What can the self-proclaimed “Voice of our Generation” teach us about sex and consent?
My roommate and I watched parts of the first season of Girls with our mouths hanging open and our heads cocked to one side. Sometimes it seemed to cut into the deep truth of coming of age as a millennial in America, and sometimes it seemed to be no more than a collection of awkward sexual encounters (TBD if those two concepts are actually one in the same).
After Lena’s character had one particularly unromantic and not-very-respectful encounter with her on/off boyfriend Adam, my roommate, a virgin, sighed. “That must really be what sex is like,” she said.
“It’s not supposed to be,” I answered.
I worried that maybe Lena, though talented, wasn’t doing what she had set out to do; that perhaps the scenes weren’t written in a way where they actually provided a metacommentary on sex and consent. Instead, were they actually kind of normalizing the shitty, awkward sex and the compromises of agency so many of us made in our early twenties?
Skip forward a couple of years to the publication of Lena’s book, Not That Kind of Girl. I bought it on a whim, started it on my lunch break at work, and had finished it, wholly captivated, before I left the office for the day. I don’t know if it’s the change in medium or maturity gained in the past few years, but Lena has now managed to fully realize the concepts she was always trying to tackle. In her book, of course, she is able to address them directly, stating her lesson in no uncertain terms. Reflecting on some of the more degrading sex she had in her early twenties, she writes:
I thought that I was smart enough, practical enough, to separate what Joaquin said I was from what I knew I was. The way I saw it, I was fully capable of being treated with indifference that bordered on disdain while maintaining a strong sense of self-respect…
But that isn’t how it works. When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself. You are not made up of compartments! You are one whole person! What gets said to you gets said to all of you, ditto what gets done. Being treated like shit is not an amusing or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve. This is so simple. But I tried so hard to make it complicated.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing these things. I wish this book had been around to read when I was in my early twenties. I hope my roommate, who’s had more than her fair share of sketchy OKCupid encounters, reads it too.
Because this is information no one tells us. Women coming of age today are left on their own to sort out how to be free, sexual beings without compromising their own agency, and too often, especially for girls who, like me, spent their early twenties sleeping with mostly (older) dudes, those lessons only hit home after way too many iffy situations.
I’ve tried to write about sex, consent, power imbalances and agency, so many times, and I always come off as sounding old, prude, a little bit crazy. I almost don’t have the language for it. It’s like when I was younger I felt like certain things (mutual respect and equal power between two humans sleeping together) should just be a given, and when they weren’t, I didn’t even know how to wrap my brain around it, and I kept giving people the benefit of the doubt. Because I was lonely, because I wanted people to want me, because I thought the things that Lena lists up above.
So thank you, Lena Dunham. I’ll put you right up there with Ask Polly on the little shelf of idols I pray to when I am trying desperately to retain my self-respect. Your words are words I think every young woman needs to hear.