In the recent viral slew of reactions to Kristen Roupenian’s short story “The Cat Person” in the The New Yorker Magazine, many readers have projected their own unsatisfied, frustrated and angry reactions of past sexual encounters onto the characters of Margot and Robert, many linking it to the #metoo movement.
The original “me too’ movement was initially begun 10 years ago by social justice activist Tarana Burke as a project to help girls and women of color who were survivors of sexual abuse. The #metoo movement that went viral this past fall was due in part to the Twitter hashtag and invitation to share that Alyssa Milano posted in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein expose in the NY Times .
detailing reports of abuse by actresses. These accusations against Weinstein went back 20 years and included alleged sexual harassment, coercive sexual behavior, assault and legal non-disclosure agreements made by Weinstein to buy accusers’ silence.
However I think conflating “The Cat Person” short story with both Burke’s “me too” movement and Twitter’s #metoo campaign is misguided and misses many lessons about dating and modern sexuality illustrated in the fictional story. The story has stirred a lot of controversy due to the fact that many Millennials feel like the encounter authentically reflects what it’s like in the dating/hookup culture they experience on a regular basis. Roupenian has explained that the story stemmed from experiences “accumulated over decades, not drawn from a single bad date.”
I completely believe Roupenian’s experience and in my many years as an AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist and founder of Center for Love and Sex have seen many women who claim they felt like they might as well have some sexual activity (give a guy oral sex, agree to vaginal penetration, offer manual stimulation) when they felt either more undecided, had mixed feelings or even completely sure they didn’t want to have any sexual touch. Many of these women felt unable to harness the words needed to express these feelings and experiences to the date, hook-up or partner. In the tsunami of articles, Op-Eds and appearances, women have discussing the experience of feeling blocked from saying no, and setting limits to sexual activities they didn’t want. The latest discussion of the accusations leveled against Aziz Ansari questioning whether he was a predator or a boorish, entiteld date without advanced skills to read cues taking place currently.
In the Cat Person story in the New Yorker, Margot is a college student and meets Robert, a man some years older than she while working at a movie theater concession stand. The story is told solely from Margot’s perspective and the reader hears much of her internal dialogue throughout the story so that we come to understand Margot more intimately than we do Robert. The beginning of the story gives us the first lesson about dating in the digital age.
Don’t exclusively flirt through text, snapchat, Instagram or FB messaging:
“While she was home over break, they texted nearly non-stop, not only jokes but little updates about their days. They started saying good morning and good night, and when she asked him a question and he didn’t respond right away she felt a jab of anxious yearning.”
Margot i admits internally that she has developed a crush on this man with whom she has spent very little in-person time. And while it is true that part of meeting someone new is the fantasies one creates about them is as much part of the erotic excitement than the actual time spent with them, I have found that some people spend too much time communicating digitally rather than in-person. Some of my clients prefer the online flirting, seduction, or revelation of private thoughts because it keeps their mood afloat and helps them avoid potential disappointment in what the ‘real life’ person might actually be like. Given their past painful break-ups or mediocre dates, these clients are seeking treatment to recover, heal and gain some hope in their efforts to create new connections.
Some of our clients suffer from social anxiety and the back and forth texting exchange allows them to be more confident, forthright, or overtly sexual than they would ever feel in person with someone to whom they’re attracted. Koupenian wrote of Margot’s experience:
“She still didn’t know much about him, because they never talked about anything personal, but when they landed two or three good jokes in a row there was a kind of exhilaration to it, as if they were dancing.”
However, research conducted on young adults has shown that higher rates of texting for people already stressed or anxious only leads to further agitation.
What I recommend is to keep a bit of digital flirting in the sexual menu to get both your juices flowing erotically but plan a phone call soon so you can speak hearing one another’s voice. For some people the voice itself increases the romantic pull and for others can be a complete “no go” turn off. This allows a person to use their time wisely in their efforts to find a person with whom they’ll be more compatible. I always ask clients to figure out their top 3 erotic triggers and if sound is up there, then the sound of the person’s voice, laugh, moan can make or break an erotic attraction.
The Rhythm of Communication; Power Exchange that May Cause Anxiety & Lack of Good Planning
Roupenian describes the rhythm Margot notices of the initial texts between she and Robert : “Soon she noticed that when she texted him he usually texted her back right away, but if she took more than a few hours to respond his next message would always be short and wouldn’t include a question, so it was up to her to re-initiate the conversation, which she always did.”
Clients commonly complain of the anxiety they feel when their texts aren’t responded to as quickly as they would like. They begin to feel more vulnerable and less in control of the relationship.
While some people might like this experience of dominant seducer and longing chaser (it’s the erotic trigger I refer to as “psychological trigger” BTW), for others it just raises their anxiety to a level that becomes a turn off and may cause them to agree to something they normally wouldn’t including: sending a sexual photo in an effort to gain control, agreeing to a date that doesn’t especially excite them (a late night booty call as a first “date”), or meeting them in a place that doesn’t provide enough safety back ups.
Set up Expectations for First Meetings/Dates
Due to her anxiety caused by Robert’s seemingly busy schedule, she quickly accepted his invitation to a movie. The problem here is that she asks to go to a movie theater that isn’t in her neighborhood (guaranteeing they won’t see any of her friends), that she would be going in his car (since she doesn’t own one), and that in fact she has barely spent any one on one in-person time with him.
“On the drive, he was quieter than she’d expected, and he didn’t look at her very much. Before five minutes had gone by, she became wildly uncomfortable, and, as they got on the highway, it occurred to her that he could take her someplace and rape and murder her; she hardly knew anything about him, after all.”
For first meetings I encourage clients to meet in very public restaurants, cafes or bars and to let their date they can only meet for a period of time. For example, meeting for a coffee between 4-5:30 on a weekend due to dinner plans, or a drink after work from 6-7 PM. It allows both people to:
a) find out if there’s chemistry
b) there’s more to talk about then one-liners or quips about some social media meme and c) limits physical intimacy opportunities in case you’re not so into the person erotically
d) leave room for you to finish the first meeting wanting more.
Sexual Consent Begins with First Touch/Kiss
Robert first hugs Margot after she begins crying out of shame after she’s turned away from a bar for being underage. “She let herself be folded against him, and she was flooded with the same feeling she’d had outside the 7-Eleven—that she was a delicate, precious thing he was afraid he might break. He kissed the top of her head, and she laughed and wiped her tears away.”
If we are going to improve the many layers of consent needed in sexual relationships then folks need to learn to communicate super clearly in a way that can still be full of Sex Esteem. Margot could have talked about her expectations of the first date in a more explicit way like:
Thanks for the invitation, I would like to go to the movies (my preference is a comedy) and holding hands in the dark.
I would be up to going out to a bar for a drink afterwards but since I’m underage it would need to be at a place that doesn’t card me.
I would like to perhaps kiss tonight but would like to keep the experience light and would prefer going home alone since it’s our first date. I’d be up for making out without outer clothes but let’s leave on our underwear and no penetration or oral play at this point.
I have been tested for STIs 6 months ago just so you know and it came back negative haven’t been with anyone since.
Robert could have said:
I’m looking forward to taking you out to this movie
I’m getting cleaned up a bit, wearing a nice shirt.
Hope you have time to go out afterwards for drink.
Would love to finally kiss you tonight, been admiring your lips for a while.
If you’re into it we can come back to my place, I don’t have a roommate so have the place all to myself.
I was most recently tested 4 months ago, am negative on all counts and haven’t been with someone since that time.
What happens in the story though is that after the hug, Robert does initiate a kiss and it’s not what Margot expects: “he came for her in a kind of lunging motion and practically poured his tongue down her throat. It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad;”
Although perhaps the kiss could have been the red flag for some women that the chemistry might be off, Margot warms up to Robert at this point because she now feels she has regained some of the power in their relationship and perhaps feel a bit sorry for him which arouses her erotically. She seems to be more into the psychological erotic trigger than the fact that this date doesn’t kiss the way she likes. She also doesn’t say anything to him about preferring to kiss lightly, less forcefully or that hadn’t invited her verbally to kiss.
This request can be done flirtatiously as in: I’ve been wanting to kiss those lips for a while, how would you feel if I kissed them now?
And she could have responded: That sounds nice but let me lead.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this blog with more tips for dating, daring to describe one’s desire, and declaring one’s truth in the bedroom or out.