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)