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Spoiler Alert – I’m talking about House of Cards, Season Three.



The dinner was a history-in-the-making. The first lady sat beside Russian president Petrov and asked him sweetly, as though oblivious of the whole rest of the crowded table,

“Are you in love, Mr. President?”

P-dawg let some time and banter pass before he answered her, in lines that make him one of the best bad buys I’ve ever seen on T.V. He’d heard this line before, he said – ‘are you in love’ – because Claire had said the same thing to one of his ambassadors. Was this the role of the First Lady, then? Her husband could speak of power, and leave the seduction to her? “There is a word for that – what is it?   Oh – pimping. He’s pimping you out.”

At the center of the laughing, wine-clinking table, where the business of the world’s richest and most powerful has come to rest, Petrov’s first act of aggression is directed in no uncertain terms against America’s First Lady. You’re a whore, Mrs. Underwood. Your husband brought you to get fucked.

Claire is flustered – you see it – yet still manages to return volley with her own ladylike toast to Petrov’s “little pickle.” We laugh and cheer and might expect for that to be the end of the evening’s personal battles – round one, point Claire. After all, Petrov already dropped the biggest psych bomb in his arsenal, didn’t he, in pointing right out the power imbalance between Claire and her husband? There’s no way Petrov can get back at Claire after that public jab at his cock size.

Except for – oh yeahh – actual sexual assault.

Claire is caught off-guard when Petrov asks her to dance. If there’s a diplomatic way of saying, “No,” she doesn’t think it up in time. So they clasp hands and twine and untwine bodies out in front of everyone. And when the song’s almost over, Petrov grabs the First Lady and forces her against him, his jeering kiss both a personal and a broadcast humiliation.

Petrov was telling the truth about the Underwoods’ one-sided relationship. The American President brought his wife to dance the dance of seduction in the interests of others, and Petrov has every political latitude to claim that forfeit. No one will avenge her, or even speak of it in public. America’s First Lady – hey. It came with the territory.

*             *             *

It wasn’t until I was talking to a friend about Season Three of House of Cards (a male friend) that I realized how subtle or submerged was the narrative of this particular power-play.

“Didn’t the “little pickle” line come after the kiss, though?”

“No,” I said, surprised. “The kiss was retaliation for the line about the little pickle. It happened after.”

My friend – we’ll call him Shebecca, because. – shrugged, taking my word for it, and moved on. Days later, we’d gotten into a heated discussion about a viral video that features a lovely actress walking alone through NYC. She recorded over 100 catcalls in ten hours on her jaunt.

“Some of them were definitely creepy,” Shebecca argued. “Like, a few of them who followed her. But some of them were just guys saying, ‘Hi, you’re beautiful.’ The thing she never acknowledges in the video is the fact that, well, she’s hot. I mean, some of those guys might have wanted to get to know her. If they don’t say anything, they don’t give themselves that chance.”

“They don’t really have a chance when they holler at her on the street, either. I mean, if you expect me to talk to you, at least have something interesting to say. Otherwise you’re basically expecting me to start the conversation. If it was in a store we might be going for the same cereal or something and a conversation starts that way.”

“You’re talking about effectiveness now. The video is about ethics. They act like its wrong for a guy just to say ‘hi.’”

“I wouldn’t hold it against a guy I didn’t know if he said ‘hi’ to me on the street. But I can see why it’s on the video. Cause when you look at it from her perspective, it’s stressful. She doesn’t know which of those guys is going to follow her and which isn’t. If it wasn’t out on the street, there might be a different story.”

“Saying ‘hi’ doesn’t make you more likely to follow someone than not saying ‘hi’. It’s not like you go from saying ‘hi’ to raping someone. And it’s not like you have to respond – you can just keep walking like she did with no negative repercussions.”

“There are repercussions, though. Cause I have to worry about, if a guy says ‘hi’ and I keep walking, maybe he’ll get offended. It’s rejection. Like the guys who told her, ‘You should say thank-you when someone gives you a compliment’ – obviously they expected her to respond, and were offended that she didn’t.”

“It’s not about what guys expect. You can just keep walking – you don’t owe it to the guy to be polite. Saying ‘hi’ to someone you don’t know is like buying a lottery ticket. You know she probably won’t respond, but it’s a chance you have to give yourself.”

“But it’s a lottery ticket that causes other people stress. If you know that it’s hurting someone, then it is wrong. They say ‘hi’, you keep walking. Then they call you a bitch, and things start to escalate. Maybe it leads to me getting followed.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“You don’t believe there’s actually a reason to get stressed out?”

“I don’t believe it’s stressful.”

“What?” That’s the part he doesn’t believe? …The part where I say what my feelings are? “How do you not believe that?”

I never quite realized before that moment the great gulf that exists between women’s and men’s understanding of the hows and whys of sexual assault. Because men and women are both raped, by men and by women, and for all we know, in equal numbers. Rape doesn’t happen on the streets most of the time – it happens in bedrooms, between people who know each other, and often without the kicking-screaming-fight-to-the-death-obvious violence that is the most famous hallmark of that crime. It happens because one person says ‘no’, and another person pretends not to hear, or decides not to believe in the invisible feelings inside of other people. No gender has the monopoly on listening.

It’s an equal-opportunity horror behind closed doors. Out on the street, though, things aren’t equal. Famously underreported though rape is in general, street assaults involving strangers and potentially witnesses are the most likely to be recorded by law enforcement or medical professionals. When it comes to street assault, statistics depicting a rate of victimization among females many times higher than that of males are probably accurate.

Out in public, there’s a hierarchy. There are issues of status and socialization to account for when calculating our relative risk-levels. At the back of my mind when I turn a corner, there are studies, and stories, and interviews. Dr. Barbaree taps me on the shoulder and reports, “Very often the rapists say that the trigger for the rape was when a woman made them angry, usually by rebuffing a sexual overture.” Dr. Ahuja agrees, “For the power-assertive rapist or the anger-retaliation rapist, being angry at a woman or being insulted (or perceiving an insult) by a woman would be a significant trigger.”

I thought that narrative was something we all understood. But my good friend Shebecca, despite being one of the most intelligent, caring and empathetic people I’ve ever met, does not know how to see it. And this, to me, is evidence that most men don’t know how to see it, even though it may be playing out in front of them, on the street or on Netflix, or anywhere that men and women gather.

Like at the party I went to, not too long ago, where someone I knew turned out to be a rapist.

He wore a suit. He was the only one there who did, and he walked through the door with a group of guys who must have been his friends. I didn’t know him all that well – we’d worked together once, and gotten along. He called my name grandly across the floor, and I gave him a hug, asked him how he’d been. He asked me if I’d like to dance, and I said sure. But before we’d gotten to the dance floor, he changed the subject, asking me if I’d like, instead of dancing, to give him head in another room.

I said no, and no again because he kept on asking until I regained enough of my composure to walk away. I don’t know what a guy might have made of that situation, but to me the danger was absolutely, crystal-clear. Mr. Head did not want head because of horniness. Mr. Head had gone to the trouble of collecting a group of friends, and wearing the only suit, and loudly greeting a young lady in a dress across the room, because he was feeling bad about himself, and wanted to feel better than somebody else. He wanted me to suck his dick, so he could show his friends how much better than everyone else he was.

I hit the dance-floor without saying anything about this to anyone. Hours later, I was heading up for a drink when I passed by Mr. Head again. He was standing in front of the group he’d brought with him, and he asked me the same question, loudly, in front of them. I laughed, patted him on the head like a dog while calling him an idiot, and walked away. Embarrassment was evident in the sudden quiet behind me.

It was twenty minutes later, as me and some friends sat chatting, that we heard a woman scream. The loser with the suit had gone with a young lady into a separate room, and tried to rape her. Several people heard the scream and rushed to intervene; Mr. Head wound up getting knocked out and crapping his pants (so much for feeling better than anyone).

To some, the attack was random. From my perspective, it had a story – one that follows a familiar and established pattern. Little pickle. Dance and kiss.