In our previous Public Discourse essay on the #MeToo movement and hookup culture, we argued that careful attention to human experience can teach us important and surprising things about the meaning of sex. The same can be said for popular culture. It often tells the truth about sex, in spite of itself.
Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” is a case in point. Published in December 2017, the story is the most downloaded fiction ever published in The New Yorker, and is the title essay for Roupenian’s newly released collection of short stories. Unexpectedly, many of those readers were millennials. It is worth considering why it resonated so much with them. (Readers beware: the story is graphic.)
“Cat Person” is a third-person narrative told from the perspective of Margot, a twenty-year old college sophomore. It relates her brief romance with a thirty-four year old man named Robert, whom she meets at the “artsy movie theater” where she works. Margot abruptly ends the relationship after the couple have what, for Margot, is very unromantic sex at Robert’s apartment after their first date. The story ends with seventeen increasingly desperate texts from Robert to Margot after he sees her at a bar, beginning with “I just wanted to say you looked really pretty. I hope you’re doing well!” and ending with “Answer me. Whore.”
For many readers, the story powerfully expresses the struggles and anxieties of women in the age of #MeToo. Others—many of them men—regard the male character as the real victim. Both groups are right, though not for all the reasons they may think. “Cat Person” reveals one of the most tragic costs of the sexual revolution: the fading possibility of true personal intimacy between a man and a woman, especially the embodied intimacy of conjugal love.
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The Meaning of Intimacy
In common parlance, a “cat person” is not simply someone who likes cats; it is a lonely human being who has either refused or is unable to achieve the risks and benefits of human intimacy. This description applies to both Margot and Robert.
Intimacy is one of the deepest human needs and greatest human goods. The Latin root is associated both with “knowledge” and with what is “innermost, deepest, most profound.” Accordingly, intimacy is a state of being deeply known and loved by another person, and of deeply knowing and loving that same person in return.
Without intimacy, human beings can never know their full worth or experience authentic love. But for beings as broken, wounded, and fragile as we all are, intimacy is also a great risk. We long to be truly known, but we fear rejection. Thus ordinary human communication is characterized by a complex and mostly tacit set of interactions involving self-concealment, interpretation, response, and (as trust grows) self-revelation.
Intimacy at its deepest level requires both tremendous vulnerability and the deepest kind of trust. This is especially true of sexual intimacy, which uniquely involves the whole person, body and soul. The profound physical, emotional, and psychological differences between the sexes make intimacy between men and women especially difficult and personally hazardous. This is the real reason for traditional norms governing dating, courtship, and marriage: the need to promote the vulnerability and trust that intimacy requires, and not patriarchy or puritanical hostility to the body and pleasure.
“Cat Person” dramatizes the personal costs when those norms are absent. In the beginning, Margot and Robert are clumsily, almost sweetly, pursuing intimacy. By the end, they are filled with self-loathing, guilt, frustration, anger, and a kind of mystified bewilderment.
Dating for Intimacy
“Cat Person” is more about dating than about hooking up. People who date are not simply interested in sex or friendship, but in both together; they are interested in sexual intimacy. We previously sought to show why sex outside of marriage is often experienced as depersonalizing, even when it involves mutual consent. “Cat Person” certainly illustrates this, but it also shows how extramarital sex prevents intimacy.
Sex demands comprehensive consent, because only in marriage are vulnerability and trust undergirded by the public vows of fidelity that make full personal intimacy possible. Dating should be a process that (when successful) helps a man and a woman move from an initial stage of romantic attraction to the full intimacy of marriage. Essentially, this involves two tasks.
The first task is to foster the true knowledge that makes intimacy possible. Sexual attraction always begins with an imagined and often idealized conception of the other person. Dating should help to bring that imagined conception into correspondence with the real person in a natural, paced progression, in which neither party will be irreparably harmed should they decide to halt the process.
The second task is to promote, in a sustainable and well-balanced way, the back-and-forth dance by which intimacy grows: vulnerable self-disclosure followed by a loving response of true care and acceptance. This involves building trust by not allowing the emotional or sexual aspects of intimacy to outpace proven commitment and care over time. As we see in “Cat Person,” these are not easy tasks.
In the Beginning: Romantic Attraction
Margot and Robert’s relationship begins with romantic, and not merely sexual, attraction. Although Margot notices that Roger is slightly overweight and his beard is too long, she also thinks he is “cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him.” She is perplexed by his guardedness, and she finds herself increasingly attracted to him as she discovers his vulnerability and sees evidence of his care for her. Margot even says to her stepdad, “We’re in love, and we’re probably going to get married.”
Robert, considerably older than Margot, is cautious but tender. At one point, Margot expects Robert to kiss her on the mouth. Instead, to her surprise, “he kissed her gently on the forehead, as though she were something precious.” We later learn that Robert indulged in some romantic dreaming of his own while Margot was home on break. Despite the fact that they had only met three times and had never been on a date, he imagines a scenario in which she left school “committed to him” but then got drawn back to a high-school sweetheart “not worthy of her.”
When she returns to school, Robert does ask Margot to a movie, their first real date. But rather than promoting the slow, carefully negotiated alignment of romantic perception with reality, the date results in a relationship-ending collision that destroys both romance and nascent intimacy. That collision is the direct result of their decision, fueled by alcohol, to have sex.
Good Date Gone Bad
The date begins like many first dates, with the awkwardness of differing expectations and mixed signals that often accompany people who are attracted to but do not really know each other. (As with many young people today, much of their knowledge of one another prior to this point has been gained through the “faux intimacy” of texting.) Margot privately wonders why Robert chose a movie on the Holocaust and why he seems physically and emotionally distant. Robert privately wonders why Margot did not dress up more and wanted to go to an out-of-town theater where they would not be recognized.
Slowly Robert and Margot begin to come into a deeper and more accurate knowledge of one another. A pivotal moment occurs after the movie, when Margot is rejected at a bar because she is underage while Robert unknowingly walks ahead without her. Returning to find her in tears of frustration and shame, he immediately responds with kindness and care. She in turn finds herself more deeply attracted to him because of his care for her, but also because she knows he is vulnerable too. Roupenian captures the moral ambivalence of Margot’s reaction:
“She was starting to think that she understood him—how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded—and that made her feel closer to him, and also powerful, because once she knew how to hurt him she also knew how he could be soothed.”
Vulnerability, the possibility of being “wounded” (vulnus means “wound”), is a precondition for intimacy, but it presents the other person with a choice. As we argued in our earlier piece, sex in the wake of the sexual revolution is motivated more often by thumos than eros, by power rather than love. Margot feels “closer” to Robert, but also “powerful,” because the revelation of another’s vulnerability is an opportunity for exerting thumotic power or for loving, self-sacrificial care. When Margot gives in to her desire for power, she forgoes the possibility of further intimacy. Roupenian shows this in a number of ways.
It is when Margot gets drunk at the next bar they go to that she first begins to desire sex with Robert. Initially, when he feebly resists her advances, telling her “you’re drunk,” Margot privately delights in “being made to feel like a kind of irresistible temptation.” Later at Robert’s house, observing his look of pleasure, “she thought that maybe this was what she liked most about sex—a guy revealed like that.” And most tellingly, while they are having sex “she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly even admit even to herself she was having it.”
Robert exploits Margot’s vulnerability as well. Despite his occasional tenderness, he refuses the office of a gentleman, taking advantage of Margot’s youth and inebriation. He fails to put concern for her good above his own sexual desire. Robert follows the self-defeating script of modern dating culture, where sex destroys the very intimacy that couples hope to achieve by it.
Predictably, their sex is clumsy, awkward, and, for Margo, very unpleasant. Perhaps not unlike the experience of many couples who have sex for the first time on their honeymoon, for how could something as complicated as sex be otherwise? But as every long-married couple knows, marriage vows bring the remedy by providing firm bonds of trust within which couples can be attentive to one another as they learn to master the art of intimate love. Marriage does not guarantee true sexual intimacy, tenderness, and respect, but it is the necessary condition for them. Outside of marriage, motives of patience, sensitivity and trust in sex easily evaporate, often revealing the ugly reality of exploitation hiding behind a veneer of mutual love.
Roupenian shows this in another pivotal scene. Robert is initially concerned for Margot. When she shows some discomfort, he stops and “urgently” asks her “Wait. Have you ever done this before?” But when Margot laughs at his question―she has had sex with six other men―his gentleness evaporates into a more “toxic masculinity.” He manipulates her like “a doll made out of rubber” and “throws her around as if they were in a porno.”
For her part, Margot’s romantic image of Robert turns to revulsion at his “fat, hairy” body but with “self-disgust and humiliation” she finishes the act, reflecting with amazed bewilderment: “This is the worst life decision I have ever made!” Even more tragically, her hope that “somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy” who would understand her and with whom she could truly be intimate is crushed. “There was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.”
The refreshing candor of “Cat Person,” awkward and difficult as it is to read, breaks through the blithe denial of so many millennials’ painful experiences of sex and dating, and contradicts the modern assumption that the sexual revolution represents clear progress in the way men and women interact. Indeed, the story resonates because most men and women still desire deep, even conjugal, intimacy with a person of the opposite sex, but the means they employ to achieve it―online interaction, often alcohol, and unmarried sex―tragically work to kill real intimacy.
Unlike modern, “enlightened” America, older cultures recognized that because sexual intimacy between men and women is especially high-risk and difficult to achieve, it requires conventions that protect persons while promoting the trust necessary for real conjugal intimacy. By destroying the cultural bridges that successfully brought men and women together and directed them toward marital intimacy in a sustainable way, the sexual revolution risks turning us all into Cat Persons.