Why "Gray Rape" Doesn't Exist

This morning, I picked up my mother's copy of “Brigitte”, a German woman's magazine geared at women between 30 and 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.

Further reading:


Thank you for this important piece, Joey. I absolutely loathe Laura Sessions Stepp and the dangerous misinformation she spreads, and I'm sorry to hear that this particular myth has also made its way to Germany. (Although I'm sure it's probably present in most places, unfortunately, in some form or another.)

What did you think about the non-professional models being featured? Do you think it seems like genuine progress or just lip service to a nice ideal?

I've actually really loved looking at the fashion spreads ever since they started using non-professional models. Even if a lot of the women featured do look conventionally pretty, you always get to read their story, which makes it easy to relate to them. And even just the fact that they don't air-brush already makes a huge difference in making the women look more 'real'. Also, a lot of the women are in their 30s and 40s, which I'm sure the target audience of the magazine appreciates. What they do a lot, a well, is showing mother-daughter pairs, which is so neat. And there is always one or two models who are very unconventional in some way (such as the wrestler with the tattoos I mentioned in the blog) thrown in as well, which makes for a nice variety. So, on the whole, I think it's definitely been a genuine attempt at progress.

When a woman says "No" it doesn't always mean "no, I don't want to have sex". "No" can mean "Not now, you have advanced too fast! Please, slow down, take one step back, then try again when the moment is right".

It is a rape though if the girl is shouting repeatedly "Get off me!", crying and fighting, and the guy continues; because then there's no room for confusion.

J: while I appreciate some of the comments in your first paragraph, I hope you -- and other readers -- can recognize that very often in rape/sexual assault, that's just not how many victims react.

Shock is a very common physical and emotional reaction to assault, for instance, which can tend to result in freezing up more often than outward expressions of noncompliance. Denial can also play a part: after all, no one wants to be raped, so the mind can basically cling to denial that that isn't what's happening while it is. As well, many victims are afraid that yelling, crying or fighting will result in them getting hurt MORE.

It's really not all that confusing when someone truly wants sex. While by all means, saying no, crying, fighting, etc. is a clear indicator someone does not, so is passive nonparticipation. Someone into sex does not tend to be silent, to just lie there, to not physically enact their desire for a partner by trying to sexually engage with them.

Additionally, "No" that doesn't mean not next year, or not in an hour is STILL no, and is still "No, I don't want to have sex right now."

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

About a year ago I had a rape experience that indeed felt gray. I wasn't okay with what happened, and cut off contact with that person. And it messed me up, but I still wasn't sure how to deal with it or if it was indeed rape. By the time I became okay with talking about it, I thought maybe I was just looking for attention or feedback because no one wanted to hear the whole story. I feel like now I can actually begin to heal not just cope.

I know exactly how you feel, i was in your shoes two years ago, and after reading this article i can finally make sence of what happened, and start to realize that there is such a thing, it's been hard to deal with. but now i can finally start to accept what happened and move on. It's not a bunch of junk what she was saying, sometimes when you get put in a situation you don't know what to do or how to handle it.

That Cosmopolitan article made me feel sick and astounded.
Good summary of the issue! I'll add it to my list of great Scarleteen insights to link to.

Hey Joey, you make a great point here. I'm sick and tired of women being blamed because "they asked for it" by "dressing inappropriately" or something just like that. Women do have a choice, and if they want to go out and have a good time with a guy and bring him home, it's their wish. But if she doesn't want to have sex with him, then he has no right to force himself onto her or even try to kiss her for that matter. I wrote a post in Lovepanky - Your Guide to Better Love and Relationships about "What to do if your friend tries to rape you" which I think might be a great way to understand how date rapes and forced sex works. After all, as you say, in four out of five cases, it's a friend or someone close who tries to get physical with the girl. So where is there an issue about dressing inappropriately or anything like that? After all, a friend is someone who's been around for years, and has seen you all the time. So he really can't just get turned on in one instant.

Half these date rapes are planned, especially when they are committed by someone we women know. It's sick and disgusting, and most of all, it's high time women understood that they are the victim here, and should not feel guilty or ashamed of themselves for leading a man. A girl can be dressed skimpy for all anyone cares, but there is no excuse for taking advantage of her innocence or friendliness. It's articles like these that help women understand the truth. After all, a date rape, contrary to popular belief, does not happen in the heat of the moment. It happens because some evil man had planned the whole thing out or had been lusting about a girl long enough to plan a devious plot to seduce her forcibly. And no woman should ever feel ashamed by it, but instead should stand up for herself and make the man pay. Here's another piece about "Sexual Abuse of Helpless Girls in India" which is sickening and depressing. Most girls feel ashamed that they were raped or sexually assaulted and can never find the courage to face life or stand up to men again. Keep up the good work, and it's time we let women across the world know there's more to being a woman than worrying about clothes. It's about standing up for yourself, and believing in yourself. And that no matter what, no man can abuse us and make it look like we're the ones at fault!

I usually take the "gray" bit not to be referring to whether an impartial observer would define the situation as rape or whether the victim/survivor would, but whether the perpetrator was or even could have been aware that hir actions were rape. (Please note, I have no desire to excuse rape, and in situations where perpetrator may legitimately not know they are committing rape, they still are, and that's still a problem. I do, however, think this is an important issue to tackle, because in order to end rape, we need to change rapists' behavior. I think a framework of active consent addresses the problem, but sadly, that's still not what we teach most people or how we frame consent generally in society, at least here in USA. I also agree that there appears to be nothing particularly uncertain about the situations in the magazine article as described in the post.)

I'll use my own experiences as examples. Technically, I was sexually assaulted by a girlfriend, and her actions included what I would define as attempted rape, though it doesn't meet the legal definition in any jurisdictions in which I exist, as "rape" necessitates penetration of the victim. In my case, my girlfriend attempted to force me to penetrate her without my consent, which qualifies as "sexual assault" but not "rape". We were naked and making out with her laying on top of me, and she attempted to slide her vagina around my penis, despite my categorical insistence that any PIV sex we eventually engaged in would involve the use of latex barriers and her stated desire to not engage in PIV sex at that point in time. In her mind, based on the way we construct masculinity and masculine sexuality (and despite my actual stated desires and hers), she was attempting to give me the 'gift' of condom-free PIV sex - it was literally outside her understanding that a man might not want to have sex without a condom. This doesn't mean that she didn't assault me - she did. She simply had no understanding of the fact that her behavior could constitute assault (we had a long discussion right after, and now she does). I also didn't report the assault for a whole host of reasons with which you're all probably familiar, but primarily because I saw no way in which punishing her (as unlikely as that outcome would have been) served anyone's interests. The fact that the assault was truly born of ignorance and not malice (this is probably much less the case when the genders are reversed, but it also bugs me every time someone insists that a male perpetrator MUST be lying if he says he really didn't know his behavior constituted rape, because I can see how our failure to educate people properly about what constitutes sexual consent - in large part because many people feel that teens should have no right to consent to sex and so they ban education about it in schools - can result in someone actually being unable to understand that boundaries-violating behavior actually is that) meant it was not going to happen again after we discussed it (and it didn't), and I had no vindictive desire to see my girlfriend punished for being an asshole, even a rapey asshole, even to me.

I've also had sex when I was seriously intoxicated, way past the point of being able to give legally-valid (and some would say meaningful) consent. I don't consider any of the several times that's happened to be rape, neither in retrospect nor at the time - I was an engaged (if perhaps not terribly coordinated) participant in activities I definitely actually wanted to do, before, at the time, and in retrospect. However, in circumstances in which someone in my state DOES feel pressured or conflicted at the time or even not at the time but feels violated or assaulted after the fact, sexual activity with drunk people is obviously a problem. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of the sexual partner (or possibly rapist), it may not be possible to tell how someone will react - whether drunken consent constitutes actual consent (as it sometimes does) or not (as it sometimes doesn't). As someone who enjoys using various drugs to alter my perceptions and thought processes, I object to the notion that others should be able to stop me from doing things I actually want to do (as long as those things are not harmful to others) while drunk or high; I object to the state-imposed nullification of my agency if I choose to use mind-altering drugs. Obviously the safest option, if one wishes to avoid harming others, is to simply say no in those circumstances and not risk the sex actually being rape, and it's entirely fair for someone to refuse to engage in sexual activity with someone whose decision-making may be impaired (or absent). However, I think it's a mistake to pretend that rape is always clear-cut and absolute, at least from the viewpoint of the person who (potentially) commits a rape. I should point out that based on everything I've read, cases of rape that might actually be unclear to the rapist are rare, and in most cases, rapists know they're raping (or at least taking advantage of someone, doing something they do/would not like), but eliding the "gray" situations fails to address all of people's possible interactions and may be more confusing.

To say that rape is never gray is to say that consent is never uncertain or contested. Look no further than the debates over prostitution in various forms of feminism - some claim that sex workers should be able to exercise agency and that they consent to sexual activity for money (and that to restrict this practice is immoral and may deny current or potential sex workers the possibility of making lots of money for short hours on their own terms), while others argue that the structural constraints of patriarchy (especially where it intersects economic disparity) make meaningful consent to sex for money impossible (and some really extreme Radical Lesbian Separatists argue that meaningful consent to sex is categorically impossible, as all sexuality is determined by men in accordance with patriarchal norms; those critical of market economics might argue that none of us really ever consent to paid labor of any kind, as the need for money in the first place is coercive). These really aren't simple questions; they're deep, complex questions about the nature of human decision-making and how the sum total of our environments shapes what we do. I don't want to rape anyone, and my desire to not rape anyone always outweighs my desire to have sex, so I simply err on the side of caution (and suggest everyone else do the same). I still really think that the insistence of some on extremely simplistic messaging around rape is counterproductive, though. There seems to be a lot of focus (with so many problems, including the prevalence of rape) on figuring out whom to blame and on punishing those at fault; I'd prefer that we simply ask, "What's the best thing we can do to reduce the rates of rape?" and use real-world evidence to come up with a plan. I'd love to see mandatory sex-ed that included discussion of consent as an ongoing process, and as something impacted by structural constraints and coercion that may be beyond the control of any party directly involved.

A brief hypothetical to illustrate the point: I wanted to stick to actual personal experience to avoid spinning off into outlandish scenarios that bear no relation to reality, but I *know* this happens to people, it just isn't something that happened to me. Say I really don't feel ready for PIV sex - at all, with a particular person, maybe I'm gay but haven't acknowledged that to myself let alone anyone else, whatever - but my girlfriend really wants to do it and the way my culture constructs masculinity means I feel like it's unacceptable to refuse sex, so I go ahead and 'consent' to PIV sex, even though I really don't want to do it. My girlfriend didn't pressure me - my friends may have, and I may have done so myself. I feel miserable and violated after. Did my girlfriend rape me? Basically, I think we need to present consent as something negotiated within often-problematic contexts so that people - in this hypothetical example, my girlfriend - might understand better if decisions are being made under social duress and opt to not do something they really want to do even if a partner says yes when they think the partner might not be certain about that yes. In most cases, consent is clear, and if one approaches partnered sexual activity with openness and respect and affection (and clear communication!), accidentally doing something really problematic is very unlikely. I think if we stay focused on coming up with behavior models that tend to work well and on concrete steps we can take to combat rape, we can move forward without failing to recognize that consent can sometimes be a complex, uncertain concept (and in cases of uncertainty, I'd say the best option is always to err on the side of not assaulting someone).