The controversial, self-proclaimed feminist Lena Dunham is at it again. This time Lena’s HBO show “Girls” stirred controversy with their episode “On All Fours.” Didn’t see it? Don’t worry. Me either—until I heard about this kerfuffle. The internet is abuzz with the question of whether or not “On All Fours” depicted sexual assault in the episode. For my part, I think it did.
If you haven’t seen it, this dude Adam has recently started dating a girl named Natalia. In the episode, Natalia tells Adam, “I’m ready to have sex now.” She then lists her many preferences, and Adam tells her “I like how clear you are with me.” Natalia response?
“What other way is there?”
This is such an important line because it sets up Natalia as a strong character exercising sexual agency. By outlining her preferences, she is exerting her sexual autonomy to Adam. Let’s call this the “affirmative consent scene,” because we see Natalia as sexually empowered, along with other verbal and non-verbal cues. Adam, for his part, has had some “awkward” sexual encounters before, but never with anyone who didn’t consent.
The final scene with Natalia and Adam is where both of Natalia’s “affirmative consent” attitude and Adam’s previous sexual actions collide. Natalia’s verbal and non-verbal cues throughout the whole scene show that she is not enjoying what Adam is doing to her. She does not verbally consent, in complete contrast to how she exercises sexual agency in the earlier scene. Not once did Adam ask or care to ask Natalia how she felt. After finishing, Natalia tells Adam (twice!) that she really didn’t like it. Adam’s response?
“Are you done with me?”
He does say that he didn’t know what came over him. Which makes me think that Adam realizes that he used power over his girlfriend, which is what sexual assault is about—power, not pleasure.
Consider Natalia’s attitude in the first scene. She fully takes charge of her sexuality and is not presented to us as the kind of person who doesn’t know how to exercise sexual agency. The first scene and last are put together to show us what pleasure looks like, what power looks like, and most importantly what affirmative consent and a lack of consent looks like.