By Meg Zulch
Every cultural narrative about dating in recent years seems to go the same way. Girl meets boy. Girl has drunk sex with boy. Sometimes, girl has more casual and sometimes non consensual encounters with boy. Girl feels sad and maybe even violated. Rinse and repeat. And then, girl finally meets the guy/girl/person of their dreams. This is "normal," and apparently all part of being a young feminine person in our society.
Besides these narratives being whitewashed, heteronormative, and cisnormative, they perpetuate the idea that sexual discomfort and assault is just one of the many facts of life, and feminine people might as well embrace it. And if you stick with a toxic relationship long enough, hey, it might only get better!
Lena Dunham's Girls, one of my most problematic faves, perfectly exemplifies this in Hannah Horvath's relationship with Adam Sackler. In the show's first season, their relationship involved lots of sex that didn't always seem consensual or respectful of Hannah's body and needs. She barely ever climaxes when having sex with Adam, endures dirty talk that makes her uncomfortable, and contorts in any position that Adam wants. Her character is clearly terribly unsatisfied, and finally confronts him about this in episode four before quickly succumbing once again to Adam's "charm." What's worse is that Hannah keeps pushing on until things get serious, and gradually things do get better. In fact, their relationship becomes one of my favorite in TV history. And that's just fucked up.
Other shows like Skins or even The Secret Life Of the American Teenager also helped in shoving this down the throat of every young feminine adult: men will treat you like shit (especially when you're a virgin) and that's okay. Things will get better.
The idea that sexual assault or general discomfort is just apart of hookup culture, and the idea that you can somehow transform a toxic relationship (or person) into a healthy one if you work hard enough can be framed as simply a plot point of a show like Girls. But these relationship patterns being played out before our very eyes week after week can send damaging messages that are internalized and applied to real life. I speak from experience.
A year after Dunham's show aired, I transferred from my community college to a state university and experienced my first taste of freedom complete with sexual escapades worthy of national screen time. I had never been in a relationship, and so the only knowledge I had of them came from various forms of popular media. In the spirit of other fictional ladies before me (of course, not just blaming Girls for this), I quite literally dove head first into the wonderful world of hookup culture.
I met Mike during the first week of school, and we quickly became lovers. It was the first time I'd ever experienced sexual intimacy with a boy. I embraced my own intense self loathing and over indulged in my cinematic desperation for a man's approval. My powerlessness resulted in a two or three month entanglement of confusion, mistreatment, and total discomfort and lack of respect concerning myself in the bedroom, as well as heartbreak.
Like Hannah did with Adam, I stuck around, convinced this dynamic would change if I could "fix" him. I told myself it's natural to feel shitty and depressed and insecure and even a little loathing of my situation. So I stayed with him: long after he acted inappropriately while drunk, long after he hurt me during sex, long after he rejected me when I tried to make us "official."
But unlike Hannah, I have nothing to show for it. He was cruel to me, and I was involved in something that was sucking the life out of me, so I quit. But not for very long. I quickly began moving from person to person and repeating my mistakes, until I was sexually assaulted by a boy I had been in a similarly damaging relationship with. And until recently, I thought that was okay; all apart of the "young millennial girl in the dating world" narrative.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with having complete agency over your sexual body, and exploring it through hooking up with other empowered and consenting adults. But unfortunately, the idea that this process is supposed to be painful and weird, at least in the beginning, is where the problem lies. Self-respect isn't something you earn from the abuse of others, nor is it something you need to earn the right to have. We are all entitled to respect (from ourselves and our partners), regardless of our experience level and identities. When we are taught that being disrespected sexually is commonplace for our age group, we become less likely to take our own assaults seriously and allow others to control our narratives.
I revisited season one of Girls the other day. My loving partner of ten months has recently gotten hooked on the show, and so we've been marathoning it on nights when our schedules align. I was shocked to see how unsettling this season is to me, as I can't help but see Mike in almost every scene involving Adam and Hannah. It's been horrifying to see their relationship with fresh eyes, and to realize that I used to view this toxic dynamic as "just a part of life." A "fact" I went on to reenact in my own life less than a year later. I was convinced that enduring bad relationships and abuse was necessary for self discovery, and to develop a healthy self image was totally unnecessary concerning dating. I now know these "facts" to be untrue, that abuse is abuse, and that absence of self respect can lead you to downplay your own traumas. Exactly how society and the media we consume teaches feminine people to react.
Yes, I did meet a wonderful person, the human I'm currently partnered with. But they haven't previously treated me like shit (or currently), and my traumatic experiences have impacted our relationship. Only recently have I come to terms with my assault, and have stopped writing it off as "normal," "no big deal," or "all my fault." Because even if you're inexperienced or marginalized, you don't ever deserve disrespect in any form.
Women being disrespected and abused, as well as searching for ways to develop self respect in the wrong places, is certainly a reality to many. But perhaps if TV shows, YA novels and movies wouldn't replay this narrative over and over, girls will finally start growing up knowing that they don't need to waste their time with an Adam.
Photo courtesy of HBO