Gray Rape

Two things led to this particular post. The first was a guest essay on Jeff Vandermeer’s blog by Jaymee Goh, about Enthusiastic Consent.  The second was an article published in Cosmopolitan a while back about “Gray Rape.”

I don’t like the phrase gray rape, and the Cosmo article pisses me off from page one with “gray areas” like:

“No. Stop,” she said softly — too softly, she later told herself. When he ignored her and entered her anyway, she tensed up and tried to go numb until it was over … “It fell into a gray area,” she said recently. “Maybe I wasn’t forceful enough in saying I didn’t want it.”


When [Laura] was a sophomore, she met a fellow student at a frat party. They drank, they flirted, and then he invited her to his apartment. There, they kissed for a while, and things got more heated until Laura realized that he was taking off her underwear and entering her. She was drunk, but she says she was aware enough to say no. When he ignored her, she froze — a common response, much like Alicia’s — and he continued to have sex with her.

There’s no gray here.  This is rape.  It does illustrate a common reaction to being raped, however, which is to blame yourself, and to question what you could have done differently.  It’s a reaction our culture is all too happy to encourage, emphasising the victim’s supposed responsibility for someone else’s choice to rape her (or him).

What about those situations where the victim didn’t clearly say no?  This used to come up a lot, along with false accusations, when I spoke to men about rape.  Is there a difference between rape and a misunderstanding?

Take the Kobe Bryant case back in 2003.  After the alleged victim dropped the criminal case, Bryant was quoted as saying:

Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did…

If one person believes an encounter is consensual and the other doesn’t, you have a problem.  Consent has to come from both parties.  If it’s one-sided, it’s not consent; it’s rape.

But if you didn’t intend to rape someone, and you believed they were okay with it, then it’s not your fault, right?  Just like if you didn’t intend to run someone over with your car, then they won’t really end up in the hospital with internal bleeding.

Wait, the voices say.  Isn’t it her responsibility to say no and make it clear she’s not interested?  Is it fair to blame the guy if someone’s sending mixed signals?

This seems like a duh moment to me, but the phrase “mixed signals” means the signals are mixed.  There’s no clear message as to what the person wants … meaning you have to find out.  With as much miscommunication as you get in most relationships, don’t you think it’s a good idea to make sure you’re both on the same page?

When working with rape survivors, I talked to a number of people who had frozen when they realized what was happening.  Sometimes these were people who had been raped before.  Freezing is a survival response to a threat.  It does not equal consent.

So to everyone worrying about “misunderstandings,” you’ve got a choice.  You can choose to make sure your partner enthusiastically consents to what you’re doing, or you can choose not to.  Why wouldn’t you make sure?  I can think of only two reasons.

  1. You’re uncomfortable talking about it.  If that’s the case — if you’re not comfortable talking about what you’re doing — then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it?
  2. You’re worried they’ll say no.  Meaning you’re not sure they want this, and you’d rather risk committing rape than risk asking and being told no.

Discussion welcome, as always.