On “Girls” and the Line Between Awkward Sex and Rape

Adam and Natalia in GirlsI've never known quite what to make of the sex scenes in Girls. While I appreciate the show's desire to examine how flawed and awkward sex can often be, the fact that the characters so often seem unsatisfied with their sex makes it difficult to distinguish an off night from sex taking place without consent. More often than not, the scenes that are hardest to read are the ones involving Adam.

Nowhere was consent in the show more confusing that this week's episode, which made many people pause and say, "Wait. Was that rape?"

I know that Adam is supposed to be endearingly awkward, but I've always had difficulty liking him as a character. I know women who have dated men like him before, and I know the damage that men like him can cause. His blunt dialogue is often hilarious, but I find it hard to laugh at a character who has a history of substance abuse, stalking, emotional manipulation, and violence. He's too real to be taken lightly—his character makes many viewers profoundly upset. 

Two episodes ago, Adam started dating Natalia, the daughter of one of his AA peers. In the most recent episode, "On All Fours," Adam and Natalia had sex for the first time, in one of the sweetest and least awkward sex scenes in the entire series. The sweetness didn't last for long, though; by the end of the episode, Adam had fallen off the wagon and raped Natalia. (I won't recap the scene here, as it's already been covered extensively elsewhere. See the excellent analyses by Amanda Hess and Marianne Kirby for the necessary background information.)

But not all viewers are reading Adam and Natalia's interactions as rape. In the comment section of her Monday recap of "On All Fours," Bitch blogger Kerensa Cadenas wrote that she didn't interpret the scene as a rape, because "it reminded [her] of other uncomfortable sex on the show and also specifically many of the early Hannah/Adam sex scenes from the first season involving forceful and not entirely pleasurable sex." I completely agree with Kerensa on that point – the scene is very similar to other sex scenes throughout seasons one and two. And that's the problem: the sex on Girls is so uncomfortable so often that it's become difficult to decipher which acts are intended to be consensual and which aren't.

Earlier this week, the Huffington Post produced a supercut of "awkward sex scenes" from Girls' two seasons. Natalia's rape is among those included, furthering the conflation of normal, fumbling, imperfect sex and degradation, coercion, and rape. Watching that scene in the context of Girls' infamous sex scenes presents more questions than answers: In season one, did Hannah really like the aggressive and uncomfortable role-playing scenes she did with Adam, or was she doing it to please him? She wasn't always afraid to voice her anger when Adam crossed a line, like she did when he urinated on her in the shower, but just because she didn't specifically say no in other situations doesn't mean she was completely comfortable with them. If she truly did consent, did she consent enthusiastically? If she did consent enthusiastically, why haven't we seen her enacting such fantasies with other lovers? To what degree did Adam manipulate her during sex? To what degree are any of the characters enjoying the sex they have, as opposed to just going along with it? It's hard to tell, which is troubling; as Marianne Kirby puts it, "There is, in fact, a world of difference between not saying no and actively saying yes."

Perhaps, though, this scene may pave the way in distinguishing the truly consensual sex scenes in Girls from the potentially coerced. I'm glad that this scene exists, because, as Samhita writes at Feministing, "it puts the nail in the coffin [in depicting Adam as] 'deeply troubled' as opposed to 'tortured artist,'" making it more difficult for audiences to sympathize with him. The degree to which this transformation was intentional, though, is difficult to gauge.

What's most troubling about Natalia's rape is that it doesn't feel out of place among the rest of the sexual interactions on Girls, nor is it out-of-character for Adam. Indeed, it feels entirely too normal in the context of the show, to the point where I have to wonder if the writers even realized that a line was crossed. In response to viewers who felt that Adam didn't know what he had done, Amanda Hess writes that, "When you care even one bit about how your partner feels while you are actually having sex with them, it's impossible to be so confused." Hess is right on here—the rape scene shows that Adam was either bluffing about his confusion or was too out-of-touch with Natalia's desires to care, neither of which create a positive portrait of his character but both of which fit his established traits and history accurately.

Hopefully, this is an intentional move in Adam's development, rather than a continued muddling of awkwardness and malice.

Bitch Media publishes the award-winning quarterly magazine, Bitch:Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

27 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Spot on about Adam's

Spot on about Adam's character, although I found that the rape scene did stand out from the rest of the awkward sex scenes, because of the way we're built up to feel about Natalia's character and their relationship. We can already see that Adam is going to unhinge in the scenes where they are together, and as an audience we can't really find any fault with Natalia's character - she is presented as sweet, reasonable, social, understanding and communicative - somebody who would articulate what she wants and doesn't want. With the first sex scene between them the writers basically threw 'this is consensual sex' at us, with Natalia articulating what she needs, what she isn't comfortable with, and Adam responding positively. Because of this, I think the rape scene stands out from the 'awkward' sex scenes that have blurrier elements of consent, reluctance and non-consent.

"No" Means No

While I do agree that *some* of the sexual scenes in Girls are confusing and awkward, and it's hard to tell sometimes if anyone is actually enjoying them, I strongly disagree that the scene in question depicted a rape. The man she's seeing and has had sex with told her what he wanted her to do, she did it without any resistance except a wary look, and found out she didn't like it. Who, with any maturity of age, has not been there before (about 10 times)? What he violated was relationship code--you just don't try that ish on the second go around. It's way too early for dirty quickies--unless you met at a sex club (not that there's anything wrong with that) or you're on the second night of a pretty wild one-night stand (not that there's anything wrong with that either), you don't tell someone to get on all fours. Back to the awkwardness of the scene and many others in the series, I have to say that those scenes look very familiar to many of us. Awkward sex in your 20's may be more common than you think....

Agreed. The scene was

Agreed. The scene was awkward, but calling it rape is against the ideas of women's agency, power, and the right to make her own decisions. She went to his place on her own and she got on all fours without saying anything. Maybe she was experimenting, maybe she wanted to see where it goes, maybe she had a power play fantasy? Not every depiction of a woman on all fours is rape / anti feminist / sexist / misogynist. Calling it rape victimizes her and takes away her right to chose.

This is not to say that Adam is a functional and healthy individual, or that he wouldn't rape her had she said no - we don't know that.

Liz, you're spot on. I also

Liz, you're spot on. I also think this scene was a great way to show the differences between Hannah and Adam's new girlfriend. With Hannah, Adam's sexual behavior was tolerated as weird/inevitable/bad. It was consensual, but it wasn't fantastic. At times it was depressing. When Adam acts out with his new girlfriend and pulls the same shit, she tries it, and then lets him know that she didn't like it and won't be tolerating that. He knows he was weird and crossed a line with her. That's why he asks "Is that it? Are you done with me now?" after the bad sex. In previous episodes he said that Hannah was accepting of his brand of difficult. I think this was also Adam's way of dealing with his insecurities about this new relationship. His new girlfriend is obviously out of his league. She is very attractive and has her life put together (socially and professionally). This could be his way of sabotaging the whole thing before it starts. It will be interesting to see what her response is.

Liz, I'm curious to know how

Liz, I'm curious to know how you'd define "resistance." Natalia doesn't physically restrain Adam, but she does say "No" twice, and her bodily and facial cues indicate pretty strongly that she isn't into what's happening. I think it's a little different than experimenting with a new kink and realizing you don't like it -- she knew the whole time that she didn't like it and tried to stop it by saying "No," and had Adam been paying attention, he would have known this. So I'd argue that this does go well beyond awkward sex.

Are we watching the same show?

First off I completely agrees with Liz so I won't rehash what she wrote. Second, Carrie I'm not sure you watched the same scene I did. I just re-watched it and the only time she said no was in reference to Adam cumming on her dress. When he carries her to his bed he tells her what he is going to do, to which she says "Okay". He licks her from behind and she says "I haven't taken a shower". I'd also add that in the first sex scene between them she outlines what she doesn't like, cumming inside her being one of them, and "everything else is okay." At best this was a grudge fuck but not rape, and shows Adam's narcissism.

Anonymous, assuming we did

Anonymous, assuming we did watch the same scene, here's what I heard Natalia say after giving the scene a re-watch:

"Oh, I, uh...no, I...look, I didn't take a shower today."

I heard a no in there when I watched it, and even if I hadn't, she certainly does not sound enthusiastic about what's about to happen to her. And yes, while she does say "Okay" when he tells her what he wants to do, I read her vocal inflection as feeling nervous and uncomfortable rather than excited about exploring something new. (That's a subjective reading, certainly, but given the context and the scene as a whole, it's not baseless.)

As to "everything else is okay," I think it's important to point out that consent in one situation does not mean that consent in all situations with that same person is a given. Sex (and relationships in general) requires negotiation, not assumptions. So during that first sex scene, when it's clear that Natalia has given explicit consent, she really did mean "everything else is okay." But I don't think we can assume that that consent carries over to every subsequent sexual interaction she has with Adam.

She says, "No," to being licked.

Have you never been there before? If my boyfriend could be jailed for continuing to eat me out after I said, "No, I didn't take a shower today," he be a lifer. "Nervous and uncomfortable" does not equal being raped.

If you and your boyfriend

If you and your boyfriend have that understanding, that's great. When I ask my husband to stop doing something sexually, he always stops. That's our understanding.

Otherwise, I've already explained numerous times why I interpret this scene as a rape scene, so we'll have to just agree to disagree.

thanks for writing this.

thanks for writing this.

I'm a little disappointed

I'm a little disappointed that Bitch is showing the same lack of trust for Dunham and her writing as most other prominent observers are. Why does the line seem to be so blurred between reality and the fiction she is creating? Why do we have to like all of the characters for this to be a valuable contribution to pop culture? I'm really happy this very important episode was broadcast. And I agree Adam's character is quite ambiguous, and I think that's the point. I think Dunham's writing is a lot more sophisticated than people are willing to give a strong-minded and original 26-year-old woman credit for. I agree with the other post here, the way Natalia's character was portrayed, and the juxtaposition between the two bookended sex scenes with her and Adam is intended to show to the audience that the second sex scene was not consensual, though within the bounds of what, unfortunately, a lot of people consider not to be rape. For example, he technically complied with the boundaries she set at the beginning - he didn't touch her softly, and he finished outside of her. He deliberately misinterpreted what she asked and behaved in the way he knows she wouldn't want. I love Dunham for portraying this, and her other sex scenes with Adam. I think a lot of people (especially during their twenties) can relate to the period Hannah was in last season where they're negotiating what's comfortable, what they're being coerced into feeling should be comfortable, and what crosses the line. I think this might go a long way toward helping people understand what rape can look like.

This comment is spot on. I

This comment is spot on. I completely agree that the smart thing about the show is that it doesn't strive to make is like all the characters. I also like that the sex portrayed is so varied. It's not perfect or even pretty. And I agree about this being rape. And I love that it has started a huge dialogue about what rape is.

B, I never said that

B, I never said that characters have to be likable in order to be valuable contributions to pop culture. I don't think Adam is a funny or pleasant character, but that doesn't mean I think he needs to be written out. He does serve a specific purpose. I'm just saying that I hope the show understands the purpose he serves, rather than trying to turn him into a sympathetic character, after all he's done. (Lena Dunham is very smart, but that doesn't mean I know in which direction she wants to bring that character.)

Also, I'm not sure what you mean here:

I agree with the other post here, the way Natalia's character was portrayed, and the juxtaposition between the two bookended sex scenes with her and Adam is intended to show to the audience that the second sex scene was not consensual, though within the bounds of what, unfortunately, a lot of people consider not to be rape.

Are you saying that you think the scene is neither consensual nor rape, or are you saying that this is something that other people believe? While it's true that consensual non-consent is a thing, that only exists among partners who have clearly defined roles and boundaries and agreements and safe words, none of which we can assume Adam and Natalia have established. So if this isn't a case of consensual non-consent, it's either consent or non-consent, and since Natalia says "No" twice and is visibly upset by what's happening, I would argue that this is a case of non-consensual non-consent. And I think it's fair to call that rape.

It seemed in the article that

It seemed in the article that you were struggling to accept Adam's complexity as a character. That you find it hard to laugh at his lines because he has violent and emotionally abusive tendencies (I have to admit I kindly take issue with the inclusion of "substance abuse" here. Are recovering alcoholics doomed to severity for the rest of their lives?).

What I had meant by my thoughts on the scene was that Dunham created a scenario in which many people (far too many) would have claimed was not rape, because Natalia did not explicitly object at the beginning. I certainly consider this rape, and my point was that everything about it within the context of the show infers that Dunham does too.

It also seemed that you took issue with her portrayal of all sex in the show, that none of the characters seem to be enjoying themselves. I think it's incredibly refreshing - sex is often not the incredibly romantic, fulfilling and sexy fun times that are depicted in most shows out there geared toward young women. And that makes a lot of women feel bad about themselves and their inability to replicate those experiences in their own lives. Sometimes sex looks like what happens between Adam and Hannah, and women can be afraid to talk about that for fear of being abnormal. Hannah often complied with Adam's wishes and they probably weren't her piece of cake - but a LOT of women do that, as we're taught to put other people's needs before our own. I think Dunham has really changed the game in that regard, and opened up a truly important dialogue, and I think every second of it is intentional.

First, you're right that

First, you're right that including "substance abuse" was poor phrasing on my part. What I was trying to get at is that Adam's aggressiveness with Natalia seemed to be fueled by the alcohol he'd had that night, which was troubling to watch. But I'm not interested in shaming anyone for their histories with substances, so I apologize for phrasing it that way.

Anyways, I wouldn't say that I'm "struggling to accept Adam's complexity as a character." I absolutely accept his complexity -- it just doesn't come across to me as darkly humorous, even though I know that's how many others perceive him. As a character, he's very well developed. I just don't like him, and that's okay.

Thanks for clarifying what you meant. I'd hoped you were right about Dunham's take on the scene, but based on what she says in this interview, it doesn't sound like she does see the scene as a rape (relevant content starts around 2:30): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQsHUzocc-c

And as for the sex overall, I understand where you're coming from. You're right that sex can often be bad and flawed and awkward, and I agree that it's refreshing to see that reality represented. My problem is that that's the reality Dunham presents 95% of the time, and even if it's realistic, it's still extremely limited. Showing awkward sex can be revolutionary, but so can showing authentic female pleasure and sexual empowerment.

For instance, most of the women on Girls seem to be pretty submissive in bed. That's not a bad thing, and it's not necessarily unrealistic, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for women who are more dominant, or who enjoy directing men how to pleasure them. That's why I generally love Natalia -- she seems to be heading in that direction, and that may be part of the reason why seeing her be completely controlled by Adam was so disturbing. And she's only one character -- where are the others like her?

I'm not looking for a fantasy like the one presented in Sex and the City -- I'm just looking for something that shows a balance of good and not-so-good sex. To me, the sex on Girls doesn't show that balance.

More than just awkward sex

Dunham has shown a wider spectrum than just awkward sex. The episode with Patrick Wilson had all kinds of it, and in the scene where she takes control on the bed and demands pleasure, people used it as an example to claim she's self-involved and rude. She also takes a bit of a lead with the guy from her hometown, and he gets upset with her as well. She initiated the first kiss with Patrick Wilson, tried to have sex with her boss, and took the drug dealer downstairs to bed. Jessa seduces the guy in the bar and continues despite his disgust at her bleeding, and further on she initiates revenge sex with her ex. I think it is pretty diverse, but this gets back to my point in my earlier post - people in the media don't seem to want to giver her credit. They hang on to something she's done that is unusual, and are unwilling to trust her as writer or see the overall nuance.

And with respect to Adam and substance abuse - It sounded like you were saying you had a hard time laughing at his lines in general because of his history, not because of that particular scene, but maybe I misinterpreted.

I really don't think that she makes any kind of argument in the Youtube video that it wasn't rape. She seems to acknowledge there is a discussion about it, and she's allowing that discussion to take place. Artists often take that route with their work.

Girls

Just watched the episode again and it was definitely not rape and don't understand how that even was a thought. When they get to his apartment, she is looking around and he is describing going on an adventure and tells her she is welcome to join him. She ignores that and tells him that he needs help organizing, his place is depressing and that it is even darker than he is. His answer to that is to tell her to get on all fours and she does. Granted, it came out of nowhere and his tone was cold but if she had said no, don't think she would have been made to do that. What happens after that is strange and disturbing but it is not rape. When he takes off his shirt and wipes off some of his mess, she tells him she did not like that, he says he doesn't know where that came from and he feels dizzy. She looks at him like, yeah right and when he says, " are you done with me?" she is sitting there thinking. Next episode, she is very clear about what he cannot say to her and then tries to train him or teach him how to be more gentle and gets him to slow down. Kind of hard to do with all of her rules but she is trying. Saw what Lena Dunham said about the scene after that episode and she described it as Adam putting up walls when he feels vulnerable. She said on one hand someone like Natalia could get him to act more adult/human and on the other hand that is not good because he can't be who he is which might bring out his dark side.
Lena Dunham has created a great show and I would pick it over Sex and the City any day. Hannah is a real girl/woman who is not your standard size 2 like the women on Sex, etc. On this show they are finding out who they are and what the world is like. . The issues that have been raised are much deeper than anything I saw on the other one. Also, don't agree that the girls have been submissive. Hannah is usually the one who makes advances. Jessa is usually in control of what is going on. Remember her breaking it down to the guy she wound up marrying. Shoshanna is one of my favorites, she says what is on her mind and is not the submissive type. Marnie? I don't know. I'm as lost about her as she is.
Not sure how you saw a balance on that show, it was predictable. Did like the way they were there for each other but did not really relate to them. It was shoes, sex, simple and surly. Also, most of the sex was horrible when they were single. Samantha had the most fun but she had her share of not so great partners. I also like Adam, not sure if I should but like the way he sees Hannah as beautiful and like the way they don't judge each other. They both have a dark side so guess we will see where that goes . Do remember when he was going to blow his play off and she was able to get him to stay with it because she really did like what she saw. Remember thinking he was bipolar because he woke her up in the middle of the night to show her all of the signs saying Sorry he posted all over the side of a building. Either way it was definitely different and fun. Never saw Big or any of those guys be more than maybe 2 dimensional. It was also extremely annoying to watch Carrie waiting for the Big day for years and years and years.

It seemed in the article that

I agree with you about the substance abuse reference and have to wonder if anyone remembers Adam drinking that night (yes, his choice) after he saw Hannah and angel Natalia having no problem with that, despite the fact that she met Adam through her mother who is also an alcoholic. I also think referring to what happened between them that night as rape, is both insulting to women and victims of rape. Believe that if she had really been vocal and firm and told him to get the f off or stop he would have. I hated how he acted and found it disturbing when she crawled on all 4's but the whole time I was telling myself to shut up because I had no idea why either one of them was taking part in that.
Adam seems like he might be bipolar, not sure since i am not a psychiatrist. Remember last season when he woke Hannah up and took her outside to look at the Sorry signs he had posted all over the exterior of a building.?
Also remember when Hannah was taking money out of the top drawer of his dresser and quickly figured out it was hers for the taking if she went Dommatrix on him. Guess, I am trying to say they all have issues but being a rapist isn't one.

Everything she said no to, he

Everything she said no to, he stopped. Licking, screwing from behind and not ejaculating on her dress. Granted, it was not a good time but I don't remember that being the definition of rape. Either is being an asshole during sex. There are real and horrible incidents and this is not one of them. The last thing he did (pull out, jack off and aim) was passive aggressive but in no way was it rape. Would you really file charges on somebody for that? Especially, when the most powerful thing you said was, "Stop, I didn't take a shower today "or " No, not my dress!" When women have had enough they will let you know and if you force them (which he didn't) to continue against their will, that is rape. Natalia, was not struggling and she was not being forced. No one made her to the walk down the hall on all 4's. Seriously, for you all to insist it is rape is cruel and insensitive. Ask a survivor of rape, what rape is. The way you all are defining it is going to open the door to ridicule which will only hurt the people who really need help and support.

He deliberately handled her

He deliberately handled her in a way he knew she wouldn't be into. When you see sexual assault as the opposite of "enthusiastic consent"- which is what frontline rape crisis workers characterize non-rape as, you can see our point here.

By disputing people's claim that it was rape, you are diminishing the feelings of people who have felt violated with similar experiences.

Enthiastic consent is crucial - there are many reasons why a woman wouldnt say "No!", or why she wouldn't attempt to physically defend herself (fear, intoxication, power dynamics, manipulation and coercion). You mention cruel and insensitive - try telling a woman who had sex under those circumstances that she wasn't raped.

He deliberately handled her

Try telling a woman who has been raped that she had sex and was mishandled. You don't know what he knew or why he did it. You could say the same thing about her the next time, they have sex, does that make it rape? As far as diminishing feelings of people who have felt violated? I am more concerned with the feelings of people who have survived rape.

It doesn't matter why he did

It doesn't matter why he did it or what he was thinking. If a man doesn't know what genuine consent looks like, then that doesn't make anything he does consensual sex. There needs to be more education in schools on what rape is - ignorance is not an excuse.

Thanks

For the great posts regarding this episode. I'm surprised by my own reluctance in calling it a rape scene actually, and I agree with the comments regarding Dunhams writing. I think she done a great job in making me feel confused and rethink all my own standards and my own experiences.
I was surprised at the first sex scene though, that Natalia didn't want or suggest to use a condom. For me that doesn't fit the rest of her character and i keep wondering if that was intentional as well (though maybe not a topi for this specific post ,sorry).

I wondered the same.

There's been a definite lack of condoms in the sex scenes in general. They could actually offer some extra awkwardness to the scenes, so I'm surprised she hasn't incorporated them ;-)

Difficult to unravel.

Great article. The scene does sit apart. She hated it, she made it absolutely clear that she did not enjoy it. Adam seemed to instantly revert into the child-like guilty, victimy mode: "Is this it, are you done with me now..." suggesting he knew he'd crossed the line. But I think the writers spun an interesting web... in the first sex scene she tells Adam exactly what she wants... no tickling, no girl on top, cum outside of my body etc. "but everything else is fine". This foreshadowing makes the later scene really complicated.. because she leaves unsaid a lot of things she assumes he would ask her consent before doing. I think more than being about rape, its a scene about a lack of communication. I don't think he is just thinking of himself... because he makes sure he doesn't break any of the specific "clear" rules she lays down in the earlier scene. Rather, the cum on her chest is a sign that Adam will twist her rules (such as "don't cum inside me") to degrade her and undermine her attempts at controlling the sexual aspect of their relationship.

?

"...to degrade her and undermine her attempts at controlling the sexual aspect of their relationship." But he isn't just thinking of himself?

You know, I've been thinking

You know, I've been thinking about this episode, reading about it, twisting it around in my head. What I think is brilliant about this episode, and the sex scene itself, is that watching it was disturbing, unnerving, uncomfortable...I kept thinking, "Did we just watch Adam rape someone?" But then, all those little minutiae of, "Did she say no? Did she agree in the beginning? Is she just being GGG? Or was it rape?" And all those questions the commenters and you brought up here. And then I thought of how many times in my 20s, and even 30s, this scene played out in my life with partners--new ones, seasoned ones, where I was uncomfortable, weakly resisting, but not strongly saying no, but saying no (SO many times I have said no to oral sex, because I haven't showered and wasn't expecting it, but my partner assumed I was just being unnecessarily self-conscious), they proceeded. I wasn't necessarily traumatized, or angry, just in that post-coital place of, "I really didn't like that." Never once did I think that was rape when it was happening to me, but watching it happen to another girl from that distance was disturbing. It was very ambiguous. On purpose. It made me think very hard about why I was so complicit in sex that I clearly got nothing out of. It made me think about what I was willing to endure and why.