How Do You Define ‘Rape?’

adam natalia

This week’s episode of Girls began with two characters, Adam and his new girlfriend Natalia, about to have sex for the first time. Natalia tells him she’s ready to have sex, and, as he approaches her, says that, ““I’m on the pill, but will you come outside of me, just in case? I don’t like to be on top that much. Or soft touching, because it tickles me and takes me out of the moment. But everything else is OK.”

Whereupon, a friend of mine rolled their eyes and pointed out that this was incredibly unsexy, because you’re, “Just supposed to figure that stuff out.” And I agreed. It seemed like laying out exactly what you liked and didn’t like beforehand would ruin some of the fun exploration that can accompany having sex with someone for the first time. But then, I also admitted, it’s hard to “Just figure that stuff out.”

The scene ends with Adam saying that “I like how clear you are with me” and Natalia replying “What other way is there?”

Well, turns out there is another way, and it’s awful.

By the end of the episode, Adam drunkenly tells Natalia to crawl across his apartment to the bedroom – something she’s distinctly unenthusiastic about, pointing out that there are probably nails around. He then throws her on the bed and tells her he wants to fuck her from behind. She says numbly that she hasn’t showered that day. When he begins masturbating on her she mutters “not on the dress.” Afterwards, she murmurs “I really didn’t like that.”

It was one of the most uncomfortable sex scenes I’ve ever seen. There are a lot of women pointing out that it was hot and sexy, because they like that kind of sex, but the point of the scene was not, “Is domineering sex fun?” The point of the scene was that things happened in bed that left a girl very unhappy. You can argue that sort of sex is fun, easily, but you can’t argue that it was fun for this girl in this context. There is no doubt in any viewer’s mind about that.

Judging from the number of people wondering if Adam is a rapist, I was not alone in that sense.

However, Natalia doesn’t do a lot of the things we expect someone being raped to do. She doesn’t struggle, she doesn’t try to get away, she even goes along with it, saying “OK” numbly, and pulling down her top. She just looks intensely miserable as she does so. And, Adam doesn’t touch her softly, or come inside of her, or do any of the things she initially said she did not like doing. In spite of that, it turns out that everything else was not OK, or, really, even close to okay.

Natalia is pretty clearly not feeling OK during that scene. But, again, she does not say to stop. She is not completely clear on that. Some of our intense discomfort with that scene – and I don’t think anyone can watch it without finding it uncomfortable – may come down, again, to the fact that in sex you are “just supposed to figure that stuff out.” That is to say, the stuff that your partner is enjoying and the stuff they are not enjoying.

We feel that because we know that someone is supposed to be paying attention to you during the sex act. They may not be paying enough attention to figure out stuff it’s hard to figure out, like the fact that someone is not entirely enthusiastic about being on top. However, they should certainly be paying the bare minimum of attention that allows them to tell whether or not you are hating every minute of that act.. Having a partner who can tell whether or not you are hating something – when that is clear to everyone viewing the scene – seems reasonable. A failure to do that may not make you a rapist, but it certainly makes you a truly terrible sexual partner.

Adam may not be a rapist, but he sure is an asshole.

Picture via Girls/HBO

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    • jacaline

      all well and true, and while I am no fan of Adam, I don’t think he would have done that had he not been drinking (not that it’s an excuse) and I definitely believe he would have stopped had she said something. With that being said, I agree most people are “just trying to figure stuff out,” however, Natalia was not one of those people. She felt comfortable enough the first time to lay out exactly what she did and did not want, so I was surprised she even went along with crawling on the floor when she so obviously did not want to. Yeah, being oblivious makes you an asshole, but not saying anything or stopping (at least trying to, as I am in no way referring to rape) it from happening makes you an idiot.

      • becksss

        victim blaming at its finest…

        of course, we automatically place the onus on the female to do something about it. of course the male doesn’t have to look out for any signs that somthing might be up…

      • jacaline

        Exeeeeecept I just said that has nothing to do with what I am talking about. As I said, I am referring to some kind of relationship, where you’re assuming someone can just tell that you’re not enjoying it, which in theory should be enough, but why would you rely on that? I dunno about you (or I guess that I could probably assume) but I am sure as shit not going to sit there hoping he will realize I am uncomfortable with what is going on, nor am I going to walk on all fours when I don’t want to. In the context of a real, concrete rape, then no, obviously this is not the case. But in this scenario (AND THIS SPECIFIC ONE ALONE), I maintain that had she said something, it never would have happened.

      • CJ Baldwin

        Like Dave Chappelle said, “If I just started peeing on the front row, they wouldn’t sit there and ask ‘How do I feel about this?’, they would just move!”

        Same idea. Natalia simply has to say, “Hell no I’m not doing this”

        And no, I’m not inclined to say rape…more that Adam was a dick. Seems like she was tepid about sex back the no’s were because he was about to ejaculate on her chest/dress. Again, dick move to ignore that. But probably not rape.

      • Hibernia86

        Of course you automatically put the onus on the male where he has to look for “any signs that something might be up” and is put in jail if he guesses wrong. Yes, the guy should pay attention to the girl, but if she does nothing and afterwards says “oh, by the way, I didn’t want to do that” then he has committed no crime.

    • adamfox

      Fascinating discussion. I’ll have to admit I haven’t seen this episode but will watch it. I’d say that unhappiness as a measure of rape or not is an impossible parameter to apply as the argument for psychological unhappiness can be deeply debated whether a person is fully consenting, physically satisfied or married for 20 years and just plain bored.

      But you describe a mutual understanding between two partners about the nature of the exchange, almost a third party manifestation between them that is aware of all the factors, which is really intriguing. From the description, it sounds like it isn’t rape. That category of asshole is another one that stretches far into the distance and fits men, woman and every permutation of selfish bullshit.

    • Sarah Hollowell

      You’d be surprised how you feel in an actual rape situation. I had something that started out as consensual sex, but then he started doing things I didn’t want and not listening to me when I said I didn’t want it. I didn’t fight or scream because I was in shock. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me and I was terrified. I was scared to fight back because I was in his apartment, no one knew where I was, and I was scared he’d hurt me.

      I’ve heard similar things from a lot of girls. It’s not that easy to say no, scream, and fight back when you’re with someone that you know. And we blame ourselves quite enough without anyone else helping us.

      • shargarepa

        Yes, all of this. Thank you.

        I had a very similar experience, and it still haunts me. The assault itself was bad enough, but feeling confused and ashamed because I didn’t react in the way that some people thought I was supposed to just added to my misery. I’d say more, but I don’t want to trigger anyone. Suffice it to say, once I cut through the noise, I realized that my reaction made sense, and that we have a long way to go in educating people about abuse and rape.

    • Eileen

      I don’t think you have to fight back for it to be rape. I don’t think you even have to say “no” more than once. If a man is stronger than you and ignores your no, it’s entirely reasonable to make the judgement call that it’s better to be raped than smacked around (and then probably raped). But (and I didn’t see the episode because I am proudly not watching this show and I don’t get HBO) you shouldn’t say okay because the implication is that you’re okay with it.

      As has previously been said, though, he’s definitely being an asshole and his behavior is not acceptable.

    • JennyWren

      I don’t think we could describe this as rape in the legal sense. However, Adam’s attitude (I’m going to do what I want regardless of how you feel about it) seems scarily close to that of many rapists. If a guy doesn’t care enough to get enthusiastic consent and doesn’t care that you’re not enjoying whatever is happening, that would really send danger signals in my mind.

    • Les Legato

      a/ If this is the kind of garbage on HBO, I will never order it.

      b/ How about SERIOUSLY getting to know someone OUTSIDE the bedroom before you discuss who gets on top, etc.

      PS – I’ll tell you what rape is. It’s when my sister tells me she asked your stupid friend to stop, and he didn’t, and the next day she came crying to me because he promised to embarrass her if she pressed charges, so I broke both his arms and his legs and left him on your doorstep.

      • Idiot_a

        Well you sure showed him, Internet tough guy.


    • Andie

      This is exactly why I love Girls. I think Lena Dunham purposely made this scene ambiguous to get people talking about what rape is, and challenge our outdated ideas about it. Especially in light of all the political comments about “legitimate rape”. I personally think the scene was somewhere between bad sex and rape, though I wouldn’t call it rape. BUT that’s not the important part. The important part is that everybody is having this conversation in the first place!

    • KGJM

      Call me “old fashioned” – but “legitimate rape” is *knife to the throat dragged into an alley by a stranger* … forced sexual assault by a stranger.
      Going to Mike Tyson’s hotel room in the middle of the night, questionable decision making ~ did you think he wanted to play Scrabble® ..? But still, if you clearly say “No” = rape.

      Going to bed with someone in a consensual sexual way, and then NOT being able to say “NO” when he does something (i.e. anal sex) you don’t want – NOT RAPE.

    • Smartie

      I think we need to clarify that there’s a middle ground between bad sex and what a lot of people in the comments are calling rape: sexual assault. And it’s extremely hard to admit that your boyfriend doing something you don’t want done to you– especially when you say no– is sexual assault, but it is. This article glossed over it, but in the episode, when Adam tries to go down on Natalia, she says “No, look, I didn’t shower today,” and he says, “No, it’s okay”. That was painful to watch; I dated a guy who did almost the exact same thing to me. I didn’t feel like I just didn’t enjoy it afterwards; I felt fucking violated. I was pissed. If I said no, you don’t get to reverse it by saying “it’s okay” or “calm down” and continuing. Clearly, it’s NOT okay.
      Maybe Adam isn’t a rapist. But I would say he assaulted Natalia. Like I said, when it’s someone like a boyfriend with whom you’ve sweetly and consensually been intimate, it’s difficult to fight back. I just don’t understand why sometimes, in bed, “no”, “stop”, “wait”, “I’m not sure”, etc. don’t seem to mean anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s your boyfriend or a one-night stand; that shit isn’t okay, and we shouldn’t excuse any guy who pulls it.

    • jamiepeck

      Hey, so I just caught up on this episode. Adam was absolutely paying attention to her during this sex scene. He got off on the fact that she didn’t like it but that she was letting him do it anyway. He was trying to show her his darkness and his fucked up-ness head on and challenge her to run away from it. Then he even tried to guilt trip her into accepting his darkness. Not good.

    • realposter

      staying a virgin until marriage takes away all the questions.