In the wake of the most recent episode of HBO’s hit Girls—in which Adam and his new girlfriend Natalia have a graphic sexual encounter—bloggers and critics have questions about rape. Like, what is it?
Time’s James Poniewozik: “There’s some debate out there whether Adam’s ejaculating on Natalia’s chest was rape …”
Vulture’s Margaret Lyons: “Is Adam on Girls a rapist? I don’t know.”
The Gloss’ Jennifer Wright: “Judging from the number of people wondering if Adam is a rapist …”
Look at all these people—some of them real, live journalists—wondering what rape is, as though crimes punishable by law are shrouded in mystery. Allow me to lift the veil. Below is the definition of rape in New York State, where the fictional Adam and Natalia live:
S 130.35 Rape in the first degree.
A person is guilty of rape in the first degree when he or she engages
in sexual intercourse with another person:
1. By forcible compulsion; or
2. Who is incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless;
3. Who is less than eleven years old; or
4. Who is less than thirteen years old and the actor is eighteen years
old or more.
S 130.30 Rape in the second degree.
A person is guilty of rape in the second degree when:
1. being eighteen years old or more, he or she engages in sexual
intercourse with another person less than fifteen years old; or
2. he or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is
incapable of consent by reason of being mentally disabled or mentally
It shall be an affirmative defense to the crime of rape in the second
degree as defined in subdivision one of this section that the defendant
was less than four years older than the victim at the time of the act.
Rape in the second degree is a class D felony.
S 130.25 Rape in the third degree.
A person is guilty of rape in the third degree when:
1. He or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is
incapable of consent by reason of some factor other than being less than
seventeen years old;
2. Being twenty-one years old or more, he or she engages in sexual
intercourse with another person less than seventeen years old; or
3. He or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person without
such person`s consent where such lack of consent is by reason of some
factor other than incapacity to consent.
Rape in the third degree is a class E felony.
New York State law also has numerous other sexual offenses—some of which might apply to this episode. For instance, sexual abuse can involve “the emission of ejaculate by the actor upon any part of the victim, clothed or unclothed.” Poniewozik, in particular, might have cited this to clarify the question he says people are asking—even in a parenthetical: “(New York State calls that sexual abuse, actually, rather than rape).”
But if you arrived here from another planet and read this coverage, you’d think the only criminal sex offense in the U.S. was called “rape.” This is spectacularly unhelpful. It fosters a notion that unless an encounter is rape of the clearest kind, there’s nothing that can be done, and no point in reporting. That’s simply false. Women need to know they have options, and perpetrators have to know that they’ll be held accountable—and not just for behavior that involves holding a gun to someone’s head.
There’s another problem with this imprecise use of the word “rape” in the coverage of the episode: It plays into the awful stereotypes of rape as a potential misunderstanding. There are still men who question the validity of rape, who say it all depends on how you look at things—maybe the woman is just prone to drama and embellishment. It suggests that “rape,” specifically, is subject to debate—because look, we’re all debating!
Lena Dunham, who co-wrote and directed the episode, talked about the scene in an interview for an Inside the Episode video. She said she thought the relationship between Adam and Natalia was “doomed to fail” because Adam couldn’t be his true self with Natalia. Then she said:
Adam really reverts back to a darker kind of sex, which I think is like an armor for him. I think that kind of role play and that kind of acting like “who’s the man” is a way for him to protect himself and to be less emotional and to be less vulnerable. It was a very hard scene to direct because, you know, we’ve come to really care about Adam and now we see him committing behaviors that are not gentlemanly, that are very dark, and I think that both the actors were very brave because they went in without judgments and they just experienced the scene together, and it’s sort of left up to the audience to decide what’s happened.
It would be nice if the media would provide context for that audience. I’m not suggesting Edward R. Murrow arise from the dead and start watching Girls, but every now and then journalists might want to provide information rather than hang a giant question mark in the air.