In last night’s Girls, Adam has sex with his new girlfriend, Natalia, for the first time. Then, they have sex a second time. The first time looks fun, and the second does not. The gulf between those two encounters is Lena Dunham’s latest exploration of the uncomfortable in-betweens of modern sexual relationships: The distinction between rape and “bad sex,” the role of alcohol in sexual assault, and the limits of verbal communication in establishing consent.
Here’s how the first time goes down: Natalia (Shiri Appleby) invites Adam (Adam Driver) into her apartment and perches on her bed. “I’m ready to have sex now,” she tells him. “You’ve been really nice all week,” she explains. “We can do it, if you want.”
Adam agrees, and Natalia states her preferences. “I’m on the pill, but will you come outside of me, just in case?” she says. “I don’t like to be on top that much. Or soft touching, because it tickles me and takes me out of the moment. But everything else is OK.” She adds: “I just want to take things kind of slow.” Adam plays at aggression, grabbing Natalia’s set of perfectly fluffed pillows and throwing them to the floor. Natalia laughs. “I like how clear you are with me,” Adam tells her. Natalia responds: “What other way is there?”
By the end of the episode, Natalia has learned that there is another way of doing things. Natalia takes Adam to a friend’s engagement party, where her friends aren’t so sure he’s a nice guy. Ever the suffering artist, Adam bristles when the men in attendance attempt to chat him up about sports. The bride-to-be describes Adam’s face as that of “an old-timey criminal.” A recovering alcoholic, Adam falls off the wagon and orders a drink. They dance all night. Then, he whisks Natalia out of this mainstream celebration and into his darkened bachelor pad. She calls his apartment “depressing.” He tells her to “get on all fours” and crawl into his bedroom.
She consents, reluctantly. “This place is filled with nails and shit all over the floor,” she complains, crawling on her knees. “What is it you’re going for, exactly?”
Adam grabs her from the floor, throws her on the bed, and explains: “I want to fuck you from behind, hit the walls with you.” She consents, numbly. He removes her underwear and goes down on her. She does not consent. “No. Look, I didn’t take a shower today,” she says. “It’s fine, relax,” he tells her. He begins fucking her from behind. He asks her to confirm that she likes his apartment, that she likes the way he looks, and that she really likes him. She consents, limply. Then, he pulls out and masturbates over her. “No, no, no, no, not on my dress!” she says. She pulls off her top, grimaces, and looks away. He comes on her chest. “I don’t think I like that,” she says, when he’s done. “I, like, really didn’t like that.”
What happened here? On the one hand, Adam has fulfilled Natalia’s initial requests—he is on top, comes outside of her, no soft touching. On the other hand, he is no longer being “really nice” or taking things “kind of slow.” This time, no one is laughing. What was abundantly “clear” the first time is now muddied. The first time, Natalia communicates with Adam to do just what she wants; the second time, Adam wields her words against her to do what he knows she really doesn’t. So when Natalia says, “No, I didn’t take a shower,” Adam says, “Relax, it’s fine.” When she says, “No, not on my dress,” he comes on her chest instead. “Everything is OK,” except when it’s not.
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.
Reading just the dialogue of these two scenes, it’s easy to project that Adam was confused and that Natalia was unclear. But reading the context of the encounter, that interpretation is untenable. “No means no,” but it is not the only measure of consent. “Borderline assault” isn’t just something you feel after the fact. And though terms like “gray rape” help some people talk about assault outside of the context of the legal system, they shouldn’t be used to excuse the aggressor—they should help raise the standard of what we all consider acceptable sexual behavior, whether or not the cops are called. When you care even one bit about how your partner feels while you are actually having sex with them, it’s impossible to be so confused.