Even if you haven’t read the New Yorker short story that went viral recently, you probably have an opinion about it.
So why is a fictional story that’s seemingly so mundane becoming such a firestorm? Here are some reasons.
It’s very much of the moment. “It isn’t a story about rape or sexual harassment, but about the fine lines that get drawn in human interaction,” Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker’s fiction editor, tells the Atlantic. The fine lines between a friendly interaction and a flirtatious one, between an innocuous first date and a plot line from “Law and Order: SVU.”
“Cat Person” is not identical to the news stories we’ve been reading of assault and harassment: Robert didn’t expose his penis to Margot outside the movie theater; he’s not her boss; he didn’t “force” her to do anything. But Robert is older than Margot, as is the custom in heterosexual relationships, calling most of the shots in their interactions, and therefore has the power in their fledgling relationship. Similar dynamics around power and sex are reflected in nearly all of the stories of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace; and, as “Cat Person” makes clear, those unbalanced power structures are present in courtship as well. Especially in the Tinder era where casual, emotionally detached sex is common. As Nancy Jo Sales, who wrote that blockbuster 2015 Vanity Fair article on “the dating apocalypse,” tweeted Sunday: “Basically anyone who’s ever used a dating app could write ‘Cat Person,’ just maybe not as well.”
Many women find it relatable. In an interview with the New York Times, Kristen Roupenian says “Cat Person” is not autobiographical, “though many of the details and emotional notes come from life, they were accumulated over decades, not drawn from a single bad date.”
One passage in particular illustrates women’s feelings about certain kinds of sexual encounters, especially those that can occur when two people barely know one another. As Margot and Robert get undressed at his place, she’s not incredibly attracted to him and ponders stopping the interaction, “but the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon,” Rouhenian writes. “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 if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.”
Margot’s hesitation seems to come from a justifiable (and prophetic, as it turns out) fear of bad sex. Writer Ella Dawson echoes many women’s reactions to the sex in “Cat Person” in an essay on her blog about “bad sex,” or “the sex we don’t want but have anyway.” She revisits the times in college she had this kind of sex, where “no one forced anyone to participate. You could have said no and you didn’t. You didn’t have the words or you didn’t have the courage to say them,” Dawson writes, adding that “too much of the time, bad sex is the norm for young women, not the exception.”
Dawson thinks this dynamic is partly due to sex education that stresses how women should avoid the risks inherent in sex — pregnancy, infection, assault — rather than teach them how to enjoy it safely. It’s a point that has come up in a lot of the interviews I’ve done recently as well, in which researchers note that there’s a perception that women are in control of their pleasure and their bodies, but they aren’t taught to ask for or expect it — while boys and men get the opposite message.
A woman enduring bad sex in her personal life is linked to her not being able to escape it in other settings. Sara McClelland, an assistant professor of psychology and women’s studies who studies the concept of “intimate justice,” or how inequality shows up in sex, notes that “how people make demands at the intimate level is absolutely connected to how they make demands at the social and political level.” In women’s stories of sexual assault and harassment, McClelland sees women starting to make demands to be safe. “What people have said very smartly is: I didn’t have power to change this situation. If you don’t have economic power, you’re not able to make what we might think of as sort of intimate power exchanges with someone who’s being abusive.”
“Cat Person” gets at society’s changing outlook on consent. Later, when Margot and Robert are at his house, he’s calling the shots of how sex will go. Margot may feel that she was the one “push[ing] this forward” — after he offered to take her home because she’d been drinking, she pushed for more physical contact and asked to come over to his house. But after that, Robert is clearly in control.
Before our culture’s attention was focused so heavily on sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, the focus was on sexual assault on college campuses — and developing new standards for consent. Robert, 34, is part of a cohort of men schooled in “no means no” — as in, he’ll consider a woman not interested if and when she tries to stop him. This is decidedly different from how the 20-year-olds of today like Margot are taught to think about consent — as a “yes means yes” proposition where both parties affirmatively vocalize their consent and can revoke it at any time.
The signs of Robert’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude begin long before they’re in the bedroom — he courts Margot in a series of demands, starting with “concession-stand girl, give me your phone number”; progresses to “No, I’m serious, stop fooling around and come now,” for their 7-Eleven meetup; and once they’re hooking up, that mentality becomes “take that thing off” (her bra) and “yeah, yeah, you like that” when he slaps her thigh.
But he never does ask what she likes or how she likes it; the entire interaction reads as if Robert is acting out a masturbatory fantasy rather than interacting with a live human with her own desires. “During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now — a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head,” Rouhenian writes.
“Cat Person” is in part about the shift from a courtship model based on demands versus one based on questions and mutual understandings. Similarly, the #MeToo revelations could help shift men’s perspective on how their actions affect women in ways they might not immediately discern.
Some men don’t find “Cat Person” relatable. The Twitter feed @MenCatPerson is broadcasting men’s reaction to the story, many of whom don’t understand how women could relate to the story or think Robert was the “victim” of the story, seeing his misogynistic rant against Margot as justified. All of which further proves why we need to continue listening to women’s stories about sex — especially of the times they didn’t feel they could say no. That might help empower women to say yes to the kind of sex they want and no to the sex they don’t. All without being called a “whore.”