Cat Person and the Complexity of Consent


Cat Person and the Complexity of Consent

Illustration: Akshita Monga / Arré

It was a particularly warm August when a friend dragged me to a terrace party in Delhi’s posh GK2 area. I was still rather new to the city, and it was my first such party where almost everyone was too friendly, not everyone knew everyone. Drinking, smoking, smoking up, listening to music nobody listened to in the town I came from, everyone seemed to be having a good time. With the exception of one person: me.

My friend suggested I make the most of my time there, drink up all the sangria I could, and just have a good time. I followed her advice, and one too many sangrias down, I finally settled for a group of people who, like me, did not know anyone else at the party. We were soon joined by this guy who, looked a little like Hagrid from Harry Potter, but the events that followed that night, proved he was anything but.

When we started talking, the conversation was largely pretentious, something I used to pretend to enjoy, just to get some attention. So we spoke about organic farming – I had no clue what I was talking about, but the sangria helped – about theatre, and then finally, we slipped into the comforting bosom of literature, talking about Pessoa, the epitome of cool for me then, and Sartre.

It was somewhere between Pessoa and Sartre that he started hitting on me. It started with something like “You are so cute,” and graduated to “Are you going to the loo alone? It’s downstairs, are you sure you don’t want me to come?” I was sure. I was bursting with clarity that there was no way I wanted this guy in my loo. But he wouldn’t go away. Then when, as a last resort, I told him I was with someone, he seemed to take that as a challenge. “You cannot be a serious reader, and the intelligent woman that you are, and still believe in monogamy.” There it was, the woke dudebro, trying to make a liberated woman of me.

I was a slobbering mess at this point, and not really in full control of my senses, yet I was clear: I did not want him around me. But I was the one who had encouraged him to talk to me, feigned interest in him. I did enjoy the compliments and the attention. And I loved the fact that I had someone just talking to me, at a party where I did not know anyone.

Was the fat girl in me anxious for attention, even as she was scared of it?

So, I wondered, was I responsible for this attention I was getting? Did I have the right to stop him from pursuing me? Did I secretly want to be pursued? Was the fat girl in me anxious for attention, even as she was scared of it? I was confused.

While eating some chips, I dropped a few on my cleavage, and he brushed them off, lest they ruin my “pretty dress.” After which he told me he wanted to kiss me, and that I also wanted to kiss him, I just didn’t know that yet. At that point I decided to look for my friend and we eventually left the party. This wasn’t my first encounter with sexual harassment, but this certainly was the first one where I found myself questioning the idea of consent. Did I invite this guy? If I did, was I now obligated to keep him entertained? Because when he was flirting, I flirted back, did I owe him a kiss? If he looked disappointed, was that on me?

I was reminded of this when I read the now viral short story, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian in The New Yorker a couple of days ago. The story explores the idea of consent, and the pressure women feel to give in to sex, even when they don’t want it, just because they feel obligated; or they feel that after dragging the situation to the climactic moment, they have to take the act to its very end.

The story, which is now being considered a valuable addition to the #MeToo conversation, has been read as an essay by many. I found myself in the story. The female protagonist is a 20-year-old woman, who isn’t really likeable. She is self-indulgent and vain – attributes that I can relate to. What we get in the story are the inner workings of the woman, where she is constantly in conversation with herself, where she comes across as self-centered, delusional, anxious, and maybe a little bit paranoid, all at the same time.

The woman gets herself invited to the man’s house, and here comes the pivotal point of the story. Now that she is in the house, sex is expected. Maybe at some point she wanted that. The man who is a bad kisser, is human, and she tells herself she has immense power over him. With her perfect body and flawless skin, she can hurt him, and make him feel better; she can make him feel like he must have her, or he will die. There is a certain thrill to this thought, but it doesn’t last, because she doesn’t want sex, and this isn’t something she can communicate.

So what ensues is disgusting sex, where she isn’t into it and the man can’t sense that. Now, the man – as we get to know through the eyes of the woman – isn’t a bad man. He is often found reassuring her that she doesn’t have to be nervous and that they will take it slow.

How often does it happen that the seemingly gentle and harmless men end up violating us? The pressure to give consent makes consent null and void, but unless that is communicated, does it matter? Does consent require verbal communication? If we can’t communicate our discomfort, can we really say Me Too? Is discomfort something that can be communicated through body language? Is every no a resounding no?

In a recent judgment, Mahmood Farooqui was acquitted of rape, when the court cited that while consent wasn’t given, the survivor’s “no” was feeble, and Farooqui could have misread that as yes. While the “no” wasn’t feeble in this case, what if it was? In Imtiaz Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal, the protagonists are being followed by a bunch of goons, and Sejal wonders what she’d do “practically” if they got caught. There are situations when the no is feeble because it’s more practical and safer for you to remain silent.

And then there are the tricky situations where consent is given but then withdrawn, within moments. Are women told often enough that they are allowed to change their minds? Growing up in an environment that encourages male entitlement, haven’t we all come to accept the idea that we owe this to the nice man who took us out for a lovely meal, took care of us when we were drunk, saved us from the wolves outside, who bought us a care package when we were sick or too busy to buy food?

In the Roupenian story, the female protagonist journeys from being a precious, delicate doll – something that needs to be taken care of – to being a sex doll who is moved around in different positions to suit the needs of the man she is with. In both scenarios, she is an inanimate object, a thing, and not a person. This alienating experience of being a doll is one that we often find alluring, because we have been told that the man who takes care of us is the man we want. However, dolls don’t really have feelings, and cannot give consent, so they can just as easily become sex dolls, and no one can or will call that a violation.

To the guy who picked potato chips off my cleavage and told me in a patronising tone that I don’t know what I want, because I too am a doll, how do I say no and make it stick? To the nice man who can read Sartre and quote Simone de Beauvoir most definitely better than me, who wants to rescue me from my patriarchal trappings, who cares about me being nervous, but not for the reason behind that nervousness, how do we explain consent?

If I say Me Too to him, he will sympathise with me. Then he will probably proceed to unhook my bra to help me calm down and validate my existence. Because nice men are nice like that.