science of us

A Therapist on That Awkward Sex Scene in ‘Cat Person’

Photo: Mayte Torres/Getty Images

By now, you’ve likely read “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian’s disturbingly realistic New Yorker story about a dalliance between Margot, a college student working at a concession stand, and Robert, her lumberjack-ian customer. The short story quickly went viral, followed by interviews with Roupenian in the New York Times and a rash of follow-up blog posts.

Many of these hot takes painted the story as fiction for the #MeToo movement, a vivid rendering of the difficulties women face in navigating sexual encounters, even without the specters of rape and assault. But the story isn’t particularly sympathetic to Margot, although she narrates it. Ultimately, what it does so effectively is paint two people, with all their attendant insecurities, experiencing sex that’s both consensual and uncomfortable. It’s every awkward sex story you’ve ever heard or experienced; it’s relatable in a way that at once chills and reassures.

We asked Christian Jordal, a certified sex therapist in Philadelphia, for his reading of the story. In our conversation, we hit upon kink sexuality, turn-ons, and the often-tenuous nature of attraction.

Okay, let’s talk about that sex scene. It often felt like Robert was acting almost cinematically: At one point, Margot notes that she feels like “a doll made of rubber, flexible, resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head.” Someone I know observed that he seemed like the kind of person whose experience of sex mostly came through watching porn. How do you explain his conduct during the sex scene? 

With Robert, I wonder about his sense of isolation. We didn’t know or get a sense of his experience of dating or sex prior to this. What did his sex life look like prior to her? Like, is this a person who had not engaged in a lot of sex, or who was mostly doing masturbation? How was he masturbating? The majority of people I work with use some amount of porn to masturbate, and so if he doesn’t have a lot of partners, and his sex life is focused on himself and pornography, I envision that — coupled with insecurity — may lead him to seem like an actor in a sexual situation with a partner.

This is a person who doesn’t seem to have a lot of sexual experience, but was also into her. He was trying to perform for her, I think. When you think about male sexual functioning, the more anxious a man is, sexually, the harder it is for him to perform. Sometimes it’s a double-edged sword, because a new partner can be very exciting, but it can also raise anxiety. The fact that she was trying to share with him in a playful way — being verbal during sex, which I think is a good thing — at the same time made him anxious.

I think if he had more confidence in himself, he would’ve been able to play back with her. She was trying to get him turned on and get him into it, but I think he interpreted that from a sense of fear, like, I’m trying to perform here. He doesn’t necessarily trust his prowess. He was trying to perform, rather than enjoy it. She was trying to enjoy it, she was in her body, and he was not.

Yet at the same time, Margot does escape her body at one point, imagining Robert’s mindset and allowing herself to be turned on by that. What does that say about her? 

We’re all to some degree susceptible to insecurity, especially around our bodies and sex. And if you look at theories around how people get turned on, from the ’70s onward, with the sexual revolution and women’s revolution, theorists have wondered: Do women get turned on in different ways than men? It’s been proposed that men experience sexual desire, feel turned on, and then they engage in sex. In more recent years, theorists have suggested that, for women, they may engage in an activity, and in the process of being sexual, then feel turned on. Also, for Margot — I was interested in how gender was playing out for her, in her sense of attunement to her partner. It was sort of funny thinking about this idea of, he’s so into her and that was turning her on, but in some way, this scene was about her orientation toward him in her head — thinking about what he’s doing.

I wonder, if we were going into his head, what he’d actually be thinking about. My instinct would be: How can I make sure I’m performing here? 

At one point, Margot experiences a strange flip: “Her revulsion turned to self-disgust and a humiliation that was a kind of perverse cousin to arousal.” How might disgust and humiliation translate to something like arousal, and what does this say about Margot’s sexuality?

She’s repulsed but also a little turned on. Where could that come from?

To some degree, this story is about sexual compatibility — how you or I determine whether someone’s a potential partner based on our physical chemistry with them. So much of the narrative is about how Robert is unconventionally attractive: his nebbishness, his sloppy kisses. But what I wonder about is Margot’s own sexual interest and sexual journey. Is this someone interested in exploring her own sexuality in different ways? I’m presuming that based upon her age, she’s at the beginning of the process of understanding herself — of determining her sexual identity, what ultimately turns her on. When you’re young and just beginning to explore relationships and sex, you’re much more open to the possibility of trying new things. To some degree, she was trying this person on relationally and sexually, and seeing how that felt for her.

The disgust also gets into the side of sexual values, sexual education. What I wonder about for her and him, is, How did your parents talk to you about sex? What did your culture or religion teach you, implicitly, and how does that trickle down to your feelings about your body and how you act? I would ask, where does this repulsion come from? Is it shame, sexual shame? And what are Margot’s sexual values that may inform how she’s feeling about sex? That’s a hypothesis — it may be that she’s open, into something kinky, but it could also mean she has sexual values from her past which are negative, which many of us do. Values like, the idea of sex is only for procreation; it should only take place in the dark; you shouldn’t talk during sex. A lot of us tend to have proclivities around these things, and sometimes we don’t know where they come from.

The story itself felt true to life, of course, but why do you think the sex scene in particular was so compelling? 

We were a bit of a voyeur there. And the way in which the writer described the sort of sexual encounter was very … visceral. We might have been repulsed, too, but it captured our attention. I think many of us have had partners who we might have some physical regrets around. Ultimately, we can all relate to this idea of waking up the next day after having had a sexual encounter with someone who we likely do not know very well, and ultimately feeling a sense of repulsion: Why did I do that? Oh, God. But I don’t think we’re always having sex with partners we’re attracted to. Sometimes, we’re just looking to get off.

A Therapist on That Awkward Sex Scene in ‘Cat Person’