In an interview discussing her background and approach to writing, Mary Gaitskill is quoted as describing “a reader of this story [The Girl on the Plane] asking her, ‘What am I supposed to feel?’ and goes on to say, ‘Most of us have not been taught how to be responsible for our thoughts and feelings. I see this strongly in the widespread tendency to read books and stories as if they exist to confirm how we are supposed to be, think, and feel . . .’” [http://bombmagazine.org/article/3265/mary-gaitskill]
That quote aptly describes the moral ambiguity that may or may not lie at the heart of her approach to stories involving sexuality and human relationships that skirt the boundaries of social propriety. With issues of sexual abuse, including date rape, an increasingly prominent topic of discussion today, Gaitskill’s story resonates with individuals on all sides of the political divide. The question of when does consensual contact become rape, especially when the female is inebriated and, consequently, of diminished mental capacity, is enormously difficult to confront, especially in an emotionless atmosphere. At one extreme, represented by the late Andrea Dworkin, an imbalance in political, social and economic power between men and women has created an environment in which sexual intercourse is, by definition, a form of coercion. At the extreme, the “she was asking for it” school of thought has historically run rampant across university campuses for many years – a situation habitually complicated even more so by the ubiquitous presence of copious amounts of alcohol and, occasionally, drugs. As Gaitskill has John suggest, after seeing Patty sometime after the “gang rape”/consensual “gang bang” took place during which the drunken female was subjected to seriously degrading conduct on the part of the men, “Really, though, if you were going to get blind drunk and let everybody fuck you, you had to expect some nasty stuff.”
In The Girl on the Plane, Gaitskill places her “protagonist,” John, squarely in the crosshairs of the debate over consensual sex versus rape. Prior to the rape scene, Patti has clearly been sending the kinds of signals the average college male wants to receive. John, however, is uncertain how to deal with Patti’s advances, as evident in the following passage:
“Patty,” he mumbled, “you’re drunk.”
“That’s not why. I always feel like this.” Her nose and eyelashes and lips touched his cheeks in an alcoholic caress. “Just let me kiss you. Just hold me.”
He put his hands on her shoulders. “C’mon, stop it.”
This responsible conduct, however, is undermined by John’s subsequent failure to protect Patty from the abuse of his friends and, of particular import, by his participation in the gang rape.
Gaitskill is not one-sided or simplistic in her depiction of the degradation of her central female character. She understands the powerful motivating force sexual tensions provide, and emphasizes the role of sex and sexuality in the broader culture, especially in mass communications. Describing the party at which the rape takes place, the author notes the images being broadcast on the television: “On the TV, a pretty girl gyrated in her black bra, sending a clean bolt of sex into the room.”
John’s subsequent attempts at reconciling his actions that night during his conversation with Loraine, the girl on the plane, tilt the moral balance of the story clearly away from any notion that what transpired constituted consensual sex. Having confessed to Loraine that he had “raped somebody. Somebody I liked,” only to then lamely attempt to extricate himself from his “gaffe” by stating that “it wasn’t a real rape,” suggests that Gaitskill has staked out a position after all.
So, in conceptualizing a thesis statement, one has to either take a firm stand on either side of the issue – in effect, it was rape, or it was consensual – or else accept that the scenario Gaitskill provided is morally ambiguous. That John, subsequent to the rape, spots Patty at a concert with one of the boys who abused her that night, lends credence to the argument that what occurred wasn’t rape. Clearly, however, John is plagued with guilt regarding his role in the whole affair, and, as the older party to the relationship between him and Patty, one could argue that it was his responsibility to prevent or stop the rape from occurring. Certainly, he seems to think so. A possible thesis statement, then, could be something along the lines of this: A group of males lining up to have sex with a drunk girl – and she was apparently a freshman, as Gaitskill suggests early in the story – isn’t ambiguous at all. Society may qualify such scenarios as morally ambiguous, but every one of those boys or men knew what he was doing, and knew he was taking advantage of a physically weaker human being for his own gratification. That, in short, is an absolute wrong. Gaitskill’s reference during the party to the sexually-suggestive imagery being broadcast over the television indicates that this is a much larger societal issue that needs to be address. And that can serve as the thesis statement.