On HBO’s Girls and “Grey Rape”

The HBO television show Girls often receives mixed reviews. People either love it or hate it—and I’ve yet to make a decision.

I do think the show, which recently wrapped up its second season, has started some important discussions, but I often find myself wishing that its creators would take a firmer stance on the troubling issues they raise.

For instance, in the show’s March 10 episode, there was a scene involving sexual assault. If you saw the episode, you might be wondering, “What sexual assault?” And that’s exactly the problem: it wasn’t framed properly.

To recap, the characters Adam and Natalia recently started dating and have only had one sexual encounter. In that encounter, Natalia clearly tells Adam that she is “ready to have sex now” and asks him if he wants to as well.

From there, she outlines her boundaries, telling him exactly what she does and doesn’t like. He says that he likes how direct she is with him, and we see a near perfect and pretty adorable example of consent.

However, in the final scene of the same episode Adam brings Natalia to his apartment and soon thereafter demands that she get on all fours. Looking unsure of herself, she obeys. She is then ordered to crawl into his bedroom, where he throws her on the bed and performs oral sex on her from behind as she cringes and vocalizes her discomfort.

Adam then forcefully penetrates her and says, “You really like me?” before turning her around and ejaculating on her chest as she vocalizes, “No, not on my dress,” pulling her own dress down to reveal her breasts now covered in his cum. Natalia sits up looking violated and says, “I don’t think I liked that.”

It’s one of the most complex and realistic scenes of sexual assault I’ve seen aired on television. Remember, the majority of sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victim, and they’re often more subtle than the vision many people have of someone physically struggling and screaming.

I felt shock and shame during the scene. While these are very valuable and important things for a show to address and to make its audience feel, there definitely should’ve been a trigger warning.

The bigger problem for me came when I later looked up articles on the episode and found most people framing it as “a misunderstanding” or “bad sex,” making excuses for Adam’s behaviour and wondering why Natalia didn’t just say no—all while avoiding calling the act what it actually was: assault.

It’s worrisome that so many people don’t seem to recognize the difference between “bad sex” and sexual assault.

It was a while before I found someone—Marianne, a writer for xoJane.com —asking, “Why is the responsibility on her to say no instead of on the initiating partner to secure a yes?”

Consent is not a responsibility to say no, but a responsibility to obtain an uncoerced, sober, participatory and continual yes.

Some people call this situation “grey rape,” meaning it’s in the grey area of rape and thus hard to define and enforce. But the legal definition of consent couldn’t be clearer in expressing that silence doesn’t mean yes and that consent can be revoked at any time.

If you’re unsure if you have consent, directly ask your partner if they’re okay with what you’re doing, notice if they’re avoiding eye contact or seem uncomfortable. Everyone should learn to recognize the non-verbal cues of someone having a terrible time.

The following week’s episode of Girls failed to address the issue in a concrete way. Adam and Natalia have sex again, but on her terms. She identifies her boundaries, stops Adam when he goes too far and makes sure he understands her clearly—something he doesn’t seem to like very much.

Later, in the climax of the episode, Adam runs to Hannah’s rescue in a grand, loving gesture, helping the audience cast aside what he did last episode and rebuild a positive view of him. After all, he only sexually assaulted a disposable character we were never meant to feel for in the first place.

I’m disappointed with how the creators don’t seem to recognize the power they have to take a stand against sexual assault and help others learn to recognize it.

While I enjoyed the previous week’s Girls episode for its emotional complexity, these issues are why I’m not so sure I’ll come back to it next season, and why I hope those of you who do will think critically about the supposedly “empowering” show you’re watching.

Submit your questions anonymously at sex-pancakes.com. For sexual assault support and resources contact Concordia Counselling & Development at 514-848-2424 ext. 3545 or visit agressionssexuelles.gouv.qc.ca.

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