This morning, I picked up my mother's copy of “Brigitte”, a German woman's magazine geared at women between 30 an 50. I often borrow the magazine from her, because it tends to have pretty interesting articles. More recently, I've declared myself an out-and-out fan after Brigitte became the first magazine to stop using professional models for their photo spreads. Instead, they now use women they simply approach on the street, and supplement the pictures with information about the woman's life (this particular issue -06/2010- features a 41-year-old woman covered in piercings and tattoos, who has been working as a wrestler and a programmer of computer games).
However, what caught my eye today was one of the titles on the cover: “The sex I didn't want – Confessions from a Gray Area”. In my mind, I immediately flashed to the infamous Cosmopolitan article by Laura Sessions Stepp ( A New Kind of Date Rape ). With a funny feeling in my stomach, I flipped to the article. And lo! - the concept was exactly the same. Citing five example stories and an opinion from a psychologist, the article purported to examine a phenomenon called “gray rape”. With exception of the last story (of a man who accommodated his wife's interest in BDSM despite the fact that he did not share it), the theme of all the other confessions was similar: a woman meets a man, spends some time with him, has a good conversation over a drink or two, agrees to go home with him/take him home. Then things heat up and start to go further than the woman is comfortable with. She grows passive, pulls back, voices doubt. In two cases, she explicitly says no. In all cases, the men either apparently don't notice or actively ignore the protest and keep going.
Ladies and Gentlemen, there is nothing “gray” about these stories. The legal dictionary at Thefreedictionary.com defines rape as “[a] criminal offense defined in most states as forcible sexual relations with a person against that person's will”. If someone says no, and the other person does not stop, then it fulfills the definition of rape. It doesn't matter if you had a pleasant evening with that person, invited them to your room and fixed them a drink, first. You still have the right to say No, and have that No be heard and respected. You still didn't say yes. Consenting is saying yes.
Part of the reason why this is so hard to understand, and why stories like these are so rarely recognized for what they are, is because of the pervasive myth of what rape looks like. Despite the fact that statistics continually tell us differently - 4 out of 5 rapes are committed by someone the victims knows, often someone as close as a partner/boyfriend/friend (statistics taken from The National Center for Victims of Crimes) - rape is still often presented in the media as something that either happens to sexually “promiscuous” women who are “asking for it”, or something that is perpetrated by a stranger with a knife who jumps out at women in dark alleys in the night.
Not only is this image just plain inaccurate, it is also damaging. If women believe that only something done to them by a violent deranged stranger can be called rape, or that if they are raped they must have somehow done something to deserve it, then they are not going to report their abuser, they are not going to seek the help they deserve in working through the experience, and they are going to feel shame and guilt over something that was not their fault or their doing.
So, Brigitte (and Cosmopolitan, too!) please do your homework before you publish articles. You are ostensibly geared towards women, so do yourselves and your readers a favour and publish correct information to help dispel this pervasive and damaging myth.