This morning I watched the latest episode of Girls, and it contained the most important sex scene I’ve seen in ages. I know that Girls isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and in truth it’s pretty hit and miss for me too – but I keep watching it because sometimes Lena Dunham’s writing is so incredibly spot on that you find yourself nodding at the screen and saying “Yes” emphatically, out loud.
You can watch the scene in question here. You can watch the whole episode if you want to put it in context, but otherwise, skip to 24.09 – it only lasts about three minutes:
This scene discusses the concept of consent more usefully than any scene that ever depicted rape as violent and black-and-white. For example, the rape scene in Charlize Theron’s Monster made incredibly uncomfortable viewing for me, but it was obvious what the director was saying: “this is wrong.” And people watching it agreed – it didn’t change anyone’s mind about what consent was, or what rape was.
In this episode of Girls, Dunham depicted a sexual experience that millions of girls, including me, have experienced time and again. And we need to talk about it. Because the jury is out on whether or not that was a consenting sexual moment, and even I haven’t fully decided. Our uncertainty makes it the most important teaching tool about consent I’ve seen in years. Here’s why:
- It’s about an issue of consent between two adults in a relationship – this is no stranger in a dark alley
- It’s about whether silence can mean consent – and it’s about whether consent can be withdrawn
- It’s about saying “This. This is the effect of porn culture on thinking about sexual consent.”
I can’t remember every time I’ve been in a sexual situation where I was unhappy but didn’t say anything – but it’s probably more than ten. On the flipside, I can remember just one time, fairly recently, where I put a stop to it. Where all I was feeling was that I was an object being fucked, and not a participant where my partner cared about respecting me or my level of enjoyment. And I probably only had the strength to do that because of how much I’ve increased my confidence in discussing consent, and because the guy involved was a friend. All over the world, girls are having these experiences, and it’s seen as normal.
This, by the way, isn’t saying that sex as depicted in the above scene is inherently wrong. We’ve seen that character, Adam, having that kind of sex with a girl who was into it, and that was fine. But – and this all comes back to my post The ‘grey area’ of rape – Natalia was clearly not into it. For Adam, this was a moment in which all he cared about was his own sexual gratification and exerting power over his girlfriend – it was about disregarding her dignity and her body language. You can tell from her facial expressions, from her body, from her protestations that she “didn’t shower today” that this was not something she wanted to do.
And where did he learn that behaviour from? That idea that it was acceptable to order his girlfriend of two weeks to crawl on all fours for him, to then ejaculate on her body, against her wishes, as if she was a dumping ground for his sperm? That’s a scene straight out of 90% of web porn, where the woman is dominated and her sexual pleasure becomes secondary, if it even matters at all.
This is what boys as young as twelve are watching on a daily basis. Of course it seeps into their own behaviour. I remember boys pushing my head towards their crotch when I was fourteen – before free porn sites like YouPorn and PornHub made it instantly possible to watch a woman being degraded. I genuinely shudder to think what fourteen-year-old boys think is acceptable sexual etiquette these days, when all they have to teach them is the misogynistic porn that now takes up 70% of the entire content of the Internet.
So that scene. That scene is what parents, feminists, teachers, policemen and politicians need to be talking about. Because whether or not you think that it was rape, I hope you can see that it highlights an area of consent that desperately needs discussing – both around teenagers, and around everybody else. If you can teach people that mutual, explicit consent is important, you can transform how they think about all sexual acts – and ultimately, challenge rape myths around drunkenness, silence and clothing.