Image Source // Die Welt
I first learnt of this short story from my best friend when we had sat down to have a meal after a very distressing exam. “Do you know about this story, that’s gone viral?” asked she. When I replied in the negative she proceeded to narrate the entire story for me. By the end of it, we both were fuming at the obvious fetishizing of the very young Margot by the very old Robert. But it wasn’t until I actually read the story myself that so many other things popped up.
The story encompasses various things: the role of technology in current romantic relationships; the idea of the ‘self’ differs in the way it reflects through the medium of technology and sans-technology; older men preying on young girls; desire; and rape culture. One of the reasons this short story has gone viral is because it resonates with women who have had romantic/sexual relations with men. They have been coerced and cajoled into engaging in sexual acts by men they had trusted.
This image of the self that technology creates, is a fantasy which proceeds from our own imagination devoid of any specific truth. It would be unfair to say it is completely fictitious, for it may contain general truths but it does not contain the real person, their true personality. It is in parts composed of what we are shown and what we want to see, and it together become a thing we yearn for and aspire towards, but it is just a thing, dead and dangerous. Dangerous because even in its death, in its state of non-being, we grant it such power, with our imagination that we deem it real, deem it important, and deem it legitimate.
Margot, we see, has imagined things about Robert, has assumed things about him but she doesn’t know him, not really. And the very danger of not knowing, of the unknown leads to panic in several parts of the story. For he could be a murder, a rapist! She realizes. A fear that even Robert is not oblivious to. One the drive to the theatre, “it occurred to her that he could take her someplace and rape and murder her; she hardly knew anything about him, after all.” Robert seems to have sensed this discomfort and fear for he says, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to murder you.”
In an article titled ‘Women are having sex out of politeness and that’s got to stop’, recounting her own personal experiences, Rebecca Reid recalls asking the question, ‘Have you ever had sex, just to be polite?’”, and says, “Yes, came the answer. Yes, yes, yes.”
And it begs the question: did Margot have sex with Robert out of politeness? The answer: Yes. But why? Why do women feel this need to be “polite” when it comes to sex? Why did Margot? Margot is twenty years old, a fact Robert knew, and we see throughout the story Margot is trying to placate Robert, to soothe his sensitive Male Ego, while he derives the utmost pleasure in belittling her, picking her for liking her “indie movies”, about not “dress[ing] up” for him. She guesses at Robert’s vulnerabilities and tries to appease them to the best of her abilities, all the while her vulnerabilities are being exploited.
Her age, her confidence that she “knew something that he didn’t” despite the fact that he was older contributed to a estimation of herself in a powerful position, for we see her time and again trying to keep the ball in her court, with the texts, with the dates, she wanted to assume a sense of power that comes from knowing more. But amidst this assumption of power, she forgot to take care of her vulnerabilities. For even when she is worrying about being murdered or raped by Robert, his placation of her fears immediately triggers a sense of shame and guilt for thinking such a thing at all: “[S]he wondered if the discomfort in the car was her fault, because she was acting jumpy and nervous, like the kind of girl who thought she was going to get murdered every time she went on a date.”
Margot is as human and vulnerable as Robert, and her gender renders her even more vulnerable than the latter. It is a sense of constant self-policing, of guarding Robert’s feelings, of fearing his reactions which may or may not be violent, of being “polite” out of that subconscious fear, that Margot does not find it in herself to refuse sex. In an interview, Kristen Roupenian said:
In order to avoid an uncomfortable, possibly risky exchange, she “bludgeons her resistance into submission” with a shot of whiskey. Then, later, she wonders why the memories of the encounter make her feel so sick and scared, and she blames herself for overreacting, for not being kinder to Robert, who, after all, didn’t do anything wrong.
Margot’s very real fear of being killed and raped resonates in Reid’s article. In one part of the article, the author seems to be talking to a very angry man, almost trying to placate him when she’s presenting her article about how women are coerced into sex:
And then there’s the inconvenient but true aspect of safety. You might know that you would never, ever lose your temper if a woman changed her mind about sex. She doesn’t know that. You might know that you’re not violent, that you’d drive her home or call her an Uber or suggest you just watch a film instead. She doesn’t. Women die at the hands of angry men all the time. I’m not being dramatic and I’m not suggesting for a moment that all men are violent. But the thing is, the violent ones don’t wear signs around their necks. We don’t know which ones they are. So we have to be careful. And sometimes being careful means having sex that you don’t want, that leaves you feeling dirty and sad and a bit icky. It’s not rape. It’s not abuse. But it’s not nice, either. It’s a sad, sticky, gross grey area which women shouldn’t ever had to find themselves in. But we do. Time and time again, we do.
This placation, this insistence on ‘not you’, ‘you’re not violent’ is so urgent, it betrays a sense of insecurity for being taken as a hysterical woman making broad generalizations, for being “dramatic.” This placation, this mantra is what perhaps everyone who has been coerced into sexual acts tell themselves. Or as Margot does.
When Reid writes, “It’s not rape. It’s not abuse,” it reflects this desperateness which we all insist upon. For we were not forced, per se. it was just an unpleasant experience which we can eulogize, satirize or forget, but can we confront? For upon confrontation we find that these unpleasant experiences are not isolated experiences unique to a person, product of accident, but are actually birthed and maintained by a culture. For, what is the thing that is making us “do”, “[t]ime and time again” and why?
The discussions of sex and the discussions of violence are always accompanying each other. It is patriarchy punishing women for desire for desiring not as women, but as people. But, alas, our desire eventually genders us. As women desiring men sexually, we become gendered as women, as ‘women’, not just a ‘person’ desiring men. From this gendered position then, we must navigate our way in a gendered world, our position in this gendered world, where we are almost always at the receiving end of violence from men. And the question which must be asked is: how does one desire men and fear them at the same time? The same way, rape can be thought of as a fantasy, I suppose. Our culture. Our patriarchal culture.
One may or may not be afraid of men. But women are. Or are men afraid of other men too? I’m afraid I don’t know. But it isn’t healthy, to fear and desire someone—a romantic partner—in the same breath. It’s unnatural. Men as potential romantic partners and potential murderers, rapists—how does this possibility co-exist and be realized in the same mind, in the same imagination?
The heteronormative patriarchal culture which enforces the idea of the Man as a sexual partner for a woman, also enforces the idea of the Man as something dangerous, to be feared and to be obeyed. Women are asked to love men but also fear them. This is the culture that has been bequeathed to Margot, to women.
The only remaining question is, was it not rape, and abuse, which Margot had to suffer through. For coercion is rape and Margot was coerced by an oppressive patriarchal culture to have sex when she did not really want to.
There is this term fanfiction writers use in their plot summaries, where they also give out warnings, one of them is ‘DUBCON’ which means dubious consent. Dubious consent entails that though the character in the said story may not have explicitly consented to having sex, they are not entirely against it either. The situation is dubious, consent is dubious. But really, really, dubious consent is another name for NON-CON, (Non-consensual sex) which is again another ‘polite’ way of saying rape.
Rape has so many euphemisms, so many code names. It is so well-protected and coded in our society, in our literature, in fanfiction, which is accessed by all. Margot does not think of it as rape, nor does Reid, and perhaps neither do a lot of women who have undergone this. It’s dubious. It’s uncomfortable, awkward, something we might not have entirely consented to but not been explicitly against… it’s dubious. Because such a grey area exists. But does it… really? Or is it a product of an oppressive culture that has created such a grey area so it can allow endless repetitions of such acts it deems not important to be taken seriously…?
In the multiple acts we assume, of gender, of identity, in our performance, we must not surrender to our characters. It is against the heteronormative characterization that we must time and again rise. Conditioned to be made to feel guilty, to feel obliged to be “polite”, falling victim to ideas that consent has more shades than one, more varieties than one, we are participating and continuing a senseless cruel tradition which makes us feel we are not human but objects, part of a barter system, trading parts of ourselves in exchange for acceptance. How long will this tainted legacy continue and how many must fall victim to it before we rise and fight against it?