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On Girls, Adam, Rape, and Consent

Is Adam on Girls a rapist? I don't know. But does he care an appropriate amount about his partner's consent? Nope! No, he does not — and his disturbing encounter with Natalia on this week's episode is not the first time we've seen that in action. Remember that time he peed on Hannah?

I'm on record for actually kind of loving that scene, and I wasn't particularly horrified by it at the time. But since then, Adam's pattern of behavior has often been frightening and downright creepy, and "On All Fours" brought that to a, er, climax, and inspired many responses.

"Adam may not be a rapist, but he sure is an asshole," writes Jennifer Wright at the Gloss. "What happened in the last episode of Girls was not 'uncomfortable sex,'" writes Samhita Mukhopadhyay on Feministing. "Natalia’s humiliation and debasement are not sexy, but painful," says Jace Lacob at the Daily Beast. "'No means no,' but it is not the only measure of consent," says Amanda Hess at Slate. And over at xoJane, Marianne Kirby writes this:

Gray rape can be a problematic term — some people use it as a label for rape that they don't consider "real" or "as bad as real" rape. That is totally bogus. I use the term here to mean the kind of encounter that people sometimes have where consent is not given but it is assumed; it's a term used to describe "nonstandard" sexual assault and, in some ways, it is a weasel term to cover the conflict we feel about consent.

Because that is the kind of thing that happens all the time in our culture. Our rape culture. And it's the kind of thing that leaves women (not just women) uncomfortable and unsure, both about their own experiences and when they are watching something like the scene between Adam and Natalia.

And over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Phillip Maciak writes this

... Why does Adam revert here? Nostalgia for Hannah? A desire to ruin something good? A desire to show Natalia something? And what does it mean that this scene ends with a money shot, maybe the most graphically sexual image to appear on HBO, including Game of Thrones and Deadwood itself? Perhaps more so than Girls has done, the shot of Natalia on the bed, post-coitus is designed to reveal to us the shuddering disconnect between imagination and reality, between the image of this in Adam’s head and what it actually looks and feels like. To echo a refrain from Dear Television earlier this season, this is what it looks like for Adam to get what he wants.

(On a slightly related note, when did everyone stop wearing condoms? The Pill does not protect against STDs, folks.)

There's no one right way for Natalia to react — she might brush it off as a bad night, or she might be bothered by it for a while, or she might be haunted and traumatized by it for years. 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.

These ideas of manipulation and consent, of agency and victimization, are Girls' calling card. It's Hannah pitifully, tragically, agonizingly jamming Q-tips in her ears, or Shosh discovering that Ray has moved in with her without asking. Girls thrives in that scary area bounded by what we say we want, what we actually want, and what we want people to think we want. In lighthearted episodes, that triangulation leaves us wondering why Ray is so focused on certain cuts of jeans. In darker episodes, we're left to wonder if one of our favorite characters is actually a rapist.

Photo: Jessica Miglio/HBO