Bad Sex (and what to do instead)
Aaron J. Yarmel
Part 1: A Story
Kristen Roupenian’s short story, Cat Person, begins with 20-year-old college student Margot meeting 34-year-old Robert in a movie theater where she works at the concession stand. After a several-week-long roller coaster of awkward flirtations, frenzied text messages, a winter break for Margot from school, and the slow development of a mutually-felt infatuation, they go on a date to a movie about the Holocaust: a strange choice, according to Margot (and common sense).
During their date, Margot feels the genuine excitement of a crush for Robert and is willing to give him multiple chances to redeem himself despite the fact that he continually treats her poorly. Although he criticizes what she is wearing, makes fun of her living quarters, and is cold to her in the ride to the movie theater and throughout the movie, she agrees to join him for a drink after the movie. She does so “not so much because she wanted to continue spending time with him as because she’d had such high expectations for him over break, and it didn’t seem fair that things had fallen apart so quickly.”
Little by little, Roupenian reveals that Robert’s poor treatment of Margot is largely a result of his insecurity. Robert demonstrates his anxiety about the age difference between them when he explains that, throughout the course of their texting, he has become increasingly worried that Margot will lose interest in him and fall in love with someone else closer to her own age. He also teases her about the fact that she, a college student, lives in a college dormitory.
Roupenian also reveals that Margot lacks the skills to communicate her feelings to Robert and that Robert lacks the skills to help her do so. She is unable to express that she feels increasingly uncomfortable on the ride to the movie theater. Despite her suspicion that, due to her age, she will not be allowed into the bar where they stop for drinks after the movie, she keeps this to herself until she is denied entry. And when Robert reveals himself to be a jarringly bad kisser, she does not even consider telling him how she would prefer to be kissed.
After the pair drink a few beers at a second bar — one that does not check her ID — Margot suggests that they drive to Robert’s house. She eventually finds herself watching him gracelessly disrobe from her vantage point on his mattress. She realizes two things. The first is that she is not interested in having sex with him. The second is that, although she is not afraid that he will assault her, she does not have the tools to stop the chain of events that are leading towards sex:
Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.
At one point, Margot becomes aroused when she fantasizes about Robert’s feelings of arousal for her. This brief pleasure is interrupted by a painful sensation that causes her to flinch. After some discussion, Robert apologizes and tells her that they can slow their pace. Margot does not believe him, but, as before, she lacks the resources to communicate her feelings:
Yeah, right, she thought, and then he was on top of her again, kissing her and weighing her down, and she knew that her last chance of enjoying this encounter had disappeared, but that she would carry through with it until it was over.
Margot tolerates Robert as he aggressively and deliberately moves her body through a series of sexual positions.
Part 2: Tools for Negotiating Sex
While Cat Person is not a story about sex — it is more accurately described as a story about the ways that women are negatively affected by a constant deluge of insecure men — we can have an important conversation about the sexual encounter that takes place between Margot and Robert.
The least interesting thing to say about the sex in Cat Person is that it was a consensual exchange between two adults: to focus on that would be to completely miss what has gone wrong. As Dr. Rebecca Kukla, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, puts it in her forthcoming article That’s What She Said: The Language of Sexual Negotiations (Click For Link), “Consent, including totally valid consent, is never going to be sufficient to make sex go well — we can consent to all sorts of lousy sex, including demeaning, boring, alienated, unpleasantly painful or otherwise harmful sex” (3). Since consent is insufficient to diagnose what has gone wrong in Cat Person, we need new tools to help us move forward. Fortunately, Kukla is able to offer us such tools.
According to Kukla, sex is usually initiated through invitations. Invitations are different from demands and requests because they are not pressing. But like requests, invitations express that the inviter hopes that the invitation will be accepted. What this means is that there are at least two ways that one can fail to make an invitation. If I express a demand (e.g., you must have dinner with me), then I have failed to make an invitation. And if I am indifferent (e.g., you can come to my house for dinner if you wish, but I really don’t care either way), then I have also failed to express an invitation (13). Real invitations look something like this: “I would be honored if you would join me for dinner”, “would you like to join me for dinner?”, or “dinner tonight?”
Often one’s inflection, body language, and relationship to the invitee can make the difference between an invitation and a non-invitation. For example, “I would be honored if you would… join me for dinner” could come across as a demand if announced in a menacing and deliberate tone of voice by someone known to have mafia connections. On the other hand, “you must have dinner with me,” can, if expressed by a friend in a jocular manner, come across as merely inviting rather than demanding.
Many sexual invitations are unethical. Specifically, it is unethical to invite someone to have sex with you when it is difficult for them to decline the invitation. For this reason, it is wrong for professors to extend sexual invitations to their students, for CEOs to extend sexual invitations to low-paid employees, for directors to extend sexual invitations to actors desperate for roles, or for orchestral conductors to extend sexual invitations to untenured members of their orchestras. It is wrong to make such invitations even if the invitees can turn them down or would accept them (13–14).
In addition to invitations, sex is also commonly initiated through gift offerings, where the purpose of the gifts is to please the recipient rather than the giver (19). Such gift offerings can include offers to peg one’s partner, to indulge in role-playing with one’s partner, or to to have sex with one’s partner before they leave on a trip. In all of these cases, Kukla notes that “[t]here is nothing inherently problematic about offering to have sex out of generosity rather than direct desire. Not all sex or all parts of sex have to be enthusiastically desired by all parties in order to be ethical and worthwhile” (15–16).
Nevertheless, not everything that looks like a sexual gift is a sexual gift. For example, if I feel compelled to offer a gift to someone, then I haven’t truly offered them a gift. In addition, if someone demands or requests that I offer them a gift, then what I am doing is responding to a demand or request rather than giving a gift (17). Like sexual invitations, sexual gift offers can be unethical. In general, it is unethical to offer a sexual gift that we should not expect to be welcomed by the recipient: “dick pics are typically not appropriate gifts, for instance” (19).
After sex is initiated, participants need tools that can help them exit it when they prefer to do so. One such tool is the use of safe words. When partners in a sexual exchange use safe words, they are able to stop or modify a scene or activity quickly and without the need to offer an explanation or accusation (20). In addition, safe words can help people explore their sexual agency. Pleasurable activities that would normally be too risky to participate in can be made safer through the use of tools for efficiently modifying or concluding the activities (22).
While the ability to agree to or decline sexual invitations may be sufficient to avoid unethical sex, it is insufficient for excellent sex. As Kukla puts it, the pursuit of excellence in sex requires “the ability to engage in clear, pragmatically complex, fine-grained sexual negotiations — negotiations that go well beyond consenting to and refusing requests for sex” (32). We ought to move beyond the mere avoidance of wrongful sex and towards the fostering of excellent sex. Specifically, we should foster the ideal of sexual agency, which is, “the ability to control one’s sexual narrative, explore one’s sexual desires, and enjoy sexual pleasure” (31).
Our conception of our sexual desires needn’t be complete and our desires needn’t be unchanging, but we will have a difficult time advocating for their satisfaction if we do not know anything about what they are. For this reason, self-knowledge is an important part of the pursuit of sexual agency.
Part 3: Examining Cat Person
We are now in a position to figure out what has gone wrong in the sex in Cat Person. From Robert’s perspective, no unethical sexual invitation has been made. Nevertheless, a sexual invitation was extended to someone who did not have the resources to say ‘no.’ Regardless of whether we condemn him — whether we think he is guilty of an offense for which it would be appropriate to use the social institution of condemnation — we should judge that, due to Margot’s limited repertoire of responses, his invitation was a bad invitation.
When Margot resolves to tolerate Robert, we find that something else, in addition to a bad invitation, is taking place: she is offering him something like a sexual gift, but it is not actually a gift. Recall that Robert responds to her visible discomfort by telling her that they can slow their pace and then doing anything but that. At this point in the story, it seems plausible that Margot feels compelled to offer him a gift. While she is free to offer sexual gifts to a wide variety of individuals — including to Robert — gifts are no longer gifts when the giver feels compelled to give and does not know how to say ‘no.’
Another relevant factor is the age gap between Robert and Margot. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a 20-year-old woman having sex with a 34-year-old man, and there surely are cases where healthy sexual relationships exist between individuals with this age difference. However, the correlates of age are important parts of the context in which sexual invitations and gifts are made and offered. With age comes experience, maturity, and the confidence necessary to advocate for one’s sexual desires. It is plausible that someone closer to Robert’s age would have felt more comfortable stopping the chain of events leading to sex.
Throughout their sexual encounter, Margot does not enjoy anything like full and healthy sexual agency. When I make this claim, I am not claiming that anything nonconsensual has taken place: it bears repeating that consent is not the issue in the case at hand. Instead, my claim is that Margot is not controlling her own sexual narrative, exploring her sexual desires, or enjoying sexual pleasure.
Another claim I am not making is that it is intrinsically wrong that Margot’s moments of pleasure are connected to Robert’s pursuit of his own agency (i.e., she is aroused by his sexual desire for her). If she wishes to be wanted by him, or even dominated by him, we should not criticize her for pursuing sexual encounters characterized by those desires. Instead of criticizing the sexual encounter’s character per se, we should criticize the fact that she did not play a role in determining its character: her intentions did not play a causal role in determining how the sex would occur or when it would cease. She simply resolved to tolerate Robert until he had accomplished his limited sexual goals.
Cat Person would undoubtedly be an entirely different story if both characters were fully sexually agential and fully respectful of each other’s sexual agency. In such a story, Robert would not have received a sexual gift from an uninterested Margot, but hopefully things would not even have escalated to that point. Much earlier in the encounter, Margot would have declined or re-negotiated Robert’s invitation in accordance with her preferences. Perhaps the following exchange would have taken place while Robert was taking off his clothes:
Robert: Everything okay?
Margot: Yeah, it’s just, I’m not really feeling it right now.
Robert: Okay Margot.
Margot: Are you okay?
Robert: Yeah, I mean, I was kind of hoping — but it’s fine. We shouldn’t go farther unless we’re both into it. And I appreciate that you’re being honest.
Margot: Thank you.
In addition to declining sex, a fully sexually agential Margot could have worked with Robert in the pursuit of her pleasure. In Cat Person, it is revealed on two occasions that Margot is highly aroused by fantasizing about Robert’s desire for her. It is possible to take Roupenian’s descriptions of Margot’s inner thoughts and, with minor modifications, insert them into a dialogue. Suppose that the following exchange had taken place soon after Margot arrived at Robert’s house:
Margot: So one thing I kind of like is if you… if you talk about how much you want me.
Robert: yes, you’ve got a really nice —
Margot: — no hold on.
Margot: Like, if you talk about how I’m only 20 and my skin is flawless. I don’t know; is that something you’d be into?
Robert: Yeah, ok: I like that too.
Margot: And maybe how you want me more than anyone else?
Robert: Margot, I want you more than anyone else in the whole world.
My hope is that we can learn lessons from this discussion that are relevant to the ways we have and discuss sex: the legalistic criteria for consent are insufficient to ensure either the prevention of bad sex or the pursuit of good sex. For this reason, checking the right boxes associated with consent is not enough to satisfy our obligations, and is sometimes a distraction from the important work we have to do.
Our society, the internet, and even our most mainstream media, constantly perpetuate the idea that men do not need to worry about what our needs and boundaries are. They just need technical consent, however that consent is acquired.
CONSENT SHOULDN’T BE THE GOLD STANDARD. That should be the basic foundation. Built upon that foundation should be fun, mutual passion, equal arousal, interest and enthusiasm. And it is any man or woman’s right at ANY time to stop, for whatever reason.
Any satisfactory account of the ethics of sex will condemn sex that fails to conform to the kind of technical consent that Jamil is writing about. But, as she notes, we can, and should, do much better than merely that. To avoid wrongful sex, we must keep in mind that solely focusing on consent blinds us to our obligations to thoughtfully navigate the nuanced and often non-verbal world of sexual invitations and gift offerings. And in addition to avoiding wrongful sex, we should pursue excellent sex by fostering sexual agency in ourselves and recognizing such agency in others.
This post benefited greatly from a few individuals who offered insightful comments on earlier drafts. I’m grateful to Sindhoo Nackeeran, Eva Hamer, Gina Stuessy, Kelsey Low, Chris Kendig, Rebekah Klemm, Rebecca Kowalewsky, and Heather Yarmel for helping me see mistakes in, and limitations of, earlier versions of this piece. Any remaining errors are my own.