When I first sat down to read “Cat Person,” the Twitter-trending New Yorker short story written by Kristen Roupenian, I spent the thirty minutes it took to finish it in a constant state of fear, revulsion, and anticipation. I had been prepped by the internet to expect a highly relatable and chilling tale about the woes of texting relationships and, on a bigger scale, generally dating in your 20s. As expected, I finished the story feeling a strange mixture of validation and self-hatred, which is to say, the internet was right: I related. Hardcore.
If you haven’t yet read this piece, you should right this very second (and then read this interview with the writer, which helps to shine a light on the inspiration and intent of the story), but here is the gist: a 20-year-old college student, Margot, begins a flirtatious relationship with an older man named Robert via text messaging. She alternates between thinking he is a nervous yet witty man who she has power over, and a creepy guy who might be her murderer. Eventually, this culminates in a sexual encounter that is highly uncomfortable for her, and evidently deeply satisfying for him. When she ends things, he somewhat predictably shows himself to be pathetic and petty. The end.
I do not, for the record, relate to every element of “Cat Person,” as I’m sure no single person does. I found Robert’s patronizing nature to be callous from the first line and would never have given him my number in the first place, and I at times was frustrated with Margot’s naiveté. However, the part of the story that truly hit home for me (and, it seems, did the same for several other women) did so in such an honest way that it made me feel a connection with Margot I could not have foreseen, despite our differences.
It is after their first official date, consisting of an awkward movie and a couple beers. Margot, tipsy, has decided she wants to sleep with Robert, and lets him know as much. He takes her to his place, and as the two start undressing and preparing, Margot is suddenly, viscerally, repulsed, disgusted with the idea of letting him fuck her. But she feels that, having been the one to take the initiative, she has already made her bed:
“The thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming… It wasn’t 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 she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious.”
As has been proven in the news recently, sexual assault and harassment is an issue that impacts all communities, but it should be noted that consent is something that (in my experience) most college students have a knowledge of. Campaigns like It’s On Us and Take Back the Night rallies have helped to make sexual assault at the forefront of young people’s minds for some time. We’ve all heard that No Means No.
But identifying the concept of consent and navigating it in practice are two different things, especially in situations where it has already been given. It’s not that Margot necessarily thinks Robert will become violent (although the possibility is likely lurking at the back of her mind), but that he will become angry with her because she has gone back on her promise. Because deep in the corners of her brain, she feels that it would be wrong to change her mind, even regarding something as intimate as sleeping with another person.
I’ve had nearly identical trains of thought: I believed I wanted to fuck this person, but now that I am in the moment, the idea of doing so is repulsive. However, it’s not their fault. I’ve gotten their hopes up. If I give up now, I’ll just be another tease. I’ll be the asshole.
The complexity of sex is not something people really like to talk about, especially when they are in their 20s. For many of us, having sex is something that is frequently at the forefront of our minds; we think about it often, fantasying about it at inappropriate times and creating elaborate scenarios in our heads of ways it could take place. Yet the reality just as often doesn’t match. Sexual intimacy can be wonderful and moving, but it can also be awkward as all hell, a mix-matched mashing up of bodies, trying to find something that works. Sometimes it’s painful, and other times it’s just plain weird.
We live in a society that is primarily focused on the sexual satisfaction of men, yes, but on a broader level seems to be fixated on this concept of impossibly good, mind-blowing fucking. Robert seems to feel this way, as he whispers crude things to Margot and treats their encounter like one of his pornos, blissfully unaware that she forcing herself through it. He is so “overtaken” that he doesn’t seem to notice how he repulses his sexual partner.
I hate that I relate to Margot, and even more, I hate that relatability has been the hallmark of this story’s success. I hate that this specific kind of sexual situation is something so common among young women that, upon reading this piece, our collective response is, “I relate.” I hate that we live in a society that prioritizes men's sexual satisfaction over women’s, and I hate that despite all my fancy feminist reading, I do this just as much as the next person.
While describing her fear of rejecting Robert, Margot compares her situation to that being dissatisfied with food while eating out: “As if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.” I hate that we live in a world where women feel like changing their mind about sex is the same as changing their mind about whether to have a salad or cheeseburger.
Top photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Jennifer C.
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Eleanor Blaser is a recent college graduate working at a non-profit and pursuing a career in professional writing. Her interests include pop culture, critical feminism, and Jane Austen. Follow her on twitter @ellieknope