Kristen Roupenian’s short story ‘Cat Person’—which portrays the brief courtship and consummation of a relationship between 20-year-old Margot and a 34-year-old Robert—was the most shared New Yorker piece of 2017, despite only appearing in December. The depiction of a ‘bad date’, in which Margot consents out of guilt rather than desire, clearly struck a chord as the latest iteration of #MeToo. Inspired by a nasty online encounter of the author’s own, ‘Cat Person’ was also written as a “commentary on how people get to know each other, or don’t, through electronic communication,” as Roupenian explained in an interview—about “the strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks, whether online or off.” This theme of navigating dating in the digital age resonated widely among millennials, who report rarely seeing the trials and tribulations of modern romance—meeting on apps, building rapport through texting, and moving it into real life—taken seriously.
While the story’s protagonists meet in real life—at the arthouse movie theater where Margot works—they form their impressions of one another over text, before finally meeting up for a movie. “She still didn’t know much about him,” writes Roupenian, “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.” And what a strange dance it is—one effectively between avatars. When seduction occurs via computer-mediated communication, without the benefit of social cues, we present curated versions of ourselves and project what we want to see in others.
The power games inherent in permutations of sexual conquest predate smartphones, of course—accusations of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and others date from decades ago. But communicating through a screen facilitates the kinds of aggression that Roupenian has picked up on in ‘Cat Person’. The interface makes it all too easy to forget there’s a human being on the other side of the undulating ellipses and dodge the real-time face-to-face reactions to one’s remarks. The short story ends—chillingly, as we have up until then felt empathetic towards Robert—with a litany of unanswered text messages deteriorating quickly from kindness—“I know I shouldnt say this but I really miss you”—to belligerence, culminating with him calling her a ‘whore’ via text. Would Robert have had the chutzpah to call Margot a whore to her face when their paths crossed in a bar, or even on the telephone? I daresay not. “As far as dating goes, I’ve observed many men who, while hopefully decent human beings in person, become sexually aggressive ‘douche monsters’ when hiding behind the texts on their phone,” wrote Aziz Ansari in Modern Romance. Unfortunately, when we become accustomed to behaving like “sexually aggressive ‘douche monsters’,” it can carry over all too easily into real life, impeding empathy and human decency.
When we meet Robert, he is described as having “shoulders slumped forward slightly, as though he were protecting something.” In the course of their sexual encounter, he is relieved to discover that Margot is getting wet, revealing a performance anxiety and fear of sexual rejection that psychologists say is one of men’s biggest shame triggers. Margot breaks into nervous laughter when Robert asks if she’s a virgin. “She didn’t mean to laugh,” writes Roupenian. “She knew well enough already that, while Robert might enjoy being the subject of gentle, flirtatious teasing, he was not a person who would enjoy being laughed at, not at all.” Robert’s approach becomes less gentle in response: “and then he was on top of her again, kissing her and weighing her down;” he throws Margot about “as if they were in a porno.” Indeed, as Simone de Beauvoir observed in The Second Sex:
No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility.
Rather poignantly, Margot dreams of recounting the incident to a boyfriend someday: “She imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful yet hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story…the two of them would collapse into each other’s arms and laugh and laugh—but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.” Roupenian said that the phrase exposes the isolation of trying to share an experience in a heterosexual relationship that the other party can never quite relate to. I think it also reflects a growing resignation among a generation of young women losing hope that they’ll ever find love in a society whose pop culture peddles the princess myth but are experiencing something vastly different in reality.
Far from the equal-opportunity coupling enthusiastically embarked upon by second-wave feminists, the kind of sex on offer today in the hookup culture—even when it doesn’t reach the cringe-levels of regret of Margot’s experience—does not seem to be much about women’s pleasure or sexual exploration. According to research by a team led by sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong, women only orgasm about a third as often as men do in first-time heterosexual hookups, and half as often as men do in repeat or ongoing hookups. The sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s was not only about sex, but also about equality and autonomy. “At the time, to fuck was in and of itself a form of liberation,” writes Linda Grant in Sexing the Millennium: A Political History of the Sexual Revolution. The pioneers of the revolution were radical in their rebellion, breaking the confines of conventional ideas of sexiness, but the veterans of the movement are saddened by where their efforts have landed us. “They are all for free love, but none of this looks loving to them,” notes Ariel Levy in Raunch Culture.
Just like #MeToo, it is ‘not all men’, nor all dates. But while we can roll our eyes at the dick pics flying in the arena, it belies an underlying aggression. Women behave badly too online—ghosting is an equal-opportunity affliction. Nonetheless, the threat of violence, as reflected upon by Margot on the ride to Robert’s, is very real. In 1992, the sociologist Anthony Giddens wrote—rather presciently—that “modern societies have a covert emotional history, yet to be fully drawn into the open,” referring to the sexual control of women by men.
At the moment, an emotional abyss has opened up between the sexes, and one cannot say with any certainty how far it will be bridged.
The dialogue over the past few months—including the reaction to ‘Cat Person’—has proven that we need to establish a culture in which women feel comfortable saying no to the sex they don’t want. The next step will be to figure out how to say yes to the sex we do want—by reclaiming the erotic from the pornographic and stepping back from our smartphones to establish intimacy. The effects of technology on the head are by now been well-documented. It’s high time we considered its insidious effects on the human heart.