Recent months make it seem like humanity has lost the instruction manual for its âprocreateâ function and has had to relearn it all from scratch. After scores of prominent men have been fired on sexual-assault allegations, confusion reigns about signals, how to read them, and how not to read into them. Some men are wondering if hugging women is still okay. Some male managers are inviting third parties into performance reviews in order to avoid being alone with women. One San Francisco design-firm director recently said holiday parties should be canceled, as The New York Times reported, âuntil it has been figured out how men and women should interact.â
Into this steps âCat Person,â a New Yorker fiction story by Kristen Roupenian that explores how badly people can misread each other, but also how frightening and difficult sexual encounters can be for women, in particular. âIt isnât a story about rape or sexual harassment, but about the fine lines that get drawn in human interaction,â Deborah Treisman, The New Yorkerâs fiction editor, told me.
This weekend, the story went unexpectedly viral. Or, perhaps, in this #MeToo moment, it went expectedly viral, by revealing the lengths women go to in order to manage menâs feelings, and the shaming they often suffer nonetheless. A New Yorker spokeswoman said via email that of all the fiction the magazine published this year, âCat Personâ was the most read online, and itâs also one of the most-read pieces overall in 2017.
Treisman said that while she was not looking for a story that touched on topical issues of sexual agency specifically, when this piece came in, she did hope to get it into the magazine âsooner rather than later.â
The pieceâwhich you can read here if you havenât already and save yourself both spoilers and holiday-party alienationâfollows a 20-year-old college student named Margot as she goes on a date with an older man, Robert, then breaks things off with him. And while itâs fiction, for many women, it felt a little too real.
hi i’m halfway thru the cat person new yorker story and i’m taking a break to find a support group please help please send help i’m . i’m . not even done yet
â darcie wilder (@333333333433333) December 10, 2017
In the piece, Margot comes off as polite, a little narcissistic, and more than a little confused. Like most young daters, she relies primarily on Robertâs short texts to divine his personality. And Robert is a creepy enigma who nevertheless does nothing technically wrong, until the end of the piece.
At one point, Margot goes over to Robertâs house (willingly) and (presumably) to have sex. And then, she experiences this emotion:
It wasnât 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 sheâd done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if sheâd ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.
What is the word for this emotion? Itâs not quite regret, because you havenât done anything yet. Itâs not quite disinterest, because, well, youâre at his house, arenât you? Is it guilt? More importantly, if she feels so uneasy, why is she going ahead with it? Is she just afraid to be rude? Is it out of self-protection? What are we to make of a sexual encounter that is technically consensual, but which Margot still considers to be âthe worst life decisionâ sheâs ever made?
In the recent powerful-man purge, and in the rape-on-campus crisis before that, thereâs been a reckoning over the true meaning of consent. Some have questioned whether women who get drunk, go to menâs dorms, and even initiate intercourse could later have a genuine claim of sexual assault. Margot was at his house, wasnât she? To some women, this passage in the story underscored the importance of the âenthusiasticâ part of the new âenthusiastic consentâ standard.
tl;dr: We need sex education that focuses on pleasure, not just on risk. We need to create a culture of enthusiastic consent. And we need to talk about all of the nuances of consent in order to fix our broken culture.
â ella dawson (ft. olivia newton-john) (@brosandprose) December 9, 2017
Treisman said she hopes the piece might make people, âstop and consider whatâs driving them in any given encounter of a romantic kind … I think the fact that itâs generated this conversation has been a healthy thing.â
After the fact, Margot puts off rejecting the man by saying sheâs busy. In a follow-up article, Roupenian explains how she was getting at the pressure women face to exit unwanted romantic situations gracefully:
She assumes that if she wants to say no she has to do so in a conciliatory, gentle, tactful way, in a way that would take âan amount of effort that was impossible to summon.â And I think that assumption is bigger than Margot and Robertâs specific interaction; it speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other peopleâs emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy. Itâs reflexive and self-protective, and itâs also exhausting, and if you do it long enough you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when youâre making that choice.
Margotâs initial attempts at gentleness donât spare her Robertâs wrath in the endâanother twist thatâs all too common. A few years ago, I interviewed women who were prolific online daters. In their interactions with men on these apps, one-word replies were sometimes seen as binding international treaties specifying that shipments of sex were on the way:
A man … had sent her the same OkCupid line three times in the course of a month, asking her if sheâd like to chat. After ignoring it repeatedly, Tweten finally wrote back, âNo.â
His response: âWHY THE FUCK NOT? If you werenât interested, you shouldnât have fucking replied at all! WTF!â
Perhaps itâs no surprise that there is already a Twitter account devoted to men criticizing the story for being too critical of the man, or too fat-shaming, or too confusing, or, um, too long. (Itâs The New Yorker, my friend.)
No sooner has Margot imagined one day having a partner who would laugh and sympathize with her about the misbegotten Robert date than she thinks âno such boy existed, and never would.â It is remarkably difficult for women to talk to our romantic partners about what, exactly, itâs like for us out there. Much like the recent wave of sexual-assault scandals has served as an introduction, for men, to womenâs heretofore private hell, âCat Personâ captured and explained the low-level dread that often accompanies romance for womenâeven the consensual kind.
Its deft portrayal of a near-universal sequenceâthe fear that your date might hurt you, the fear of hurting him first, the hurt that comes anyway after you spurn himâhas sent it bouncing around the internet. It has women saying, in other words, âYeah, us too.â