In Lena Dunham’s new memoir, which was released this week, the 28-year-old Girls star recounts an experience of rape that she didn’t immediately realize was rape. It’s a prime example of the confusion often swirling around situations that may seem to fall somewhere in between the “consensual” and “non-consensual” camps.
As reported in TIME, Dunham initially describes a sexual encounter during which she suddenly realized her partner wasn’t wearing the condom she thought he had put on. She told him he should probably go. Later, after confessing to her readers that she’s an “unreliable narrator,” she returns to that scene — acknowledging that although she previously described it as “the upsetting but educational choice of a girl who was new to sex,” that’s not the whole story. Dunham writes, “in fact, it didn’t feel like a choice at all,” and concludes she was raped.
Dunham was drunk and high at a college party, where she ran into a “creepy” guy named Barry who was sexually aggressive toward her. They went back to her room, and she tried to convince herself that she was really choosing to have sex with him, until she noticed that he hadn’t put on a condom and kicked him out. In the book, she describes it as “a sexual encounter that no one can classify properly.” When her roommate told her it was rape, her first reaction was to laugh.
“I feel like there are fifty ways it’s my fault… But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way,” Dunham writes.
Dunham’s experience encapsulates the current gulf between popular rape narratives — like a stranger jumping out of the bushes and violently assaulting an unsuspecting woman — and the actual experiences of rape in college, which are more complicated and typically perpetrated by acquaintances at parties or in dorm rooms. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to addressing the rates of sexual assault on campus is overhauling society’s assumptions about what rape looks like. Like Dunham, there are a lot of people who aren’t comfortable classifying these seemingly ambiguous situations.
But, thanks to a lot of recent activism around the issues of sexual assault prevention and rape culture, college students are working hard to educate their peers about what consent actually looks like. At a very basic level, they’re emphasizing that someone who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol — like Dunham was that night — cannot legally consent to sex. But they’re also going further, demanding a paradigm shift when it comes to how we approach sexual encounters altogether. Instead of the absence of a “no,” which has historically been the standard for establishing consent, colleges are moving toward requiring the presence of a “yes.”
This concept of “affirmative consent,” which was popularized by feminist writers Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, who wrote a book about it, was enshrined into law this week in California. “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent,” the new state law notes. “Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.” Colleges there are now required to adopt this standard.
California’s “Yes Means Yes” law has provoked considerable backlash from critics who say it’s too unrealistic, predicting it will end up turning every student into a rapist unless they go through a very unsexy checklist at the beginning of each encounter. But an affirmative consent standard would actually work toward addressing the very dynamics that contributed to Dunham’s assault — a culture that has taught women to be sexually passive and men to be sexually aggressive, which can create situations in which women are not quite comfortable with what’s happening and simultaneously not quite comfortable saying no.
Without affirmative consent, it’s easier for college students to slip into those ambiguous situations. It’s easier for young women to go along with something that they think must be a normal part of college hookups only to later realize, as Dunham did, that they didn’t actually consent to be treated that way. After all, society’s approach to female sexuality has taught women that sex is something that simply happens to them, rather than something they should be an active participant in.
By setting a precedent that consent requires active and enthusiastic participation between both partners — driving home the message that you should only have sex with people who clearly want to have sex with you — colleges can start to address some of those dynamics. Of course, emphasizing affirmative consent won’t immediately transform every sexual encounter between students. But it could start to provoke more of these conversations, contributing to an overall culture shift around sexuality.
Public figures like Dunham can help nudge us toward that shift, too. By explaining how that sexual encounter made her feel, and acknowledging it took time to realize she was raped, Dunham is adding her voice to the growing movement to confront everyday sexual violence. And she might help some of the young women who read her book find the words to name past experiences that they hadn’t previously known how to classify.