What happened in the last episode of “Girls” was not “uncomfortable sex”

Trigger Warning and Spoiler Alert. 

..it’s rape. The most recent episode of Girls was slightly spoiled for me as I had glanced at Amanda Hess’s piece on it before I watched it, but I stopped myself from reading the whole thing. Still, I found myself watching with clenched teeth, waiting for the inevitable and uncomfortable, triggering and uncensored moment when I would be watching rape on screen. And then it happened. After they had sex once, the second time Adam raped his new girlfriend Natalia.

I was shocked, but not shocked, to return to Amanda and find that some have argued this scene was a moment of “uncomfortable sex.”

In their Slate review of the episode, David Haglund describes the scene as “exceedingly uncomfortable sex.” It leaves Natalia “feeling debased, even borderline assaulted,” Jeffrey Bloomer writes. That phrasing is indicative of the way we talk about sexual abuse and domestic violence in this century. There is rape—a crime reported to the authorities, investigated by the police, and prosecuted in the courts. And then there is everything else that is not consensual, but not easily prosecutable, either: “gray rape,” “bad sex,” “they were both drunk,” the “feeling” of being “borderline assaulted.” It’s what happens when a person you want to have sex with “has sex with you” in a way that you do not want them to. And though we have a new, problematic vocabulary for these incidents now, they’re nothing new; this episode recalled Season 3 of Mad Men, when Pete Campbell pressured his neighbor’s German au pair into his apartment and sparked a debate as to whether or not he raped her.

As a viewer, it is indeed uncomfortable to watch, even frightening because of the build-up (when he follows her while she is crawling, it actually feels like a horror flick). While it is staged as slightly unclear as to whether what was happening was consensual, the apparent ambiguity only speaks to a collective difficulty in naming rape. There is no question left in the viewer’s mind that Natalie didn’t want to have sex like that. She says “no” multiple times and at the end she says, “That was not OK” and “I really didn’t like that.” And Adam seems confused afterwards as well saying, “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” 

Adam is a very creepy character, but he’s always engendered some amount of sympathy. I’m not sure why they took the character in this direction, because it puts the nail in the coffin of “deeply troubled” as opposed to “tortured artist.” And looking back, many of the scenes with Adam are terrifying–he stalks Hannah for a while (she even calls the police but pretends she didn’t) and he’s impetuous in a way that makes his presence on-screen uncomfortable. And while his character gets a lot of depth and compassion–from being in AA to that intense conversation he has with Ray on their way to Staten Island–Adam is a strain to watch and try to understand.

It’s not surprising, however, that they chose to push the story in this direction. Girls from the jump has been about showcasing the “in-between” uncomfortableness and ugly realness of sexual interactions. I’d like to think this could be an opportunity to talk about rape and its normalcy and push us, as Amanda writes, to “raise our standards of what is acceptable sexual behavior.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in, and there is a good chance that the majority of the viewing public will see this scene and be horrified but without the vocabulary to express or understand what happened. Since, ultimately, for it to really be rape, she would have had to reject the assault more seriously in the moment and she would have had to call the police. Otherwise, people have the audacity to suggest it was just weird, awkward or uncomfortable.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/usernamex/ Lee Ford

    Adam didn’t seem confused at all to me afterwards. He was saying what he needed to say in order to have plausible deniability. It sounded rehearsed, like that’s not the first time he’s used that line.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mitholas/ bart

    I completely agree what happened in that scene was shocking, raw and unacceptable. But i would not call it rape. It started out super uncomfortable with the crawling, and I’m convinced the entire sequence was designed to make the viewer question what on earth Adam’s deal is and why he is being a complete creep, but the sex itself was definitely consensual. Up until that point, it could have just been another scene where Adam does something that’s sexually strange, but that you might go along with as a viewer because that’s how the character was introduced to us.
    The cumshot is definitely the creepiest part of this entire ordeal, and I hate Adam for it, I felt so incredibly bad for Natalie. I can’t even express how much I respect Shiri Appleby for going through a scene like that and really bringing across that feeling of violation, that shock. Very brave.
    I would definitely, beyond any doubt, call it a violation, but it’s not rape. Every rape is a violation, but not every violation is a rape. It wasn’t the penetration that was without consent, it was the cumshot. It still makes Adam completely and utterly in the wrong, he is in no way in a grey area. I’m absolutely with you guys on that. I just object to calling it a rape. The part where Natalie says no is clearly just about the cumshot. What she is referring to when she says ‘I really didn’t like that’ was, I think, definitely that same last part. The beginning part of it is uncomfortable, but Adam explicitly tells her what he is going to do (when he throws her on the bed), to which she clearly says ‘okay’.

    I’m absolutely interested in hearing counter arguments, so if you think I’m wrong, please feel free to respond and discuss!

    • http://feministing.com/members/mitholas/ Mith

      (I keep getting her name wrong. It’s Natalia*.)

    • http://feministing.com/members/alwaysalready/ Suzy

      I know that the conventional definition of rape is limited to penetration, but I don’t see why any sexual act against someone’s will should not be considered rape.

      • drahill

        It’s not the “conventional” definition, it’s the legal one too. Rape is a complex term because at the end of the day, it is most, above everything else, a crime. And a crime has statutory components that must be met to meet the burden of reasonable doubt. Rape is defined legally as a sexual assault that includes some variety of penetration – largely because society has decided that such a violation is of the most severe nature and deserving of the highest penalty. Non-penetrative assault is legally sexual assault and generally carries a lesser potential sentence because the violation is deemed to be less.

        The problem here is that any attempts to define any encounter as rape will run into the legal definition. I watched this episode and knew instantly that legally, this would never fly. No prosecutor would take it. That is the inherent issue with trying to define experiences – it works for personal feelings and recovery, but most people use the legal definition.

        • http://feministing.com/members/emyliebobemylie/ emylie bemylie

          Actually, although that may be the statute in NY state (I don’t know), it is not correct for other jurisdictions.

          In Illinois, the word rape has no legal meaning. The legal terms are Sexual Assault and Aggravated Sexual Assault for penetrative attacks and Sexual Abuse and Aggravated Sexual Abuse for non-penetrative attacks.


      • http://feministing.com/members/voodoolady/ Emily

        On one hand, I think I see your point. I think it needs to be explained that nonconsensual sex (however sex is defined) isn’t just “bad,” but there’s a word for it and that word is rape. Applying this label to things will and teaching people this is rape, hopefully, make people change their behavior. (Like how the one ad campaign directed toward men telling them, for example, that just because she’s too drunk to say no doesn’t mean it’s ok actually did help bring down the number of rapes in that area.)

        But on the other hand, I’d have a hard time calling something like a groping a rape. I think a line has to be drawn somewhere, and I don’t know where you plan on drawing it.

        Just because something isn’t a rape doesn’t it mean that it wasn’t a horrible violation. Comparing it to other crimes, not every time someone is killed is it a murder. “Murder” is reserved for the worst of the ways. I know it doesn’t make a difference to the victim–the victim is still dead. But I think it makes a difference to society.

        • http://feministing.com/members/mitholas/ Mith

          Drahill’s comment is basically my response to this. I must admit I’m also a law student, so the legal approach is more natural to me. That’s partly why I was so careful to stress that what happened in the scene was beyond any doubt a violation, because it definitely isn’t legally rape.

    • http://feministing.com/members/starzki6/ ellestar

      This was my take on it, too. Well, mostly.

      While she was extremely uncomfortable with the crawling and the penetration, she did go along with it and all of the dirty talk that Adam was asking for. From what I saw, she didn’t exactly object to the cum shot, but she was specific about him not doing it on her dress.

      However, when she said that she said she didn’t like that at all, it seemed to me that she meant the entire encounter. Not the crawling, not the rough sex with the dirty talk, and not the cum shot. She clearly felt violated and it was absolutely on Adam to have been sure it was what she wanted throughout the encounter. She was game for silly role playing, not the obviously dark scenario that Adam had in mind.

      Knowing Adam’s character, I wonder if he would have stopped if she had said no. Had he been sober, I think he would have. But he wasn’t.

      In my viewing, Natalia didn’t object vocally to the encounter until he was about to come on her dress. But her face and body language spoke volumes. That Adam didn’t take those cues and really, it seemed to me, force himself not to see them (turning her around, making her talk dirty) makes this incredibly problematic. I still hesitate to call it rape in the sense that it would be something that could be reported to police and prosecuted. Like you, though, I have no problem calling it a major violation. Adam can have his sweet and vulnerable moments, but he is not a good guy.

      • http://feministing.com/members/mitholas/ Mith

        Yes, exactly. If this happened to me, i’d feel humiliated and violated, and i’d lose a lot of, if not all, trust in the other person, but it doesn’t feel like something you would go to the police for. Which probably goes back to why I wouldn’t call it rape.

        I kind of hate this entire thing. I felt so much sympathy for Adam, even in his weirdness. Now I feel like I could live with never seeing him on the show again.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ameelz/ Amelia Harnish

    holy fuck. I’m actually shocked with myself because I didn’t even recognize this scene as rape at first, and I’m a rape survivor. I totally felt like ew gross, and that Adam had ruined the relationship. But nope, didn’t want to call it rape. I’ve been trying to write this comment for a while, writing and deleting, because I really can’t figure out what to make of that. But I’m going to try…

    I think the reason I didn’t register it as rape is because if it were me (as in me now, post-rape, a wildly different person than me circa previous to my rape and recovery), I never ever ever ever ever would have allowed Adam to order me to the floor. That shit would have stopped there. And if it didn’t, then I would have removed myself from the situation or perhaps he would have become very obviously violent and I would have reported it as soon as I could. (I realize comparing “what I would do” to someone else’s situation is a slippery slope to blameville, but I’m just trying to work out how I interpreted it and why so I can correct it.) So when she didn’t stop it there and when she got on all fours, I felt like okay maybe she’s interested in exploring this with him? And I also think I didn’t want to register it as rape because, although this situation was WILDLY different from my assault, it wasn’t so different from sexual (nonsexual?) encounters I’ve had in my past. Where it was just like what Amanda described: “It’s what happens when a person you want to have sex with “has sex with you” in a way that you do not want them to.” And honestly, that’s hard to stomach. It’s hard to think hey, that thing (or in my case, those things) that happened to you? You didn’t have to put up with that. That was actually really disempowering and fucked up. That’s not how sex is supposed to be. I know those things were wrong now, but still, it remains incredibly hard for me to weight those things the same as what I recognized as rape in the moment. Which makes me feel… conflicted, to say the least.

    The experience of my rape has lead me to explore those other instances and really set boundaries for myself and feel perfectly okay with enforcing them. I am not saying my rape was ultimately good, I’m just saying it opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t see before. I reblogged something on Tumblr recently about female socialization and it’s relationship to rape, and it said basically that if our culture teaches women “it is not okay to set solid and distinct boundaries and reinforce them immediately and dramatically when crossed (“mean bitch”)” then we can’t be surprised when they act like that during completed or attempted rapes. And THAT’S what is so disturbing about this I think. Natalia is okay with setting boundaries in a “nice” context, you know, when Adam was still being nice to her, but she was clearly uncomfortable with enforcing them “immediately and dramatically” when he stopped being nice. And that strips her of agency that would be really, really helpful in this situation. If not for actually preventing the act, at least for pushing it into “recognizable” rape territory. That doesn’t make what Adam did okay, nor does it make it Natalia’s fault. And I’m not suggesting we go back to the days when to prove rape in court you had to prove forceful resistance. But like Samhita said, it’d be nice if this could be an opportunity to “raise the standard” for what’s acceptable, but that’s really not the world we live in. I think another useful thing we could do to prevent these things, along with continuing to call out rape when we see it, is to call attention to how the “mean bitch” stigma works against women too. It’s a less-talked about aspect of rape culture. And I think what this shows, at least to me, is that we’re not doing enough to teach girls/young women being a “mean bitch” is perfectly, perfectly acceptable when something is happening that you don’t like.

  • http://feministing.com/members/garland/ playstation

    more evidence that i will never understand the appeal of this show

    • http://feministing.com/members/starzki6/ ellestar

      As someone who likes this show (it’s not my favorite and I will state that I realize that there are a number of issues with it), I’m wondering if you are passing judgment on those of us who do understand its appeal.

      The scenario in question was undoubtedly meant to be seen as negative. The character of Adam has been revealed slowly to the viewer, and this is another troubling aspect of his character.

      Some people like to see complex relationships and characters unfold on the screen, even when (often, especially when) horrible things occur. I’m wondering how the show, its writers and producers, will treat what happened to these characters. Based on what I know about the show, I don’t think that they’ll shy away from the traumatizing nature of the violation that occurred. I could be wrong, and how they handle it in the future will definitely color how I view any more shows (if I continue watching).

      That’s the appeal for me. This awful thing happened to characters I find interesting. What will happen next? What is the fallout?

    • http://feministing.com/members/mitholas/ Mith

      That’s kind of a pointless statement. You do realize that the debate we are having right now is probably exactly what Lena Dunham was trying to achieve? There are so many factors in place that influence that scene, it seems to me that it’s all intentional, so that that scene takes on a much bigger context and becomes way more complex. Dismissing fiction because it portrays something you don’t like that happens is kind of like ignoring that Africa is a continent because there’s a lot of injustice there.

  • indigestation

    I know that trigger warnings have been discussed here before. I just wanted to state that a trigger warning/spoiler alert right next to each other is particularly dismissive. Warning what is written below may flood you with traumatic reenactment of the worst moments of your life but equally as important it might spoil your show. Get rid of the trigger warning and just appropriately title the post. Keep the spoiler alert. I know there are dissenting opinions on this but really? Putting it in the same line just seems wrong.

  • http://feministing.com/members/freckledpapaya/ Maya

    This article totally hits the nail on the head about what this was – it was rape, but our understanding of what rape is is so broken right now that we don’t really have the words to express it accurately, which basically explains everyone’s different perspectives in the comments here.

    I think the way they did this with Adams character is kind of perfect though. The combination of his sympathetic and creepy nature I personally think reveals the reality of the “tortured artist” being “deeply troubled.” He’s darkand messed up and he’s got his own stuff going on but he’s also a bit of a stalker and crosses the line multiple times. This is one of those times. And it reveals and explains the way people like Natalia come to see Adam. It shows the way she gets pushed into the assault, and the way he manipulates her afterwards in a way that I fully believe was unintentional – that does make it any less true. I’m curious about how they’ll handle it in the next episode, but I’m confident it will be the same kind of blatant reality the show always depicts.

  • http://feministing.com/members/quayr/ Quay Rice

    I have two questions:

    1. I think we would all agree that Natalia was consenting to have sex with Adam. The question is “What KIND of sex was she consenting to?” And, if she wasn’t okay with exactly what happened, does that qualify as nonconsensual sex? If so, should we place it in the same category as rape?

    2. Most people writing about this scene have stressed the “gray area” here between full consent and total lack of consent. Sexual partners, especially new ones, often fail to communicate their needs and boundaries completely (though every effort should be made to do so). Natalia may not have liked how it was happening, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t okay with letting Adam do it.

    Am I being an asshole? I’m trying to be circumspect about this, but I can’t tell.

    • http://feministing.com/members/conanthebarbarian/ conan the barbarian

      1. To answer your first question, the kind of sex Natalia was consenting to was the kind of sex she and Adam had earlier in the episode. As to whether or not their 2nd time was nonconsensual sex…by admitting “she wasn’t okay with exactly what happened” (and in my opinion, she wasn’t okay with any of what happened), you’ve basically answered your own question. It was nonconsensual. Just because she did not stop him does not mean she wanted to keep going. Even though she says “Okay” when Adam commands her to get down on all fours, once they’re on the bed, she clearly wants to stop. I believe that constitutes a change of mind.

      2. Natalia was not okay with what Adam was doing. Her facial expressions, her body language, and her comments afterwards all added up to the fact that this act was not something she wanted. I think that there are degrees of not liking what’s going on while you’re having sex. There’s annoyance, mild discomfort, and at the most extreme end, fear. This situation constituted rape, but like previous commenters have said, it would be hard to prove it legally.

      Your questions here bring up a frustration I have with discussions about rape. I believe that whenever a person feels forced to commit sexual acts, whether through fear, coercion, or other violent means, it is rape. Natalia was raped. She was coerced into a sexual act that she tried to stop, yet didn’t. Did she initially say yes? Yes. Did she realize what was going on, and try to stop it? Yes. She revoked permission, yet Adam persisted.

      Natalia was very clear about her needs when she and Adam had sex for the first time. I even remember her asking Adam if it was what he wanted. Adam did not do her the same courtesy.

      I don’t think you’re being an asshole by asking these questions. You’ve brought up some thoughts that are probably on a lot of viewers’ minds. I responded here in order to clarify the fact that I don’t think any part of this scene was consensual.

      • http://feministing.com/members/starzki6/ ellestar

        First, let me correct you on one point. She never said that anything “was not okay.” I rewatched the scene last night (it’s amazing but the whole thing was like 30 seconds long; it had such an impact that it seemed much longer). She specifically said afterwards, “I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that at all.” Whether or not she felt it was “okay” is not something she communicated, but I do agree that her facial expressions and body language spoke volumes.

        Also, it seemed to me that she really seemed to change her mind about what was going on when Adam started going down on her. She makes a negative noise of discomfort, then says, “I haven’t showered today.” This is absolutely when Adam should have stopped. She was trying to communicate that she didn’t want him to continue at all, but couched her terms in a way that Adam could deliberately ignore, stating he didn’t care if she had showered or not.

        She was trying to stop the situation in a way that would seem caring of Adam, trying to get him to stop for himself, not for her. Women are conditioned in our society to do things like this, put others’ feelings above our own. I think that she didn’t want to seem like a bitch, or she didn’t want to seem not sexually adventurous so she communicated that she wanted to stop for HIS sake. Adam was, I believe, deliberately obtuse in ignoring this situation. He’s a sensitive guy and I do think that he knew she was signalling that she wanted him to stop, or at least he would have known if he had been more sober or not so intent on his own fantasy of humiliation right at that moment.

        I completely understand how people are calling this rape. It is in that one person in this scenario didn’t take the cues from his partner that they wanted to stop and a feeling of violation occurred. But the spoken communication was not there, so like Mith above, I can’t state that this would fit a legal definition. At least not until we can hold society and those in it responsible for women feeling like they can’t or shouldn’t say no in a clear voice whenever they’re starting to feel uncomfortable with sex.

        • honeybee

          That’s tough b/c alot of people can protest out of shyness or fear that maybe he’d think she smells or whatever. It’s pretty common to put up some protest like that at first, out of just shyness. I assume that’s how he felt as well. Certainly I’ve been in her shoes and that was all it was for me.

      • honeybee

        I didn’t see it that way at all. Perhaps she had some body language but if you weren’t watching closely it would be easy for Adam to miss. But I didn’t really see her object or get upset at all until the very end, when it was basically too late.

        I think alot of people can relate to what happened and are thus making the encounter into one that maybe they had themself. But if you look at it objectively, I don’t see how you can say he KNOWINGLY did something against her will, and intent is everything in these situations.

  • honeybee

    I saw this episode last night and if not for this post not only would I have not thought it was rape but I never would have thought anyone else would think it was either.

    What I saw was her consent to the sex itself – she just didn’t really want him to cum on her dress. But even then she wasn’t very clear on this until after he already did it. I think part of the problem is they are so different sexually – I don’t think they are compatible. Adam is very spontaneous and almost beast-like. She is very reserved about sex. I don’t think such a combo works because you end up with “uncomfortable” situations like this.

    I do hope Adam learns from this and doesn’t do it to her again though. She’s now made it very clear she doesn’t like it like that so there is no excuse to do something like this again. But I don’t see how what happened here is rape. Certainly not something you could prosecute, not even as sexual assault.