Sexual Liberation =/= Doing Whatever You Want

Trigger warnings for rape. Sorry I keep writing about it, promise the next article will focus on something else.

I really like Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls. I know that that’s not always the most popular opinion, and I definitely know that there are some problems with it — not least of all the lack of diversity. Like, damn, Hannah, you don’t have even one single token black friend (which would not be good either, and certainly would not really be any more representative of the diversity of New York City in 2016 than the show currently is)? Why on earth do you like white people so much? We’re definitely not that great.

But leaving that aside for the moment, in general I enjoy the show. It shows a number of flawed young women, trying to make their way in the world but regularly fucking up, and definitely not always being the most likeable characters. It’s not a role we get to play all that often — while there are any number of annoying, problematic young male characters, women on television are usually supposed to be responsible, sweet, and to pick up their mess, rather than making more of their own.

There is also the unapologetic depiction of Hannah as a sexual being, and of her naked body in both sexual and non-sexual scenarios. While some people decry this as excessive, or narcissistic, it seems likely that these complaints are deeply rooted in the fact that we are not used to seeing women who are less “conventionally attractive” onscreen. Not that Lena Dunham is not an attractive woman, but we are more used to seeing the likes of Girls co-star Allison Williams undressed on our televisions. So it’s awesome to see Dunham displaying such confidence in her own body, and her own attractiveness. In general, it’s great to see her playing a young woman who is unashamedly sexual, who maybe doesn’t always do the right thing for herself, but who is not judged as having done the morally wrong thing for simply having sex. There are many other things which she definitely is wrong for having done, but that judgment is not sexist shaming. It’s just… She’s a great character, who is not always a good person. It’s wonderful.

But one scene in the most recent episode of the show (season 5, episode 8, ‘Homeward Bound’), made me more than a little uncomfortable.


In the beginning of the episode, Hannah and her boyfriend Fran are setting out on a summer-long vacation, in an RV. A few hours outside of New York City, Hannah asks to stop, and then breaks up with Fran, refusing to even get back into the vehicle. As a result, she ends up stranded in her pyjamas in the middle of nowhere. With few of her close friends available to give her a lift home, she ends up calling her ex-boss/close acquaintance Ray, who turns up in his new coffee van. Ray counsels her about her break-up, and is generally kind and helpful — for which Hannah decides to thank him with a blow-job. Which is where my problem comes in. (And not only because it’s while he’s driving, though good lord, that cannot be even slightly safe.)

In the scene, Hannah clearly thinks that she is doing a nice thing for Ray, that he will appreciate her efforts to get him off. But this is not at all reflected in the way Ray responds. He repeatedly asks her to stop, says that it would be bad for their friendship, and begs her to at least talk about what she is doing with him — to which she responds that she can’t, given that she has “a dick in [her] mouth.”

This wouldn’t be a comfortable scene to watch even if it was ever established that Hannah was doing the wrong thing, but it isn’t. Ray eventually gives in and lets her get on with it, which results in him crashing his new truck (see? SEE?!). For a writer and show which have always presented themselves as intending to take a feminist stance, this was a disappointing storyline.
Imagine if this exact scene had happened, but with their genders reversed. A scene in which a man almost forced oral sex onto a woman, despite her repeated protestations, would not be played for laughs, and would in fact be seen as a depiction of sexual assault. The fact that the scene from Girls is not treated this way can be traced down to one of the great myths of the patriarchy, from which stems a great number of aspects of rape culture, and also the shameful way in which male victims of rape and assault are treated.
Within a patriarchal rape culture, male perpetrators are almost constantly excused. We say that men can’t control their urges, that boys will be boys, that her short skirt or low-cut top was just too much for him, that men are basically mindless sex predators, unable to resist the slightest flash of bare skin. In general, this is more of a problem for women — victim-blaming in particular stems from this idea that the onus is on us to keep ourselves safe, in the face of the threat posed by sexually rabid men. But the harm done by this lie is not limited to any one gender.

The thing is, if we believe men are sex-obsessed, constantly horny fiends, then we must believe they always want to have sex — no matter the time, the place, the person, etc. And if men always want to have sex, then they cannot be assaulted. This is patently untrue — because men are people, with, like, feelings and rational judgment and also the capacity to sometimes want things other than sex — but it is a myth which permeates our culture, associating masculinity with hyper-sexuality, and very likely leading to many cases of sexual assault against men. After all, not only have women been indoctrinated into this belief, making it easier for female rapists to convince themselves that the man has given some kind of automatic consent/will enjoy the experience no matter what, but it must be harder for men to speak up when they have been taught that they should always want sex, that that is what it means to be a man, to perform masculinity correctly. But assault is just as traumatic for men as it is for women, and to pretend that it is not, that performing sexual acts on men without their permission or even in the face of their vocal resistance, is deeply, completely, wrong.

No matter the genders of the people involved, sex of any kind always, always requires vocal, enthusiastic consent. And this cannot be one-sided — as much as we focus on women participating in sexual encounters consensually, men must also express their agreement. To take their consent as implied can only lead to people being harmed. It’s better for everyone if we admit that men, as human beings, probably have more complicated thought processes than “MUST. FUCK. NOW.”

By Katie Doherty