The latest episode of HBO’s ‘Girls’ was nothing short of disturbing. Emily Heist Moss shares why it shook her so deeply.
Since I first stumbled upon it a few weeks ago, there’s a Margaret Atwood quote I can’t shake, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” I don’t want this line to resonate with me, but it does. I don’t want to feel that there is some grain of truth in its melodrama, but I think there is. This is the line I keep returning to while we discuss the Violence Against Women Act. It’s what I think about when I see Rihanna sitting courtside at Chris Brown’s trial. It’s there in the back of my brain when my lawyer friend tells me about a client who shot and killed his ex-girlfriend out of rage at her departure. It’s present when I read the first short story of George Saunders’ new collection and a sociopath punches a teenaged girl in the stomach when she won’t cooperate with his abduction. It was there, floating like a morbid filter, during Sunday night’s episode of HBO’s Girls. (Warning, spoilers ahead and a description of a sexual encounter that may be disturbing to some readers.)
Last night, as both a reaction to running into Hannah and an attempt to show his new girlfriend a good time, Hannah’s ex-boyfriend Adam, a recovering alcoholic, relapsed with a slew of Jack and gingers. Back at his apartment, he orders the new girlfriend, Natalia, onto her hands and knees, and directs her to his bedroom. Hesitantly, nervously, reluctantly, she complies. What glimpses we have seen of their sex life thus far have been sweet and mutually enthusiastic. What we see in Adam’s apartment is self-loathing manifested as a sex act. Adam picks her up, drops her on the bed, pulls up her dress, penetrates her from behind, thrusts for 10 seconds, pushes her onto her back, and ejaculates on her chest while she frantically tries to wriggle away. It is nothing short of awful. There is no momentary smile on her face, there is no smirk, no wink, no indication that this is anything but the opposite of what she wants.
From what we know of Adam’s sexual history with Hannah, he is a controlling, domineering partner who unspools elaborate fantasies and adds his own degrading commentary. While those past encounters made me wince—not because people shouldn’t have that kind of sex, but because I don’t want that kind of sex—this most recent incident with Natalia made me cry. Hannah was a willing partner. Whether her willingness was a result of sexual insecurity or romantic neediness is beside the point. Problematic as it might have been, there was consent. There was nothing in last night’s episode to suggest that Natalia was a willing participant in Adam’s orgasm. He treated her like a prop; she was not allowed to have a perspective on the situation, much less advertise her own desires.
Some people on the Internet are already calling it rape. Maybe they’re right, I really don’t know; I couldn’t fall asleep last night because I was trying to answer that very question. She didn’t tell him to stop, she didn’t protest, she didn’t physically try to get away from him. There was no explicit threat or coercion. But there was this: a drunk man who outweighed a woman by 100 pounds using his physical advantage to orchestrate a sexual encounter to meet his desire with zero regard for her feelings. As a viewer, I know Adam to be a strange, unstable, generally good-hearted guy. For 30 seconds of violent on-screen sex, I was afraid of him, and I was afraid for her.
“Men are really strong. Like, frighteningly strong,” my roommate says. “I don’t think I could knock someone out if I tried.” She is commenting on an episode of Battlestar Galactica. A soldier just woke from a nightmare, thrashing, and accidentally beat a female soldier, his friend, to a bloody, unconscious mess before he had recovered himself. “Eighty percent of men could probably pin 80% of women if they tried,” my roommate adds, as we see a shot of the woman in a hospital gown, jaw wired shut. Men are really strong. Not all men, of course, and there are plenty of strong women, but statistically, on average, men are stronger than women, bigger than women.
I am not a wallflower in bed. I know what I like, I know what I don’t like, and I’m very vocal about sharing both. One late night a year ago, I was having sex with a friend, someone I’ve known for a few years, someone I’ve slept with many, many times. He wasn’t my boyfriend, but he was not a stranger. I was tipsy, he was drunk. He did something I didn’t like so I grabbed his hand and said, “Don’t do that, I don’t like it.” He did it again. How much clearer could I be? I stopped moving and the fun part of our evening was officially over. When no parts of our bodies were touching each other, I asked him why he hadn’t listened to me. He shrugged, “I thought it would be fun.” He apologized the next morning.
What if he hadn’t listened? What if he had decided, in that inebriated moment, that what he wanted was more important than what I wanted? Like my roommate said, 80% of men could probably pin 80% of women, and he and I are not the exception to that rule. In another world, where he was drunker, or more selfish, where I was less vocal, or less confident, that night could have ended differently. It might have been the night that someone made me do something I didn’t want to do, instead of the night my stupid drunk friend overstepped his boundaries.
There’s a long way from a selfish sexual encounter to Margaret Atwood’s dire declaration about men and women and power. But I watched Girls Sunday night, and I thought to myself, well, that’s where it starts. Adam was spinning away from the discipline he’d spent many years building and to regain his control, he controlled someone else. And he could, because he was bigger, and stronger, and she was scared.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has been published at Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.