Rape is Rape, There are no Grey Areas

by | March 21, 2013
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture, Sex-Ed

knoxvilleby Jasmine Peterson

I do not watch television so I have never seen the show Girls, but I knew something big had happened when my news feed began filling up with statuses and then articles about whether or not events depicted in a recent episode constituted rape.

Although I maintain something of a distance from media, I like to remain informed about the important things, and this seemed to be a pretty big deal, so I started reading what was being written. I mean, how could viewers be confused about whether or not they had witnessed a rape scene or not?

This concerns me greatly. But, at the same time, it doesn’t surprise me. Rape culture is pervasive. It blurs the lines between victim responsibility and rapist culpability. It creates these perceived shades of grey that don’t actually exist. I am known to argue that nothing is black and white, that there are always shades of grey, but the exception is rape. Rape is rape. The only potentially grey areas are in how we define, recognize, and validate rape.

I spent time as a volunteer at a sexual assault crisis centre, and we were trained extensively on issues surrounding rape and consent. As a culture, we are taught to speak of and think about rape a certain way. Media only covers rapes that tend to be prosecutable, and not those that may happen but never make it to a courtroom.

So, culturally, there is this perception of what constitutes rape – we envision someone violently forcing themselves on someone, proceeding when their partner has clearly said no. There are certain kinds of victims we believe (those who say no forcefully and vociferously, those who are chaste, who dressed conservatively, who did everything “right”) and kinds of victims we shame (if a victim was drunk, dressed “inappropriately”, engaging in risky behaviour, sexually experienced, in a relationship with or married to her rapist, then s/he becomes not the “right” kind of victim). This is all part of rape culture. It is perpetuated day-in and day-out through how we talk about sex, consent, women, men, and rape.

It is not surprising, then, when people are confused about rape, or when terms like “grey rape” emerge. But let me just be clear – there is no such thing as grey rape. It does not exist. And this would all be so much more apparent to both men and women if how we talked about sex and consent was clearer.

The term grey rape not only makes me uncomfortable, it makes me angry. This, I think, is why so many sexual assaults go unreported and unprosecuted. Sometimes a person doesn’t even know they were raped. Sometimes a person doesn’t know they are raping. Because we aren’t clear enough.

So when I read “On ‘gray rape’, Girls, and sex in a rape culture” over at Feminist Current, I was saddened, but not surprised. I could sense this reticence to name rape that isn’t overtly rape in the tone and discourse used. Terms like “date rapey behaviour” and “grey rape” allude to an overarching discomfort with even naming rape; which, I would argue, is a direct result of victim-blaming rape culture. Just because there is “no force, no screaming, no violence” doesn’t mean that sex is consensual. The absence of no does not indicate a yes. What Meghan Murphy describes in her article sounds like sexual assault, because coercion negates consent.

I would never tell a woman how to speak of her experiences. If this is how she needs to describe what happened to her to be comfortable speaking of it, that is her prerogative. But, I feel the need to clarify on the issue of rape and consent generally. If I say no once or a hundred times, and a man gets a yes through coercion, there is no consent. If there is no enthusiastic, obvious consent, there is no consent: one cannot just assume that consent is implied. If one or both parties are intoxicated – whether on drugs or alcohol – there is no consent. And in the absence of consent, you have sexual assault.

I can see how, as a culture, we can be confused about the boundaries between consent and sexual assault. Pop culture depicts acts of sexual assault and aggressiveness in music videos, television shows, films, and advertisements all the time. But they’re not highlighted thus, and we become acclimated to them, desensitized. Children are taught “no means no” in schools, but not “yes means yes”. Dating is talked about in terms of hunter/hunted – so boys learn that no doesn’t really mean no; it means keep trying until you get a yes. And then when victims come forward they are blamed and shamed. And we have terms like “grey rape”, which delegitimizes experiences of non-consensual sex.

So please, let’s not use the term “grey rape”. When we’re teaching children and adolescents about sex, let us teach them to attain enthusiastic consent before proceeding (and without coercion). Let us teach them that just because someone isn’t saying no, it doesn’t mean they are saying yes. Let us teach them healthy sexual boundaries. And let us face rape culture face on, let us not mince words, let us name rape when it happens so that perhaps, in the future, it will be recognized for what it is.

(photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons)


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  • http://www.feministcurrent.com Meghan Murphy

    Hi Jasmine,

    You bring up some super important points in this post. I am concerned though, that my post is misrepresented here…

    “So when I read “On ‘gray rape’, Girls, and sex in a rape culture” over at Feminist Current, I was saddened, but not surprised. I could sense this reticence to name rape that isn’t overtly rape in the tone and discourse used. Terms like “date rapey behaviour” and “grey rape” allude to an overarching discomfort with even naming rape; which, I would argue, is a direct result of victim-blaming rape culture. Just because there is “no force, no screaming, no violence” doesn’t mean that sex is consensual. The absence of no does not indicate a yes. What Meghan Murphy describes in her article sounds like sexual assault, because coercion negates consent.

    I would never tell a woman how to speak of her experiences. If this is how she needs to describe what happened to her to be comfortable speaking of it, that is her prerogative. But, I feel the need to clarify on the issue of rape and consent generally. If I say no once or a hundred times, and a man gets a yes through coercion, there is no consent. If there is no enthusiastic, obvious consent, there is no consent: one cannot just assume that consent is implied. If one or both parties are intoxicated – whether on drugs or alcohol – there is no consent. And in the absence of consent, you have sexual assault.”

    My intent wasn’t to advocate for the use of the term ‘gray rape’ or even ‘date-rapey behaviour’, per se. I was trying to relate our real-life experiences with sex and sexuality to rape culture, for one and also talk about how non consensual sex happens and, just because it doesn’t count as legal rape (and many of our experiences — like the one I describe in Girls and like my own experience are not the kinds of experiences you would call the cops over) doesn’t mean it is ‘ok’ or consensual.

    I realize these are complicated and difficult issues to discuss but I am not totally comfortable with the way my post was framed/represented here.

  • Jasmine

    Megan, I just want to let you know that I definitely did NOT want to misrepresent you in any way. I was very, very concerned about that. What I was trying to convey was that these ‘non-legal’ rapes are actually, legally, (at least in Canada… I’m not sure about the US and its laws) rape. The problem is more surrounding proving and prosecuting. Because the majority of rapes not only go unreported, but those that are reported too often go unprosecuted, even.

    I also want to say that I am not trying to argue, but build upon what you were saying. I was trying to convey that just because it isn’t our mainstream definition of rape, doesn’t mean that it is not rape, a violation of the body. THAT is what we really need to convey. Violence isn’t the only way rape, occurs. And I was trying to convey that the kind of experience depicted on the show, and that that you describe, were both nonconsensual and therefore rape. I wanted to convey that our conventional notions are not enough, and that we need to do far more to protect victims from sexual assault.

  • http://www.feministcurrent.com Meghan Murphy

    Totally. And I think that’s what I was getting at in my post. Just because we aren’t going to ‘call the cops’ doesn’t mean that there was no violation. Because we understand rape in a way that is based on the criminal justice system’s definition, I think women are left feeling confused and unsure about how to describe their experiences when they are violated and when there isn’t consent and yet it doesn’t count as ‘rape’. I’m not saying ‘gray rape’ is a great term, but I do understand what *some* people are trying to get at when they use it.

    I suppose I was concerned that you interpreted my post as my not understanding the difference between consent and unconsensual…

    The fact is that there are LOTS of ‘gray’ areas and that we need to be having conversations about that. Men (and women, too) clearly are basing their understanding of acceptable sexual behaviour on definitions that, yes, won’t get them charged, but are nonetheless nowhere near ‘consensual’ in any ethical or feminist sense of the word.

  • Liam

    Out of interest, what is your desired “end-game” result? I assume since you think that this kind of behaviour is rape, and rape is a criminal offence, that it would be criminalisation of some sort?

    I appear to disagree with you almost completely on this meghan thing though; if someone asks for money over and over until you relent it might be annoying and rude, but it’s not robbery. And I agree that if coercion took place then that would nullify any consent, but you seem to be playing fast and loose with the definition of coercion (and rape, but hey ho)

    According to the Oxford Dictionary:
    Definition of coerce
    verb
    [with object]

    persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats

    Ergo, if there was no use of force or threats, there was no coercion. Now you could classify essentially asking for sex over and over in a “charming back and forth” as meghan put it, as a threat if you really wanted to, but I’m unsure how successful you’d be in the real world applying the term sexual assault.

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  • Radiostar

    I’m sorry, but I simply can’t agree that rape is the one magical thing in life where suddenly there is no ambiguity or grey area and everything is perfectly black and white.

    You seem to be proposing an entirely subjective, strict-liability standard for consent. Even the law in Canada recognizes a reasonable belief in consent to be a defense to sexual assault charges. Recognizing that there is no such thing as perfectly unambiguous communication. Someone may incorrectly interpret a woman’s words and/or actions as demonstrating consent. Someone may mistake exactly what it is that a woman is consenting to (when a woman wants to engage in some sexual activity but not other sexual activity, and she doesn’t make it clear where that limit is).

    Coercion is also hard to nail down. Generally speaking, the law only recognizes threats of unlawful harm as constituting criminal duress. Merely nagging someone to sleep with you would not legally be considered duress or “coercion.”