“Forced Sex” has all but vanished from the menus of popular porn sites, yet the theme migrates steadily into America’s middle-brow venues. Even before #MeToo, narratives about men controlling women’s bodies were hot commodities on premium TV channels and in streaming video markets. Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), won eight Emmy Awards in September 2017 for its adaptation into a Hulu series. The Handmaid’s Tale is set “in a dystopian version of the United States run by religious fundamentalists, in which women are oppressed and treated as a subservient class.” (This premise is not too far-fetched: President Trump shamed the Senate this week for narrowly rejecting a bill that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks). Handmaids are young women who can still bear children; elite men use them for sexual reproduction, since their wives are either thought to be sterile or infected with sexually transmitted diseases. After she is captured, Atwood’s female protagonist is renamed as Offred, meaning “of Fred”—the literal property of Commander Fred Waterford. Fred’s wife, Serena Joy, pins Offred’s hands down on the bed the first time her husband rapes her.
13 Reasons Why, featured on Netflix, was dubbed “The Most Tweeted About Show of 2017.” Like Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale, 13 Reasons Why depicts a male-centered culture in which teenage men act as if teenage women’s bodies exist solely for their gratification. I binge-watched the series at first, but found it increasingly difficult to get through the myriad scenes of bullying, sexual harassment, stalking, and eventual rape that protagonist Hannah Baker both witnesses and endures. Even more depressing was the spirited young woman’s reaction to these frequent assaults against her body, privacy, and reputation. Hannah rarely fought back. Instead, she embraced the role of victim and suffered stoically until after her suicide—when a gay male friend of hers began to circulate thirteen prerecorded audiotapes in which Hannah identified and accused each of her tormentors.
Even when today’s narratives don’t include explicit accounts of rape, they feature, almost as a prerequisite, young women who recount feeling pressured to submit to men’s sexual whims. Recent examples include Babe.net’s viral report of an anonymous woman’s nightmarish date with actor/comedian Aziz Ansari, and Kristen Roupenian’s much-discussed short story, “Cat Person.” The latter narrative enacts what Laura Kipnis described on Facebook as “the way power dynamics can shift, and keep shifting.” Yet dominant readings of “Cat Person” suggest that what many women relate to is not the unstable balance of power between the main characters, but the twenty-year-old narrator’s ultimate act of submission—Margot’s inability to stop herself from having dreadfully bad sex with a thirty-four-year-old man.
Margot’s first date with Robert entails a movie and beers at a bar. After the beers, Margot feels aroused enough to initiate going home with him, though he claims she is drunk and offers to drive her back to her dorm. She declines and instigates making out in Robert’s car. At last, they both agree to go to his place, where the young woman abruptly loses interest as she watches Robert undress. Yet instead of simply announcing she wants to stop, or deploying Robert’s own earlier assessment that she is drunk, Margot silently rationalizes that backing out of sex at this late point will make her seem like an ungrateful diner, like a bad customer—like a bitch:
“Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.”
Roupenian tells a story of unwanted sex that is far more ambiguous, power-wise, than most testimonies shared in the context of #MeToo. Margot does not fear Robert’s coercion. Paradoxically, she fears her own agency—her power to say, “I’ve changed my mind.” She seems ashamed of those very qualities about herself that mainstream culture would code as masculine: her lack of “tact and gentleness,” her potential to bluntly shut Robert down. Instead of voicing her sudden lack of enthusiasm, Margot submits to Robert’s clumsy efforts at intercourse.
I do not mean to knock “Cat Person.” In fact, Roupenian’s story is a refreshing exception to today’s newly emerging—or perhaps rapidly changing—social norms concerning female sexuality. Margot clearly wants sex and even initiates it, only to realize that she doesn’t want sex with Robert. It is increasingly rare in today’s sociopolitical climate for women to admit that we have sexual desires of our own making (instead of just responding defensively to the unwanted advances of men). Rarer still is the narrator’s exploration of Margot’s conflicted inner life: her efforts to figure out her inchoate motives for hooking up with Robert; her reflections on her perverse inability to tell him she is no longer interested after they have sex.
Despite the fact that Margot willingly flirts, dates, drinks, and does all of the things young adults once felt free to do, the story’s conclusion sadly conforms to our culture’s retrograde conventions of female passivity. Robert contacts Margot after she severs their relationship with a hasty text sent by Tamara, her college roommate (Margot is too chicken to send the breakup message herself). We witness Margot’s debilitating silence as Robert shames her via a barrage of text messages aimed precisely at her sexual agency—her demonstrated eagerness to go home with him; her laughter when he asked if she was a virgin; his fear that she will have future sex with other men. Unable to get a response when he compliments Margot on looking “really pretty” at the college bar where he showed up uninvited to watch her, Robert shifts the tone of his messages. He asks if she is “fucking” the young man with whom he saw her. Frozen on her dorm bed, watching her phone light up with Tamara huddled beside her, Margot still does not respond. She could text, “Fuck u.” She could write, “Text me again and I’ll call the cops.” Instead, Margot seems too shocked move. Robert becomes even more hostile and repeatedly demands “Answer me” to his question about her fucking the guy from the bar. The story ends with his chilling, one-word insult: “Whore.”
Part of what this potent ending reveals is that men fear women’s sexual freedom. Indeed, part of our sociopolitical power is our freedom to pick and choose our own lovers, and to reject those who don’t meet our needs. This is not to limit women’s agency or agendas to the realm of sexuality. Rather, it is to acknowledge our sexual choices as one of the crucial things that put us on equal ground with men. Margot does not seem to understand her power—or perhaps feels undeserving of the power that men casually take for granted. When Robert initially replies compliantly to the breakup text sent by Tamara, Margot collapses in relief:
“She felt as though a leech, grown heavy and swollen with her blood, had at last popped off her skin, leaving a tender, bruised spot behind. But why should she feel that way? Perhaps she was being unfair to Robert, who really had done nothing wrong, except like her, and be bad in bed [. . .].”
Yes, Margot! Yes, alias Grace! A man’s being “bad in bed” is reason enough for you to never want to see him again! No self-doubt. No apology needed. If he didn’t ask what color of wine you like; if he didn’t wait for you to finish the wine; if he rushed to have sex when you wanted it slow; if he pushed his tongue down your throat; if he grabbed for your vagina with “the claw.” If, for any reason, your own needs were not satisfied, you are perfectly justified in showing the guy the door. Shaming rude and sexually incompetent men in public is debatable, but ridding one’s private life of lousy lovers is never wrong.
As #MeToo continues to expose and punish men who rape, harass, or engage in sexual misconduct, women must also contest the misconception that we don’t want sex, fear it, or get forced into it. It is important to keep sharing accounts of women’s abuse at the hands of a culture that typically protects abusers over victims. What’s equally vital, however, is that women find the courage to voice our experiences of craved, consensual sex and awesome, proficient lovers. This kind of sharing is increasingly difficult lately, because people ask “Why now?” I fear that audiences will quickly accuse women who write about sexual pleasure of being prurient, callous, insensitive to #MeToo, or disrespectful to survivors of sexual abuse. Being a victim of male desire is one of our culture’s stock roles for women. Being an agent of female desire usually means you’re a slut. Or a lesbian. Or an alien.
The harder part, though, is our culture’s growing disbelief that women—especially young women—have the ability to “consent” to sex involving any form of power imbalance, including age, race, professional status, cultural capital, financial assets, experience getting shit-faced drunk, and so forth. Women are infantilized, patronized, urged by our so-called male allies to volunteer our stories, but only if those stories feature forced sex, harassment, or misconduct on the part of “bad men.” If our stories reveal abuses perpetuated by “good guys” like Al Franken, we are quickly told to shut up—because everyone knows we are liars and alt-right operatives.
To conclude, we have come full circle in a sad sort of way. #MeToo has empowered women to tell stories of sexual abuse that were once considered too shameful or damaging for the public to know. Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Larry Nassar are case studies of what happens to respected demigods when women and girls are finally believed. Yet what’s in danger of being lost in this riveting historical transition is women’s sexual agency: our right to choose “inappropriate” partners; our right to consent without being challenged that we can’t consent (or couldn’t consent in the past) because we were—or still are—too young, too dumb, too naïve, too disenfranchised. Male-centered media wants women to believe that our stories of consent lack audiences. Perhaps this is meant to convince us that sex of our own volition is not smoking hot. It is! Perhaps it’s distasteful for “progressives” to read stories that destabilize their own efforts to protect vulnerable “kids.” Or perhaps patriarchy simply loves consuming stories of women’s forced sex? F that shit, I say. This is why women must fight for our rights to tell and sell—yes, profit from—stories revealing the complex, unpredictable, yet highly arousing ways that power dynamics can shift, and keep shifting. Otherwise, we’ll spend the rest of our lives watching the old boys networks get rich on handmaids’ tales.
 Thanks to Jeramy Zimmerman for making this distinction.