HBO’s Girls and the Definition of Rape

Daniella Lollie

At the end of the penultimate episode of season 2 of HBO’s Girls, Adam orders his new girlfriend, Natalia, to get on fours and crawl to the bedroom. Seemingly uncomfortable and confused, she listens, complaining as she crawls to the bed. Right when she asks him what he plans on doing he picks her up and forcefully throws her onto the bed in an all fours position. With Natalia looking as uncomfortable as ever as he takes off her underwear, puts his face up to her buttocks and starts to eat her out from behind. Natalia stammers while saying, “no, look I didn’t take a shower today so…” He then says, “It’s fine relax,” before forcefully penetrating her. After a few seconds he pulls out of her, and turns her over onto her back. He starts to jerk off above her while she protests, looking like shes about to cry. She says, “no no not on my dress.” He then cums on her chest while her facial expression displays nothing but disgust and discomfort. After he wipes the semen off of her chest with his shirt, she sits up and says, “I don’t think I liked that. I really didn’t like that.”

After finishing the episode I expected to go online and read recaps about Girl’s first ever rape scene. I expected to read IMDB  posts by people who were saddened that Adam Sackler is a rapist and who sympathized with Natalia and were enraged for her. What I did not expect was a heated debate about whether what Adam did was rape. That was exactly what I got.

When describing the scene Mary McNamara of the LA Times wrote, “I didn’t see it as rape so much as a very unfortunate encounter.”

In Entertainment Weekly’s recap Lindsey Bahr wrote that the scene almost made you wonder “whether it was supposed to feel like a situation that could very easily turn into a rape.”

Vulture’s Margaret Lyons wrote, “Is Adam on Girls a rapist? I don’t know. But does he care an appropriate amount about his partner’s consent? Nope!” Later in the article she goes on to say, “It doesn’t seem like a legally prosecutable instance of sexual assault. But it’s a far cry from a mutually consensual endeavor, and this episode asks us why we’re so, so careful not to call things rape, or why we think there’s an acceptable level of reluctance, coercion, or intimidation that can be part of a sexual encounter.”

Why indeed.

With few exceptions, I found writers for major publications admit Natalia was obviously uncomfortable and felt out of control, admit that Adam was acting against her wishes, admit that he was not at all concerned about her consent, admit that he was acting in an intimidating fashion, admit that Natalia was intimidated, admit that he was actively dehumanizing her and yet refuse to call the instance rape.

Frustrated beyond belief, I stupidly took to the IMDB message boards to see what people had to say about the situation and express my own views about the scene. At the mention of rape I was met with little support and a lot anger. How dare I call something that was obviously just “bad sex” rape? How dare I align Natalia with “actual rape victims”? “Natalia should have been more upfront about what she didn’t want.” “We each have a personal responsibility to tell our partners when we are uncomfortable, they aren’t mind readers after all.” “You’re too naive and innocent and must not have a lot of sex.” “When you’re in a relationship things “just happen and it kills the mood to ask if your partner is okay with every damn little thing.” “You must have been raped once to be so sensitive.” “He didn’t tie her down.” “He didn’t ‘force’ her.” “She didn’t scream out for help.” “She could have left.” And my personal favorite, “If that was rape then most women are rape victims.”

What’s so scary about the last example is that it is the closest to ringing true. What Adam did is normalized sexual behavior. Rape is so normalized that I would not be surprised to find that most women are victims of rape at least once throughout their lifetime if a definition that I deemed adequate were actually applied. I do not think this to be radical and far fetched. Not in a country where there are legal exemptions for marital rape in 30 states. Not in a country where college campuses treat rape like a joke. (I’m looking at you USC) Not in a country where the Department of Justice claims that 25% of women are raped while they attend four year colleges (and that is with the legal definition that currently stands). Not in a country where women are told our bodies are not ours from the moment we are born until the moment we die.

This random person’s words also helped me to realize something else. That the definition of the word rape is often applied based on what deviates the most from a norm as opposed to when someone is sexually dehumanized or assaulted. The word rape continues to evolve as women, and people in general, begin to gain more sexual agency. For instance, just last year the FBI changed the definition in part to take out the word “force” and replace it with “without consent.” This is an important distinction which allows the law to take into account the reality of more subtle intimidation, and puts more responsibility on a sexual aggressor by making consent mandatory. Because the word is still evolving legally and socially, it is a horrific mistake to define rape by what is prosecutable in the eyes of the law. As long as we do that, what happened to Natalia will continue to be acceptable, and the pain and humiliation that comes along with being violated in that fashion will continue to be accepted as a result of nothing but “bad” or perhaps “uncomfortable” sex. This is unacceptable.

Because Natalia’s rape did not look like what people have already decided rape constitutes, she was not “actually” raped, despite the fact that she was obviously uncomfortable, despite the fact that Adam obviously did not care about whether she was consenting and despite the fact that he used her body like a doll and did whatever he wanted without any acknowledgement of her personhood.

Luckily, there were people writing online that were willing to admit that what Adam did was perhaps “some kind of assault” or at least despicable behavior. Others claimed it was a sort of grey area. This is wrong. There is no grey area when it comes to rape. Rather if there is confusion about consent that is the first sign that rape has most definitely occurred. This debate has shown me that everyone needs to take a step back and ask themselves what rape is and why it is wrong, because anyone who has a comprehensive understanding of what it means to violate another human being could never watch this scene and still have trouble calling what Adam did to Natalia, rape.

As Rae Alexandra at the SF Weekly blog wrote, this scene depicted an incident that is “universal”, “unspoken” and “prevalent.” Expressing the same point Angi Becker Stevens of Ms. Magazine wrote, “As many women are painfully aware, these scenarios are all too common in real life. They are the kind of sexual encounters that leave us feeling violated and traumatized, yet uncertain whether we are entitled to apply the label ‘rape’ to what took place, and even less sure of how to articulate the awfulness of the experience if we feel the word rape does not apply.”

It is because of how common this type of experience is that I believe the word ‘rape’ must apply. Rape is the only word that alarms people so much that any act that can fall within it is deemed automatically unjustifiable. Rape is the only word which makes the public look down on a perpetrator with disgust and shame. Rape is the only word which when applied, changes an action from a silently accepted norm experienced by millions, to something that is unimaginable and horrifying in the eyes of our social consciousness.

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4 responses to “HBO’s Girls and the Definition of Rape

  1. I agree with most of what you wrote. The only thing I’d like to bring up, is what if the male is intoxicated and is not aware of how his actions are being perceived? Adam was clearly drunk, and Natalia should have realized this. Maybe he didn’t know the extent of which his intimidation was scaring her, until after they finished. To say there is no gray area is a little extreme, considering the effects of alcohol, the lack of communication, and the confusion of what is going on (sometimes as one is being assaulted, the realization of what is happening comes too late, which is why some girls don’t say no initially).

  2. Thank you for writing this. My friend and I had the same reaction when we saw this episode. We also felt really uncomfortable with the way that the next episode tries to use Natalia having sex with Adam again and taking control of that encounter as a way to gloss over what happened to her in this episode.

    • I never interpreted the next episode as trying to gloss over what Adam did, but rather could relate to Natalia’s actions as an attempt to cope with being raped by someone you’re dating yet not fully understanding it and/or wanting to stay in the relationship.

  3. Completely agree with you, I just watched the episode and was deeply disturbed, and just posted a piece about date rape on my blog. I think there are too many times where the meaning of the word ‘rape’ is not clearly understood, and while a lot of women have been in Natalia’s shoes, we are left confused and unsure whether it’s even called rape. If This episode of Girls was indeed an eye-opening one for me. Great post btw!

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