Words by Mona Chatskin Art by Hannah Guyer
Bad sex. Most of us have had it, or heard about it from someone who has. But, what does ‘bad’ sex actually mean?
Is it your partner not lasting long enough? Is it not having an orgasm? Is it something much more serious, like sexual assault? Or, can it be something a bit more in the grey area?
In December last year, the internet was wrecked with controversy by a short story. ‘Cat Person,’ written by Kristen Roupenian, was published in The New Yorker and caused an outbreak across social media – particularly Twitter. The story took about half an hour for me to read, and although the ending wasn’t particularly heavy, I found myself stricken with a sadness I couldn’t quite place. It was a classic ‘boy meets girl’ tale that ends like all too many do. And yet, it was its ordinariness that made it have such resonance.
‘Cat Person’ tells the story of Margot, a 20-year-old college student who meets an older man, Robert, and chronicles their exchanges and dates. Neither character is particularly likeable. While Margot comes across as narcissistic, Robert is awkward and often imposes an uncomfortable air.
So, if ‘Cat Person’ really is mundane in its subject matter, why is there such wide public discourse about it? The story was so widely read that Roupenian even landed a seven-figure book deal shortly after the publication of the story. While women have said they identify with it, men have said the piece vilifies them. The public reaction is so strong that there is even a Twitter account dedicated to criticising and undermining the short story (in case you were wondering, it’s @MenCatPerson).
Yet what ‘Cat Person’ perfects so well is in its subtleties. It’s what is unsaid, but so blatantly clear to those who have shared similar experiences to the protagonist, Margot. The story is not one of sexual assault or sexual harassment. Roupenian does not suggest Robert pressured Margot into having sex, something that critics (mostly men) seem to misunderstand. In fact, readers feel pity for Robert, but that is not the underlying point of the piece.
What makes ‘Cat Person’ so relatable to women across the western world is succinctly captured in this paragraph: “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.”
The piece is not about consent – and while this is integral, both characters in the piece already gave that. Rather, it explores the unspoken issue of enthusiastic consent. The sheer fact that so many women could identify with the story that it went viral, suggests a larger societal issue. Women are still finding themselves feeling obliged to have sex. From both personal experience and stories from women around me, it’s obviously that this is a running trend. Guilt because “he paid for dinner,” or “It’s our third date,” or “I’ve already invited myself in even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to have sex, so I better just go through with it,” are continuous rationalisations for women as to why they need to have sex. Whether this issue is rooted in male feelings of entitlement, or deeper insecurities women have, it is time for sex to be ardently desired by both parties.
It seems baffling that following third-wave feminism, the #MeToo movement, and endless efforts across the world for gender equality – that women still feel some sort of unspoken pressure to sleep with the men they date.
The only way to revert this mindset is to reinforce to women that it is their body and their choice. They are not indebted to anyone, no matter how many free drinks they get bought or how many dates they go on with a person. This outlook should be taught to girls from a young age, and boys should similarly be taught to have zero expectations from the women they attempt to swoon.
Bad sex. Sex that isn’t forced, but sex that too many women feel obligated or indebted to have.
If you want to discuss any issues brought up in this article, click Respect. Now. Always.