Alexander Natruskin / Reuters

Recent months make it seem like humanity has lost the instruction manual for its “procreate” function and has had to relearn it all from scratch. After scores of prominent men have been fired on sexual-assault allegations, confusion reigns about signals, how to read them, and how not to read into them. Some men are wondering if hugging women is still okay. Some male managers are inviting third parties into performance reviews in order to avoid being alone with women. One San Francisco design-firm director recently said holiday parties should be canceled, as The New York Times reported, “until it has been figured out how men and women should interact.”

Into this steps “Cat Person,” a New Yorker fiction story by Kristen Roupenian that explores how badly people can misread each other, but also how frightening and difficult sexual encounters can be for women, in particular. “It isn’t a story about rape or sexual harassment, but about the fine lines that get drawn in human interaction,” Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker’s fiction editor, told me.

This weekend, the story went unexpectedly viral. Or, perhaps, in this #MeToo moment, it went expectedly viral, by revealing the lengths women go to in order to manage men’s feelings, and the shaming they often suffer nonetheless. A New Yorker spokeswoman said via email that of all the fiction the magazine published this year, “Cat Person” was the most read online, and it’s also one of the most-read pieces overall in 2017.

Treisman said that while she was not looking for a story that touched on topical issues of sexual agency specifically, when this piece came in, she did hope to get it into the magazine “sooner rather than later.”

The piece—which you can read here if you haven’t already and save yourself both spoilers and holiday-party alienation—follows a 20-year-old college student named Margot as she goes on a date with an older man, Robert, then breaks things off with him. And while it’s fiction, for many women, it felt a little too real.

In the piece, Margot comes off as polite, a little narcissistic, and more than a little confused. Like most young daters, she relies primarily on Robert’s short texts to divine his personality. And Robert is a creepy enigma who nevertheless does nothing technically wrong, until the end of the piece.

At one point, Margot goes over to Robert’s house (willingly) and (presumably) to have sex. And then, she experiences this emotion:

It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her 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.

What is the word for this emotion? It’s not quite regret, because you haven’t done anything yet. It’s not quite disinterest, because, well, you’re at his house, aren’t you? Is it guilt? More importantly, if she feels so uneasy, why is she going ahead with it? Is she just afraid to be rude? Is it out of self-protection? What are we to make of a sexual encounter that is technically consensual, but which Margot still considers to be “the worst life decision” she’s ever made?

In the recent powerful-man purge, and in the rape-on-campus crisis before that, there’s been a reckoning over the true meaning of consent. Some have questioned whether women who get drunk, go to men’s dorms, and even initiate intercourse could later have a genuine claim of sexual assault. Margot was at his house, wasn’t she? To some women, this passage in the story underscored the importance of the “enthusiastic” part of the new “enthusiastic consent” standard.

Treisman said she hopes the piece might make people, “stop and consider what’s driving them in any given encounter of a romantic kind ... I think the fact that it’s generated this conversation has been a healthy thing.”

After the fact, Margot puts off rejecting the man by saying she’s busy. In a follow-up article, Roupenian explains how she was getting at the pressure women face to exit unwanted romantic situations gracefully:

She assumes that if she wants to say no she has to do so in a conciliatory, gentle, tactful way, in a way that would take “an amount of effort that was impossible to summon.” And I think that assumption is bigger than Margot and Robert’s specific interaction; it speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy. It’s reflexive and self-protective, and it’s also exhausting, and if you do it long enough you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when you’re making that choice.

Margot’s initial attempts at gentleness don’t spare her Robert’s wrath in the end—another twist that’s all too common. A few years ago, I interviewed women who were prolific online daters. In their interactions with men on these apps, one-word replies were sometimes seen as binding international treaties specifying that shipments of sex were on the way:

A man ... had sent her the same OkCupid line three times in the course of a month, asking her if she’d like to chat. After ignoring it repeatedly, Tweten finally wrote back, “No.”

His response: “WHY THE FUCK NOT? If you weren’t interested, you shouldn’t have fucking replied at all! WTF!”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that there is already a Twitter account devoted to men criticizing the story for being too critical of the man, or too fat-shaming, or too confusing, or, um, too long. (It’s The New Yorker, my friend.)

No sooner has Margot imagined one day having a partner who would laugh and sympathize with her about the misbegotten Robert date than she thinks “no such boy existed, and never would.” It is remarkably difficult for women to talk to our romantic partners about what, exactly, it’s like for us out there. Much like the recent wave of sexual-assault scandals has served as an introduction, for men, to women’s heretofore private hell, “Cat Person” captured and explained the low-level dread that often accompanies romance for women—even the consensual kind.

Its deft portrayal of a near-universal sequence—the fear that your date might hurt you, the fear of hurting him first, the hurt that comes anyway after you spurn him—has sent it bouncing around the internet. It has women saying, in other words, “Yeah, us too.”

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