GIRLS “On All Fours”

girls-hbo-season-2-episode-9-shiri-appleby-sexIf we started saying, “It ain’t sex unless everyone enjoys it” would rape and “gray-rape” (where consent is unclear) become less common? And might we all enjoy sex more?

An Emmy-nominated episode of “Girls” sparks the question.

“On All Fours” finds “Natalia” ready to have sex with “Adam” because, “You’ve been really nice all week.” And then she tells him what she likes and what she doesn’t as they indulge.

The next time is very different.

TRIGGER WARNING:  What follows may be triggering for some survivors of sexual violence.

Adam tells Natalia to get down on all fours and crawl to his bed. She complains that the floor is dirty, but reluctantly complies. As she approaches, he grabs her and throws her onto the bed saying, “I want to f- you from behind, hit the walls with you.”

She hesitates: “No. Look, I didn’t take a shower today.” He insists, “It’s fine, relax” and goes at it. When he pulls out to cum on top of her, she whimpers, “No, not on my dress!” She pulls down her top, scowls and looks away as he cums on her chest. “I, like, really didn’t like that,” she says.

Some call the second scenario rape. Others call it “bad sex,” like Anna March at Salon.

Anna lost her virginity at age 15. Soon after, she had sex with this same guy and his best friend in a park, perhaps persuaded as much by alcohol as by the guys:

It was somewhat miserable to have sex consecutively with two young men, and to hear the second one ask, in the midst of intercourse, ‘Are you using birth control?’ and quickly add, ‘Oh, who cares — if you get pregnant, it’s your fault.’ 

When they went home her bra and panties were left behind.

Thinking back she recalls, “I was shaken both by the degrading nature of the incident and by the fact that I had allowed it.”

But it wasn’t rape, she says, because she consented. Like her, “Natalia” had bad sex, too. To call “bad sex” rape discredits women’s power to voice their wants. It also demeans real assault victims, she adds.

So, are the following scenarios bad sex or rape?

A young woman named Haley got drunk, and the guy she was with took her to his room and sexually penetrated her as she moved in and out of consciousness. At first it seemed like bad sex as she joked to her friends, “I was asleep!” Later it seemed more like rape to her.

Haley’s friend, Kristy, agreed to do something that she clearly did not want to do: While making out, the guy she was with told her to get on her knees. When she froze, he pushed her head down. She finally submitted, thinking, “I’ll just do it, it will be over soon enough.”

Yet another woman “hoped he’d see me crying” and stop.

Others freeze in fear.

Or, when Evan Westlake witnessed the digital penetration of a non-responsive young woman he did nothing to stop the assault because,

It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I thought it was forcing yourself on someone.

Maybe it’s time to distinguish between acts that are mutually pleasurable and acts that are not, with only one referred to as “sex.”

If sex were only something that was mutually enjoyable, and if a person was not enjoying it, it would become clearer to everyone that what’s happening is not sex. And that might encourage everyone – participants and witnesses, alike – to refrain or say “no.”

Mutually pleasurable sex may be erotic or playful. It may be experimental – until you don’t like the experiment, say “no thanks,” and have your wishes respected. Or, it may be a gift you enjoy giving your partner even when you aren’t especially in the mood.

If someone is unconscious, half-conscious, asleep, grimacing, crying, frozen, miserable, reluctant, or has said “no,” it’s not mutually pleasurable. It’s not sex. It’s something else: rape or gray rape. And that means it should not be happening.

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
Male/Female Friendships Help End Rape
She Drinks, She Flirts, She Passes Out … Is It Rape?
Does Provocative Dress Ever Cause Rape?

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 18, 2013, in feminism, psychology, rape and sexual assault, sex, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I really liked the character of Natalie on “Girls” because she was so clear about her wants, etc. I think a lot of young women, who are not sexually assertive, would not have said anything about crawling on a dirty floor as she did. On another episode, I really liked hearing Natalie dress Adam down for calling her a dirty little whore in the middle of the act.

  2. Reblogged this on Shedding Light on Darkness and commented:
    Yup, though personally I’d never use the term “gray rape”. If consent is unclear, then all sexual activity needs to cease until it is clear.

  3. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that if she doesn’t actually give consent, it’s rape. It is also deeply unfortunate that especially young women sometimes feel the need to go along with something they are not comfortable with, for fear of negative repercussions of some sort. Men can be very determined to get what they want and if there are undertones of pushiness and anger, that’s not actually obtaining consent either.

  4. Your last paragraph should be taught in every school across America. I agree wit Mieprowan. Any undertones of pushiness and anger negate consent.

  5. This is one of the excuses child sexual abusers use to defend themselves – the child seemed to enjoy the act or the child did not protest.

    • Of course, they’re participating in statutory rape, regardless. It can be harder to dissuade people who have something wrong with their minds, like child sex abusers. A lot of people think that rapists have something wrong with their minds too, when actually it’s a lot of pretty “normal” guys.

  6. You bring to light great issues.

  7. Compliance is not consent. If someone goes along with something because she feels that she doesn’t really have the option of stopping or saying no, or because she is made to feel that that would be selfish of her, that’s not a situation where true consent is possible.

    The problem is a sort of culture-wide version of the above individuals’ reluctance to call it rape—that the men involved can claim ignorance to excuse their actions, can do that to women without it ever crossing their minds that she might be uncomfortable and not want it but not dare to say no, or perhaps be aware of it but considering that “her problem.”

    I’ve been, um, sought out, by a guy who did this sort of thing during said seeking-out. It never got as far as sex because I managed to make an excuse to head out early, but I was completely surprised by how totally I found myself paralyzed, feeling like a flat-out “No, I don’t want this” was too rude (how dare I disappoint him?) and feeling entirely disempowered to stand up for myself. I was twenty-six; I was a feminist; I could compose page-long comments discussing the ethics of consent, and I was stressed and uncomfortable and making desperate hints that I wasn’t into him and wishing he’d pick up on them so I could leave.

    It’s not something we’re warned about, the potential for that to happen. It took me by surprise at sixteen and it took my by surprise at twenty-six, and neither previous experinece nor a decade of devouring feminist theory made any real difference in the moment.

    This is something that should be addressed. Consent should be defined as affirmative, enthusiastic, explicit, and free of subtle coercion as well as overt coercion. Men should be held responsible when they are careless about that and end up being wrong. Women should be told that they don’t owe anyone sexual satisfaction at the cost of their own boundaries and comfort, and that it’s totally okay to call a halt to any sex activity that one doesn’t want to do.

    After all, why is he entitled to enjoy you, if you aren’t enjoying him? All you’re doing by walking away is leaving him no more satisfied than you would’ve been if you’d stayed—and if he doesn’t care about your enjoyment, why should you be obligated to care about his?

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Yes, I agree entirely. I am so hoping to help young women to gain a greater sense of their right to sexual enjoyment – and the right to refrain from doing things they don’t enjoy.

      And also to clue men in that they should also be concerned with their partners’ enjoyment.

      I’m hoping that if we educate people that the problems discussed in this blog post will decrease.

  8. Whether it is called grey rape, statutory rape, or any other number of names, IT IS RAPE. No matter what the terminology, for men AND women, if someone does not clearly state their consent for sexual contact or intercourse of any kind it is considered rape and it is wrong.

    Being a victim of sexual assault is a life-altering experience and one that comes with a ton of shame. In a few of these scenarios, the girls didn’t outright say no but they didn’t give a yes either. Why? Because they were SHAMED into submission; into doing things they didn’t want to do. Men may blame the women saying things such as, “it is not my fault you are pretty,” “you shouldn’t have dressed up” or “you shouldn’t have talked to me in that bar.” The blame is put on women.

    We are shamed into taking responsibility for events that aren’t our fault, but because men are physically stronger then us and we live in a society that practically worships the patriarchy; women are frightened into doing their bidding. Men are bigger and stronger and have more power given to them by society and when they use it to take advantage of a woman, no matter how “grey” it may seem, it is rape.

    Men, however, will flip it around and say it was the woman’s fault for looking so tempting, seductive, sexy. Are women not allowed to look remotely attractive without the risk of a pig who cant control himself harass or rape them? This should not be the case.

    If ANY woman has ever been shamed or overpowered by a man into performing any sexual act she does not wish to commit, know it is not your fault. And if they used your appearance as an excuse for their behavior, know that that is not your fault either. One should be able to be a beautiful being in this world without being punished. But alas, beauty is a curse on the world ruled by men.

    • Yes. I say a standard of consent + enjoying the experience should make things much more clear.

      Hoping that adding “enjoyment” will also help girls to know to say “no” when they aren’t enjoying it anymore, or think they won’t in the first place.

  9. Sex, lovemaking, erotica — whichever term is your pleasure is something that should only occur between two consenting adults.

    Unwanted sex — “rape” is not something that only happens to young single gals. Married women as well, are all too often forced into sexual acts by their spouse/partner. For single women who live in a birdcage it can be a wake up call and hopefully treated as a learning experience, albeit a difficult one. For imprisoned uneducated married women with children, the choice to walk away is much more complicated, and can be a challenging one.

    Sex is ours to give lovingly and freely and we should be very careful what part of ourselves we give and share.

  10. Talking about rape is a touchy subject for me, but over the years, i’ve become much more comfortable with it. When I was 14, I was taken advantage of. I had been with a close girl friend and she was really into this guy, so being the nice friend I am, I walked with her to a park to meet up with the guy. Well, she ended up going off with the guy and leaving me with his three friends, they seemed ok, that is until one of them held my hands down and started pouring vodka down my throat. I remember not knowing what to do, not wanting to scream because I didn’t know them or know if they could hurt me, as well as thinking that I didn’t want my parents to smell alcohol on me when i got home. Things progressed against my will. I always think about what I could’ve done differently, if somehow something I said or did made one of the guys think I gave him consent. I know in my case it wasn’t “bad sex,” but I always question myself and whether I have the right to say i’ve been “raped,” when I feel as though I may have been able to stop it from happening.

    • I’m so sorry for what you had to go through

      Please know that you were not at all responsible for this.

      Unfortunately, rape is the only crime where victims are likely to blame themselves. But you only wanted to support your friend, and then you were outnumbered, held down, and drugged (alcohol is a drug).

      The only person – or persons – who made a conscious choice here were the rapists. They had every ability to choose differently. You didn’t.

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