Posts Tagged silence

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  • It’s about whether silence can mean consent – and it’s about whether consent can be withdrawn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

I thought I might as well include it, so you can see where it all began.


As I look back at my three years at Durham, there are some obvious things that have shaped my time here: DUCK, Palatinate, my course, my housemates. There’s one more too, that stayed hidden from view, but that defined my university experience perhaps more than any other.

It took an awfully long time for me to start talking about this. It wasn’t that I denied it – I knew it had happened. I remembered him raping me. But I didn’t realise for months that I had been raped. I thought of it as I thought of eating fish and chips, or getting off the bus. It was something that happened a while ago, nothing particularly out of the ordinary.

Similarly, my behaviour during the following two years was normal to me – I knew I’d acted unwisely, but I didn’t attribute it to what had happened in Malta, my euphemism for the violation, the only way I ever refer to it. On my gap year, and in first year, I spent my time thinking that I was in control. I was a sexually voracious girl, I decided who I slept with, I was in control of my body. I was refusing to be thought of as a ‘victim’. There was something deeply shameful – not about being raped – but about letting myself be affected by it. I was Strong. I was Resilient. I would not let him take more of myself from me than he already had.

Some of what I’ve just written will seem bizarre. This is not the reaction to rape that we all expect and understand. When we read true life stories in Cosmo, or come across rape information sites online, we hear of rape victims retreating into themselves, withdrawing from their friends and family, becoming terrified of men, in some cases going practically mute. This is the familiar discourse on rape. Mine was rather different.

An article on grief I came across recently pointed out that “the brave thing to do is to let your feelings affect you. Because, in effectively saying, ‘I’ve been stripped by this’, you’re telling the truth.” So I’m going to tell the truth. In November 2006, I was violently raped by the reception clerk of the hotel my mother and I were staying in. It devastated me. It made me feel powerless, and it made me afraid of men. I pretended it didn’t – I purposefully and idiotically strode down dark alleyways at night, and I slept my way around the world, even though it physically hurt every time. I was as outspoken as ever, and I drank like a fish. I cheated on my beloved boyfriend in spectacular fashion, and it took me two years to tell him why it had happened.

In all this, I felt utterly alone. I am a 21st century girl, and when I was dealing with this, my source of information was the Internet. It is appalling what is not online. The familiar discourse of withdrawing, of shying away from life – that was alien to me. The narrow way in which we expect women to deal with sexual abuse stifles further those who have had different experiences. Rape is not an act of sexual satisfaction; it is an act of violence and power. It is an attempt to subordinate women, to terrify them into silence. When we as a society then tell them how they must react – or worse, when we treat rape as a taboo topic that should be kept quiet – we silence them further.

I talked to my friends and my family about whether I should put my name at the top of this piece. I decided anonymity was not the way to go: I, and people who have been through similar experiences, have nothing to be ashamed of. Whilst I am far from proud of everything I have done, I am proud of how I have dealt with this: I sometimes still have physical pain when I have sex, but I am capable of having loving sex with someone I care about; I am capable of talking about my experiences, of acknowledging how they affected me. It is true that I am a victim of rape – but that does not define me. Now, I still don’t talk about it much – not because I am ashamed, but because it is not the sum total of who I am. It will always be with me, but then so will a lot of things. I am a rape victim, a dancer, an avid reader, an editor. I am many things, and that one dark cloud dominates me no more than any other.

Those people who suffer something as humiliating and painful as rape – and those who have gone through other traumas like physical abuse or even the death of a loved one – deserve the respect of being able to talk about their experiences without being shunned or subdued. Women who have been sexually abused are remarkable: yes, they are victims of rape. But far more importantly, they are survivors.

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