she’s clearly uncomfortable. Then Adam chases her, picks her up, throws her on the bed, and eats her out. This might have been very sexy if Natalia didn’t say “no” at this point. She struggles and protests, but he doesn’t stop. He starts to have sex with her, and she doesn’t say anything. When he finishes, he pulls out and cums on her chest.
“I don’t think I liked that,” she says as he throws her a towel to clean herself up. The Internet spent the past two weeks trying to decide if the scene was rape or not. To me, it clearly was. Natalia said “no” during foreplay, and Adam didn’t stop and check in with his partner. Instead, he pushed things further, without any conceivable receipt of consent. That’s rape.
It is clear that Natalia isn’t enjoying what’s happening from the start. When Adam tells her to crawl to his bed she looks scared, not turned on. He keeps going because he’s trying to make a point, to assert his dominance and because he’s a recovering alcoholic who’s just had a drink. But he doesn’t keep going because he’s interested in a mutually pleasurable sexual encounter, which is the only reason he should.
This is the kind of so-called “gray rape” that reminds me of my friend. She was with a guy she knew a little bit, and she was beginning to trust him. She had agreed to some things — acts that could be part of foreplay or could be sex in and of themselves. The guy she was with forced his penis into her despite her vocal “no.” That’s rape; there’s nothing “gray” about it. She felt violated, traumatized. Like Adam, the guy was likeable, trustable, and has friends who would have been shocked if they knew, who probably would have defended him and called her a liar if she reported him.
Good people sometimes do bad things. Sometimes rapists can be people who seem good. Sometimes rapists are people we know, like and sympathize with. That is the only gray part of these situations — the grayness that comes with human nature that has both good and evil in it. It is sad — very sad — to hear about rape so often. But as all of these stories prove, we don’t yet know how to prevent rape or how to properly deal with the aftermath. When good people keep doing bad things, it is a sign that we as a society have not taught them how to be good. We don’t teach teenage boys the importance of sober consent. We don’t teach couples like Adam and Natalia how to negotiate rough sex with safe boundaries. I certainly don’t have all the answers or all the right responses to these scenarios. I only know that we need to keep talking about them until we do have the right answers.