Posts Tagged sex

The most important sex scene I’ve seen in years

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  • It’s about whether silence can mean consent – and it’s about whether consent can be withdrawn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.


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The emotional realities of rape

Right at the start of this blog I dealt with the physical aspects of rape. Talking about the emotional responses take up far more time, because they are many and wide-ranging. But now I would like to focus on just one area: the emotional impact on sensuality.

I’ve spoken before about the emotional distancing that I experienced following the rape: the memory hovered somewhere in the distance, but not in a cognitively useful way. It was there, but I didn’t acknowledge it, didn’t have a clear grasp of what had really gone on, and I certainly felt none of the raw emotion. This is something that I’ve always been good at. My subconscious has always been very good at protecting me, and I’m usually the last to realise when something is bothering me – I don’t feel stress or anxiety on the surface, but it manifests as insomnia. It’s a sure fire way of figuring out if anything’s wrong with me.

In a similar way, the general psychologist view of what happened to me after the rape is that the memory stayed with me – if hazily – whilst the terror and the anger associated with it was suppressed. However, it’s impossible to completely eradicate emotions as strong as those, so they showed themselves in other ways, as though upset that not enough notice was being paid to them.

One way was, of course, my charming habit of drinking myself into a stupor before engaging in a competitive round of bed-hopping. There was one more, which was noticeable only to a few: what happened to me during sex, and even more so, in the immediate aftermath. Unsurprisingly, the Australian boy was the first to notice this, since he was the first person I slept with after the rape. Every time we had sex, I would turn away, be very quiet, and not want to look at him. And every time, although he wouldn’t always catch it, I would have to wipe away silent tears.

As a psychology geek, he realised fairly early on that there was probably a reason for this, and he gently asked me about it quite a few times. I rarely gave a gentle response. No, nothing had happened to me. No, I had never experienced sexual violence. Nothing from my childhood. Nothing recently. I was fine.

We had a spectacular blow up about it one afternoon in Thailand – or rather, I blew up. What’s astonishing about this is that I truly believed my own words. I did think I was fine. The emotion was so far removed from the memory of the rape that it had become blurry, like a photo negative left out in the rain. It was a memory of nothing particularly important, and certainly of nothing damaging.

And so I carried on not dealing with the ramifications of my experience. A pattern emerged during my sexual encounters. I would relish the chase, the achievement of getting men into my bed, of being able to have a degree of control over them. And then I would realise that they were in my bed, and throughout the sex I would want them to hurry up and get the hell out, out of me, my body, and out of the room. To begin with I would always withdraw and silently weep. Gradually, the withdrawal lessened. I would be able to cope with the sex just fine, to mostly ignore the man inside me, but always the tears would come. They would come, but they would be without emotion. I didn’t feel sad, or scared, I just felt numb, and slightly bewildered at why these tears always appeared.

As my keel slowly righted and I began to have healthier sex with people I actually cared about, the tears remained. Even if it was just one or two shiny pearls, they would always slip out. I became excellent at hiding them, until more recently, as ‘people I was sleeping with’ became ‘person I was considering dating’, I decided to open up. The emotional and physical consequences proved difficult to hide in the longer-term. The two almost-partners of those months were well-chosen, because they both responded with absolute sensitivity at a time when I was terrified I would be told that I was too much work. And they remained gracious as weird little me apologetically wiped tears away after thoroughly pleasant sex.

Then came the boyfriend, the first commitment following the rape and the breakdown of my relationship with the Australian boy. My memory is awful, so I can’t be clear about the exact order of events, but I can tell you that this happened around the same time that I was writing the article for the student newspaper – when I was finally owning my experiences. One day, after sex – the sex which he had learnt to understand would always be followed by a little teariness – he wanted to chat and I told him to shut up. I told him to be quiet, because I was concentrating. And then, after an awkward twenty seconds, I burst into a big grin and gave him a hug. “No tears,” I said triumphantly. “I can control them now.” And now, I find I don’t even need to control them. They no longer come.


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