A short story in The New Yorker went viral this weekend!
A short story! Fiction! Went viral! This is very new and exciting.
But equally exciting is the number of conversations this story has sparked, and the lessons women (and men) can learn from it.
In Cat Person, author Kristen Roupenian tells the story of 20-year-old Margot and 34-year-old Robert. (Spoilers ahead.) They meet briefly a few times, text back-and-forth a lot, and eventually go on a date.
The date goes weirdly; Margot thinks a lot about what Robert might be thinking, and their moods change throughout the evening. Finally, they go out, grab three beers, and decide to go back to Robert's place.
After they arrive, Margot decides she doesn't want to have sex with Robert, after all (he's older, he's fat, he's hairy, and he's a terrible kisser). But she feels like it would be easier to just have sex with him, anyway.
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.
This resonated with countless women across the internet, whether college students or high schoolers or online daters.
While I can't personally relate to the experience, I've heard the story from more friends and acquaintances than I'd like.
Which is tragic.
Fat activists on Twitter are mad that Margot was disgusted by Robert's size... but it really doesn't matter what he looked like. Unwanted sex with anyone would be disgusting.
So why do so many women do it?
Some do it out of fear, which clearly wasn't exactly the case here. (See also: Guns Don't Kill Women. Male Entitlement Kills Women.)
** EDIT: By this, I meant that fear wasn't the primary motivator in Margot's decision. There were definitely moments of fear in the story (which Liz mentions in her comment, below), and it turns out that, by the end, Margot was right to be afraid -- he did have hard feelings and he did want to hurt her (at least emotionally). That said, the reason I originally glossed over this point is because I didn't see the encounter as coercive or overtly threatening, and felt like some of the other points played a bigger role in this story. **
Some do it because they feel like, since the guy spent time or money on them, they "owe him." But, as I wrote in I'm Not "Using Feminine Wiles." I'm Just Worth Spending Time With:
Despite popular portrayals of men wanting sex more than anything else... they're actually human beings. Social creatures. Things like meaning, laughter and fun are important to them.
Even if Robert didn't get laid at the end of the night, he still got to spend his evening with a hot 20-year-old. He still got to hang out with another human being, in real life, instead of staying home with his cats. He still got to watch a "serious movie" and discuss it with someone who was serious about serious movies. He still got to spend a few hours laughing and making inside jokes with someone.
There is value in that. Whatever happened at the end of the night, both parties benefitted from spending time with the other. No one "owed" anyone anything.
Moreover, a recent, small study that found that men are more satisfied by "bromances" than romance. Given the number of women "Cat Person" resonated with, I would surmise that one reason men value their bromances so much could be because too many women see their value as primarily sexual.
Remember: whatever you feel like doing sexually, the date was not a waste of the guy's time. If the only reason he took you out was for sex, then it's his fault for not explicitly saying, "Hey, I'll buy you dinner if you have sex with me after."
I mean, you're not a miracle mindreader. If that's what he wanted, he should have said so.
Some women have unwanted sex because they're afraid of seeming "rude." Matt Lauer, perhaps presciently, said it best in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Gif ALL Women Need to See ASAP:
The post continues:
WE ROUTINELY OVERESTIMATE THE COST OF SAYING NO.
In no case ever is it "rude" not to want to have sex with -- or kiss, or hold hands with -- someone. In fact, if you're not enthusiastically gung-ho about it, it's pretty damn rude of him to be pushing forward with his advances.
He is the rude one. Not you.
A lot of Twitter users related to the experience of having bad sex with a guy who was quite enjoying himself -- but who, never once, could be bothered to check if the woman liked it.
Consent stuff aside, that is also rude.
It's like inviting a vegetarian to your sausage fest, and not providing a suitable alternative -- or even checking to see if there's anything you can do to make your guest's experience more enjoyable and less starving.
There's also nothing rude about being clear and explicit about your intentions.
"Let's get out of here and see what happens."
"Let's go back to your place -- but only for cuddles and kisses."
"Let's make out in your car for a bit, then you can drive me home!"
Which leads us to our next reason:
Some women do it because they have limited assertiveness, communication skills, or sexual agency. My philosophy about sexual stuff is that if you can't talk about it, you shouldn't be doing it.
If you're not comfortable asking someone if he's been tested for STDs recently, you're not ready to have sex with him.
If you can't ask him, "What would we do if I accidentally got pregnant?" you're not ready to have sex with him.
If you can't tell him, "I don't want to go down on you -- but you can definitely go down on me if you want!" then you're not ready to have sex with him.
And if you can't tell him, "That doesn't feel like anything -- try doing this," then you're not ready to have sex with him.
Whether or not you agree with me on that, I think we can all agree that grown-ass women should feel comfortable telling men what they want or expect sexually.
Which is why I was annoyed when Feministing published Here’s What I Would Have Said To You Last Night Had You Not Cum And Then Fallen Asleep. I was like, "You're a feminist publication! You shouldn't be teaching women helplessness and silence! You should be encouraging them to use their words and practice their assertiveness!"
So I wrote The Orgasm Gap is Real -- But Don't Blame It on the Patriachy.
Some may even do it because of "feminine passivity." In Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, Northwestern Professor Laura Kipnis discusses whether women are taught to be passive, or if they're innately passive. Either way, she argues, if we want to prevent sexual assault, gray rape, and unwanted sex, women should be taught assertiveness and self-defense.
Moreover, on the topic of sexual assault prevention, she writes:
There are deep ideological schisms among the experts. On the one side are the “harm reductionists,” who want to educate potential victims about how to decrease their chance of victimhood -- using a buddy system at parties, not falling asleep with male study partners, and so on…
There’s growing evidence that “risk-reduction” programs decrease the likelihood of being assaulted by as much as 50%, according to the New York Times. In American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, sociologist Lisa Wade cites research that yelling, punching, or fleeing reduces the likelihood of a completed rape by 81%. Kipnis notes, however, that “it’s also the case that women are least likely to fight off attackers whom they know [the majority of attackers], which complicates the picture.”
Nevertheless, it's clear that both prevention and reduction need to happen. Men need to be taught not to rape. Robert and men like him could use a lesson in affirmative and enthusiastic consent. But Margot could benefit from a little bit of "risk-reduction" or assertiveness training.
For example, as I wrote in Women: Instantly Make Your WHOLE LIFE Better By Learning This ONE Phrase,
Look them in the eye and say,
Just because a man put his hand on your leg, doesn't mean you have to leave it there. Just because he wants to have sex with you, doesn't mean you have to let him.
You are not a passive recipient of male action. You are the active, autonomous ruler of your own life.
Finally, maybe sex just isn't that meaningful to everyone.
I mean, let's face it. We live in a raunchified, pornified world. This contributes to feelings that sex is a meaningless, physical act. Even though, really, from a neurological perspective, there is no such thing as "no strings attached" sex. Sex produces neurochemicals that act directly on our brains and bodies.
And, whether you want to consider it from the Biblical or evolutionary perspective, it was designed to change us. After all, as I wrote in Can Antidepressants Accidentally Make You Lonely?
People who don't understand evolution think sex is the most important thing ever -- but without love, our species wouldn't exist. It doesn't matter how many women you can knock up if no one loves or cares for anyone and all the babies die. Read more >
Some advocates today think that pleasure should be part of the sex-ed curriculum -- but, as the man next to me on an airplane recently pointed out, "The church is already doing that."
Isn't that an interesting perspective?
And he's totally right. The church (most churches?) teach that sex is a special gift from God. It's something that is supposed to be special and meaningful.
Whatever your thoughts on that, I think it makes sense that if sex is meaningful to you, you'd probably have less unwanted sex than if it isn't. Right? Like, it's "easier" to "just have sex with someone" than it is to tell them no...
Unless sex is something that isn't easy for you to give?
It's a hypothesis. But I think it's one worth considering.
Especially since it's consistent with some of the research covered in Phil Zimbardo's Man Interrupted: Why Today's Young Men Are Suffering and What We Can Do About It:
And Peggy Orenstein's Girls and Sex: Navigating The Complicated New Landscape:
Which, coincidentally, inspired me to write my original song, "Eroticism is Dead." Almost everyone who has heard it hates it, because I think they get confused without the lyrics and citations. But it basically sums up how I feel about about some of the psychosexual aspects of "Cat Person."
(Please note, though: this is a super rough draft recording of the song. Enough so that I debated even posting it. But it gets the idea across, so why not?)
So. Long story short. If you don't want to be the girl from the short story, "Cat Person" (or the girl from "Eroticism is Dead"):
Because men can learn from "Cat Person." But so can women.
12/12/2017 07:40:58 am
I agree with much of this, but I disagree with "Some do it out of fear, which clearly wasn't exactly the case here." Fear was clearly a large factor at play in this story. See the exchange in the car about "I'm not going to kill you..." and the fear she feels immediately prior to that, see the panic Margot felt when her friend texted Robert about not seeing each other again, the part where "Margot announced that Robert was there, everyone erupted in astonishment, and then they surrounded her and hustled her out of the bar as if she were the President and they were the Secret Service. It was all so over-the-top that she wondered if she was acting like a mean girl, but, at the same time, she truly did feel sick and scared."
12/12/2017 11:47:26 am
Good point, Liz. I think what I meant to say is that fear wasn't the MAIN reason she went through with it. I also think I missed the truly did feel sick and scared" clause the first time around, because I was so focused on the "Mean Girl" part... but as we find out in the end, she was right to feel a little sick and scared. He WAS angry, and he DID want to hurt her.
12/12/2017 02:00:20 pm
Absolutely - I agree about the ending. Your posts on this subject are really valuable, though, especially how women don't "owe" men sex just because men have spent time with them/bought them a gift/paid for dinner/etc. It seems so obvious now after I read it on your blog (forgot which post exactly), but I have heard SO many stories from friends about feeling like they "couldn't" say no because he was "nice to them." In those situations that truly aren't fear-based, I would love to see women speak up the way you've described. Thanks for responding!
12/15/2017 03:12:58 am
I think that the reason that Margot feels that she has to have sex with Robert is because she was the one who initiated it and she has no way of backing out without hurting his feelings. After all, the reason she wants to stop is that she is realising how unattractive she finds him. There's no easy way to put a gloss on that. Plus she's already aware that he's sensitive even about perceived slights such as not texting him back quickly enough.
1/4/2018 10:27:22 pm
Hi Eva! I stumbled on your blog almost by accident as I’m actually currently on holiday in Bonaire and was looking around for Lionfish course reviews only to find a fellow traveller who’s most likely had to deal with people asking #wheresbonaire! Also having visited some amazing places, people get envious of my scuba stories of #rajaampat. Admittedly, I’m now a little bit in love with all of your travelling adventures and hobbies! I’m sure there are countless stories and endless places on your list.
1/14/2018 09:22:06 pm
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