“Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core”—is how the character of David Lurie, a 52-year-old professor, describes the sex he has with his student Melanie in J. Coetzee’s dark moral masterpiece, Melanie moves of her own accord—even lifting her hips to help David to undress her—but not quite of her own volition. But what makes it morally gross, to David as well as the reader—who slumps over his steering wheel, fighting dejection and shame after leaving Melanie’s apartment—is that he is aware it might have been rape had she been forewarned.
When David knocks on her door that afternoon, surprising her in her slippers, she is cast into a cultural script in which male sexual desire has presumptively overriding normative force, all else being equal (i.e., holding fixed other forms of privilege, including whiteness). More precisely, if Melanie had had more in the way of agency or sheer wherewithal and a sense of entitlement to deny him, she clearly would have said “no.” David, in knowing this, clearly took advantage (an old-fashioned expression, but a useful one, for all that).
She has written about Palmer’s indiscretions—as he thinks of them—for an obscure feminist website.
An 11-year-old Hannah responded with a passivity similar to Melanie’s when her teacher, Mr.
Lasky, was overly familiar with her, ‘handsy’ (to invoke another old-fashioned, but again suggestive, turn of phrase).
They are now empowered to ruin his reputation by exposing his sexual exploits How should we think about sex which ranges from actively sought, but only to please or appease a partner, to sex which is gone along with passively, in a blank, dissociative haze?
What if the agent who wants it, and pushes for it, is aware of his partner’s ambivalence or her frozen state of play-acting?
Melanie would have to make her will hard and steely in order to resist David—soon to be disgraced and forced to resign from the university, due to his sexual misconduct and subsequent lack of remorse. And this is so even if he would have stopped, had she in fact resisted.