I’ve watched Lena Dunham’s Girls religiously ever since it premiered in 2012, my freshman year.
Through those four years of college, Girls saw me through breakups, heartbreaks, unrequited love, changing majors and major changes. But it wasn’t until recently that I recognized something unsavory about those years that I managed to miss during my first year of college. As I cuddled up on the couch with my partner of two years, watching Girls over again based on their newfound curiosity with the show, I noticed that I had dated a season one Adam Sackler. And I was able to recognize that this onscreen romance I once idealized and related to was, in fact, an incredibly toxic arrangement.
In season one, Adam often coerces Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham) into sexual situations she wasn’t comfortable with, including role playing, masturbating in front of her and not using a condom. Adam also exhibits this sort of behavior with another character in one of the following seasons, forcing roleplay and ejaculating on her face without her consent.
Hannah and Adam also had a relationship that remained strictly undefined, something that caused Hannah stress and pain while Adam remained indifferent and unusually casual despite the span of time they would spend together. Watching it at the time, this sort of dynamic seemed ordinary to me, acceptable even, as it mirrored my current relationship with Zach*.
I met Zach during my first class in college ever, which happened to be yoga. We hit it off pretty immediately, and he asked for my number as soon as class ended. I felt giddy and light when he texted me for the first time that night about hanging out. As someone who was terribly sensitive as well as sexually inexperienced, I chose to see budding, genuine romance where there wasn’t any. I saw my first mind-blowing orgasm with another person as proof that he cared about me more than he let on. Though I agreed we’d be just friends with benefits, I couldn’t help but believe that things would develop further and that I could change his flighty, sometimes problematic ways. I even used Girls as reference for how his treatment of me was typical. Of course, this wasn’t true. I deserved a lot better.
I often felt used by him, as he made empty promises to me he could never quite keep. Zach swore up and down we were nothing more than friends, despite the months we spent having sex, our incessant text conversations and the dinner dates he would bring me on. He relished in being my “teacher” in the bedroom and coerced me into giving him blow jobs, often forcing me to swallow his cum. I sometimes would cry after he left my room on these nights–not because of the coercion but because I realized I wasn’t attracted to penises. I felt trapped. I felt defenseless against his twice-weekly booty calls, endured his non consensual touches when he was drunk and inappropriate sexts while I was at work. He hurt me with his fingers, and then left in the middle of the night. And while he didn’t give me much, he made me believe that he needed me.
He needed me to sleep next to him because he couldn’t stand sleeping alone. He needed me to cry to about his parents’ divorce. He needed me to drop everything and fetch him when he was too drunk at a party and give him hand jobs in his car despite my reservations about that (we were caught once by the cops). He expected the world from me, even when I asked him if he would be my boyfriend and he laughed in my face, even when I angrily broke things off.
It’s incredibly easy to normalize abuse, to dismiss coercion and assault as something so trivial. It’s easy to sweep aggressive behaviors and toxic patterns under the rug when you’re in it, especially if you’re struggling from mental illness or have been the recipient of abuse in the past. But when you get the chance to step back later, to see it objectively play out in front of you on TV or online or on the street, perspective makes a world of a difference. And though I’m not necessarily praising Girls for their portrayal of toxic relationships (Adam is never addressed about or condemned by anyone in the show for his gross ways), I’m thankful for the show for playing out Zach and myself in front of me and giving me clear hindsight that what happened to me in that relationship, was real, valid and wrong.
*: name changed for story