I’ve Had Bad Sex And I’ve Been Raped, And They Aren’t The Same Thing

March 9, 2018

It’s time we talked about some uncomfortable truths.

Last December, a short story in the New Yorker went viral.

It was called Cat Person, and it was notable because it was the first time a piece of literary fiction caught fire in such a big way, getting so many people talking (and tweeting and posting) about it so passionately. Even my neighborhood wine store referenced it on the blackboard that sits outside their shop. (“Between Cat Person and The Shape of Water I’m an emotional wreck…”) Its author, Kristen Roupenian, landed a seven-figure book deal within two weeks of the story’s publication – and I for one can’t wait to read her forthcoming short story collection.

For those who haven’t read it (and really, you need to read it), Cat Person is about a college student, Margot, who has a short-lived relationship with an older man, Robert. Their relationship mostly consists of text messages, and one awkward date which ends with some bad sex, described in cringe-worthy detail so perfect, I don’t know a single woman who can’t identify with it.

Although it’s a brilliant piece of writing, the reason Cat Person captured the public’s interest in the way it did is undoubtedly due to the particular cultural moment that was happening when it was published. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, sex – and specifically, consent – is on everyone’s minds these days.

The sex Margot has with Robert in Cat Person is consensual on the face of it, but Margot’s interior dialogue tells us that her consent is definitely less than enthusiastic, and that although she’s into it at certain moments (“By her third beer, she was thinking about what it would be like to have sex with Robert…imagining how excited he would be, how hungry and eager to impress her, she felt a twinge of desire pluck at her belly…), at others, she’s fervently wishing herself out of the encounter but can’t summon the will. (“Insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.”)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about reaction to the piece was how many people (mostly men) seemed not to realize that it was a short story, and not a personal essay. They were offended, indignant, and scornful of Margot’s actions, defending Robert (who, spoiler alert, turns out to be a total dick, calling Margot a “whore” after she breaks things off with him). People analyzed Margot and Robert’s interaction as if it had really happened – which maybe is because so many of us have had experiences that were eerily similar to the entirely-made-up story.

Not long after Cat Person was published, the website Babe posted a story accusing actor Aziz Ansari of forcing a young woman who went on date with him into some sexual activity that made her uncomfortable.

According to his date’s account of the night, Ansari pressured her to engage in oral sex, ignored her when she said she wanted to “chill,” and generally acted like a douche. However, the woman had apparently gone to his apartment willingly, gotten naked with him of her own accord, and gone along with things rather than leaving – very much like the fictional Margot did in Cat Person. When she texted Ansari afterward, telling him she’d been uncomfortable with what happened, he apologized for misreading the situation and seemed genuinely contrite and concerned with her well being.

Reaction to the Babe piece was mixed, but the general consensus seemed to be that although Ansari’s date undoubtedly had an unfortunate experience and some bad sex she regretted, nothing criminal had occurred. Ansari, according to the court of public opinion, was guilty only of being horny, insensitive, and not quite the feminist ally we all hoped he was, but he wasn’t anywhere on the level of a Harvey Weinstein or a Kevin Spacey.

As a rape survivor, and also as a woman who’s had plenty of unfortunate and regrettable sex, I have feelings about all this. First off, I don’t want to diminish the, shall we say, ickiness of a sexual encounter like the one described by Aziz Ansari’s date, or the fictional one depicted in Cat Person. But also, neither of them is remotely like actually being raped.

When I was raped, there was no part of me that was conflicted or unsure of what I wanted. I did not consent, reluctantly or otherwise. I said “no.” I screamed “no.” He held me down. He choked me. He left scratches and bite marks on my body that took days to fade. (Note: I’m not saying any of these things have to happen in order for a rape to be a rape. Any non-consensual sex is rape, whether or not it is violent. This was just my experience.) Still, it was weeks before I could call what happened to me “rape.” I couldn’t process it.

When he hunted me down at my apartment the next day, I had sex with him again because I was so confused and traumatized. That time, it was consensual, in that I let him into my apartment and allowed him do what he wanted to me without protest. He left immediately afterward. I curled up into a ball and cried for hours.

Recently, I lost one of my best male friends (or at least, I thought he was my friend) because I didn’t want to have sex with him. We were both coming off of painful breakups, and made plans to do something one Saturday night – but when the day came, we still hadn’t solidified our plans. Early that afternoon, when I pressed him about what we were going to do (I love a good plan), he said why didn’t we just hang out at my place and “see what happens, do whatever we feel.” This sounded to me suspiciously like a Netflix-and-chill situation, but when I asked him if that was what he meant, he claimed not to even know that expression. I told him I didn’t want to have sex with him, didn’t even want to fool around, and he asked why, in that case,  had I always flirted with him?

Taken aback, I was defensive. I tried to explain that I’m a natural flirt, that I do find him attractive (he’s hot, no question about that), and that if I were to “just hang out” with him in my heartbroken state, I didn’t trust myself not to have sex with him – sex which I would surely regret the next day, and which would complicate our friendship in a way I wasn’t comfortable with. When he protested that he would never do anything I didn’t want to do, I said it wasn’t that. It was that I was afraid I might do something I didn’t want to do. I needed to uphold a boundary to ensure for myself that I didn’t end up regretting my actions later. He got very upset, and we haven’t spoken since.

Here’s the thing that many people – men, women, and my lost friend – don’t seem to understand. There’s bad sex, there’s sex you regret, there’s sex that is both bad and that you regret, and then there’s rape. I’ve experienced all of them – as have many, possibly most women, if they’re honest – and I can assure you that they are all very different things. Conflating them doesn’t help the #MeToo movement. It hurts it, and leaves everyone confused.

In this historic time, when women are declaring that “Time’s Up,” when we are speaking out about sexual harassment and abuse in ways we never have before, and being believed as we never have been before, it’s important that we talk about these issues and really look at them. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. It’s messy. It’s scary. But it’s essential.

We need to talk to each other, to the men in our lives, and to our sons and daughters, about what constitutes consent. We need to be clear about what rape is, and what it is not. We need to stop being afraid to say “no” and stop settling for uncomfortable and downright bad sex. We all deserve better. Because Cat Person is a great short story – but I don’t want my daughters to be able to identify with it the way I did. It’s a work of fiction. Let’s hope that’s clearer to the next generation that reads it.

Image via tumblr.com.

Comment: Have you ever had a sexual encounter that left you confused about consent?

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