New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” written by Kristen Roupenian, follows 20-year-old college student Margot as she flirts with, texts, dates, sleeps with, and eventually breaks up with 34-year-old Robert. Exploding almost instantly, the story sparked debates over the gray areas surrounding casual, heterosexual sex. Readers tried navigating these murky waters, questioning what exactly made this story so troubling. Was their sex consensual? Should Margot have just left? Or should Robert have approached their encounter differently?
As a 19-year-old heterosexual woman on a college campus, I’ve experienced and heard about sexual interactions profoundly similar to Margot’s. They’re awkward and cringe-worthy and unfortunately ubiquitous. “Cat Person” puts into words so many seemingly indescribable, once isolating feelings that tiptoe the line between consensual and non-consensual sex. I can’t remember the last time I read a story so brutally and uncomfortably relatable. And that’s what gives the story its power; “Cat Person” admits and discusses how sexual situations can be shitty and violating, but not necessarily criminal.
Margot and Robert’s relationship begins seamlessly and organically, as she flirts with him at the movie theater concession stand. They make cute inside jokes about the delicious licorice Red Vines and he asks for her number. Their relationship seems to escalate normally, and Margot clearly feels excited about her new crush. When she goes home for break, they text non-stop; she even tells her parents about him.
But once she returns to school, things are different. A little awkward. The electricity that ran between them has ceased as he brings her to a dreary movie about the Holocaust on their first real date. As Margot describes, it feels like the power dynamics between them have shifted, and he no longer wants to woo her or seems particularly interested in her.
After the movie, they go to a bar, and talk while drinking together. Throughout these scenes, Margot describes her growing unattraction to Robert, not revulsion or fear. Eventually, the two end up in Robert’s home and a feeling of discomfort washes over her as he unbuckles his pants. Then it hits her: Margot has absolutely no interest in having sex with this person.
In light of this, Roupienan writes the most significant part of the entire story: that the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was far too overwhelming, and would “require an amount of tact and gentleness she felt was impossible to summon.” Margot isn’t scared Robert will try to force her to do something against her will, but that if she insists they stop, she will 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.”
The fact that Margot consensually sleeps with Robert—when she really isn’t attracted to him at all—has caused such deeply rooted discomfort and controversy because it’s so hard and uncomfortable to discuss these horrible, skin-crawling sexual experiences where nothing technically criminal has taken place, but still leave you feeling violated. These experiences suck. They can be incredibly scarring, but are very different than assault. Margot knows and recognizes her agency in this situation and never even mentions assault. Rather, she directly states her power by saying, “this is the worst decision I’ve made in my whole life!”
What I find more troubling within this interaction is Margot’s thought process while deciding if she should have sex with Robert. Her internal justification that she’d seem “spoiled and capricious” for not having sex illuminates the exhausting mental gymnastics women perform during so many heterosexual romantic encounters. To Margot, it’s far easier to sleep with Robert (and get it over with) than to create a scene. This innate, unconscious need to be nice, easygoing, and compliant plagues many young women’s sexual encounters, as we often feel an intense urge to not create problems or act like a “tease”. Margot experiences an internal dialogue many women undergo, like guessing what may (or may not) be going on in a man’s head, the rationalization of unwanted, uncomfortable feelings, the pile of red flags that often go dismissed, and the desperate need to be polite, unproblematic, and nice, no matter the cost.
This speaks so strongly to the way many young women often move throughout the world: by not making others upset, by taking responsibility for others’ emotions, and by working incredibly hard to maintain the happiness of those around them. Margot, like many other women, put on an acquiescing self-protective front to avoid conflict. But the act of doing so is a problem in and of itself.
“Cat Person” ultimately demonstrates how we need sex education that focuses on pleasure, not just on risk. We need to create a culture of enthusiastic consent, where men and women feel comfortable asking for what they want (and being clear about what they don’t). No one should feel awkward or ungrateful for not wanting to continue at any point of a sexual encounter, and there should be nothing wrong with saying “This has been fun, but I’m going home now.”
Kaye Dyja is a member of the class of 2020. Dyja can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.