“Girls” and the Reality of Sexual Assault

By Kayla McCombs

I recently started watching the HBO series “Girls.” The decision to watch it stemmed from an odd mixture of my crush on Adam Driver and my irrepressible desire to have an opinion on everything and everyone, including the series’ creator Lena Dunham. As a person who cares deeply about social justice issues, I had “Girls” in the back of my mind for a while due to a lot of controversy over its lack of racial diversity and abrasively middle-class characters. That was my motivation to watch the show—I wanted to argue about it.

Photo by Rene Böhmer

While the aforementioned issues are undeniably important, I won’t be touching on them in this post. Instead, I want to delve into the topics of sexual assault and relationship abuse, two very real problems that are to this day clouded with controversy and misunderstanding. Sexual assault and abuse are often portrayed as being straightforward and easy to identify in film and television. While they both have distinct definitions—and it would be great if the world could be on the same page as to what constitutes either of them—the reality is that most cases come across as ambiguous and confusing. This, naturally, is a major source of pain for many victims who feel unsupported or discouraged from speaking out or asking for help.

It’s important to note that Dunham writes many of the characters from an autobiographical standpoint; her character, Hannah, suffers from OCD as Dunham also did growing up, and body image is brought up consistently throughout the show, as well. She has also spoken out about her experience  with sexual assault, and “Girls” touches on multiple aspects of sexual health and what it means to be in a safe relationship.

During one specific scene in the last episode of Season 2, the leading male character, Adam, has sex with his new girlfriend, Natalia, on two different occasions. The first time, she tells him very clearly what she likes and expects from sex; he responds with gratitude for her honesty, and they enjoy a romantic sexual experience. Later in the episode, Natalia takes Adam, a recovering alcoholic, to a party where he is shy, bristled, and uncomfortable. Against her concerns, he decides to get drunk in an attempt to relax and have a fun night with her.

Back at Adam’s apartment, however, he abruptly and coldly commands Natalia to get on her hands and knees and crawl across the floor to his bedroom. She does so reluctantly, expressing concern that there are nails all over the floor as she slowly moves around them. Adam then picks her up, carries her into the bedroom, and throws her roughly onto the bed. What follows is a short sex scene in which Natalia doesn’t resist Adam but is clearly ruffled and upset. After he finishes by coming on her chest and wiping her off with a shirt, she tells him, “I don’t think I liked that.” Although he apologizes and is both physically ill and emotionally shaken from his relapse, there is absolutely no doubt that what he did was non-consensual and borderline violent. He raped her.

I myself have been in a sexually abusive relationship in which I’ve witnessed that same lifeless, soulless glare from the eyes of a partner. Very little is more frightening than the moment where one stops feeling loved as a person and starts feeling stalked and attacked like prey.

After watching that episode and composing myself emotionally, I thought about way the scene was carried out. I appreciated that it was both dramatic and intensely real and familiar; it felt like something that can and does happen every day. What’s more is how the episode didn’t dwell on that scene, nor was it placed at the end as the cliffhanger finale to leave your jaw on the floor. It continued onward—Natalia and Adam had sex again and other subplots took shape, bringing the episode to a close on an unrelated note.

On the surface, this could seem as though the assault scene was being regarded as unimportant. However, the sequence of events and level of emphasis placed on that scene are painfully accurate and realistic for many victims of sexual assault and abuse. Victims, myself included, often take weeks, months, or even years to come to terms with what they have experienced. Even those who realize it immediately are generally confused, hurt, or emotionally manipulated to the point where they feel that seeking help would be futile. The sad reality is that in all of these situations, victims cannot put their lives on pause. Obligations still exist, friends and family still need them, and life continues regardless of their suffering.

It is also necessary to examine Adam in this case and how his character compares to many sexual assault perpetrators. The show does a fantastic job in general of jerking us back and forth between loving him, hating him, rooting for him, and pitying him; this character development is crucial to his role as the rapist. You, the viewer, are meant to question whether or not he would have committed something like that had he not relapsed. You are meant to think that certainly he must love Natalia in spite of his actions, and that it was all a mistake that he can surely fix. You are meant to feel sick looking at him but unable to completely detach yourself from him. And you are meant to pick apart the details of the scene in an attempt to figure out if what occurred was actually rape. 

This is how the writers of “Girls” were able to put viewers inside the mind of the victim.

When we talk about sexual assault and abuse, we need to establish definitions and laws for the sake of consistency, the protection of victims, and the prosecution of offenders. However, properly educating people on these issues absolutely must include the honest truth that sexual violence is rarely uncomplicated and without confusion. We must tell victims that the ambiguity and self-doubt that come from being abused is normal, and that they won’t be silenced just because a situation is difficult for them or someone else to understand.

By doing this, we move towards a future where victims feel that they will be listened to, supported, and fought for on every front.

Kayla McCombsThis story was originally published on Kayla’s personal blog.

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