Friday, February 17, 2017

Grey Area Rape

Content warning, obviously.

Some people talk about the concept of 'grey area' rape. Other people insist there is no grey area, rape is always rape.

To make things more complicated, the standards for what counts as grey area vary. In this Reddit thread, for example, a woman describes her own experience as follows:
As a woman who has been on the rape-end of the 'grey area' I'd say that I'm unclear as to whether that area actually exists. It seems like this should be determined by the victim.
My experience was with a guy who was, by then, my ex-boyfriend (though we still communicated a bit.) His role in the relationship was manipulative by nature. The evening of the event, his friend called me at 1am asking me to pick up my ex who was too drunk and 'emotional' to walk home safely. I obliged. I took him home and we sat talking in his garage for a while while he sobbed vehemently begging me to be with him, saying he just wanted to feel "like someone loved him." He started coming on to me physically and I remember telling him repeatedly that I didn't want to, that I wanted him to stop, that I wanted to go home. But physically, I let him do it. I laid there and let him finish because I wanted it to be over, I felt numb, and only knew that I didn't want to be there.
But I could never fully admit to myself that it was rape because I didn't stand up for myself as strongly as I should have. I didn't 'fight'. I didn't get angry in the moment. I just turned off, went numb, and waited for it to be over. Six years later I'm still struggling to feel like a whole human being; to convince myself that I am strong enough, rather than torture myself for not being strong enough in that moment.
That event changed my life and who I am as a person. But I've never known if I could call it 'rape'. I never reported it and have only told a select few very close people, mostly because I was afraid of their reactions; that they'd judge me for not standing up for myself, that my experience wasn't as traumatic as I made it out to be, that he would invariably defend himself and lie about my 'consent.'

Clearly, that's not a grey area rape. She said no. What's more, she said it repeatedly and in multiple ways. The fact that she didn't physically fight back indicates absolutely nothing about her level of consent.

People like this woman are probably the main reason that supporters of rape victims want to deny the existence of grey rape, because they know many victims will inaccurately classify clear-cut rapes as grey area rapes, and that this misclassification involves self-directed victim blaming. In addition, others use genuinely grey area rapes as an excuse to blame the victim for not communicating clearly enough.

However, none of that means that grey area rape doesn't exist. It does, and it should be recognized.

Grey area rape is when one party genuinely believes the sex is consensual, meanwhile the other party isn't actually consenting or is only consenting under duress.

For example, many asexuals, especially asexual women, are grey raped before they realize they're asexual. They know they don't really want to have sex, but they don't know why. They're afraid of hurting their partner's feelings or driving their partner away if they keep refusing, or they believe that if they just make themselves do it, they'll find out that they like it. As a result, they indicate consent to sex they really don't want, which is emotionally damaging.

Sometimes grey rape comes from a faulty model of consent - using the 'no means no' model instead of the 'yes means yes' model. Under the 'no means no' model, in order to avoid nonconsensual sex, all you need to do is stop if they say 'no'. Usually this model also says that someone who is clearly incapable of saying no should be assumed to be nonconsenting. But it doesn't acknowledge how hard it can be to actually tell if someone can say no.

For example, take a child sexual abuse survivor, who has learnt from many experiences that saying no is ineffective and dangerous. They may not realize, when a partner asks for sex, that they're operating under completely different rules from the abusers. They don't realize their partner will actually listen to a 'no', and so they don't give one.

Or what about someone who experience a seizure while having sex? Not all seizures are obvious. The person might simply go on with what they were doing in an automatic fashion, or else just get pause and become unresponsive. In the post-ictal state, they might not be fully conscious, or they may be temporarily mute. They can't say no, and their partner may not realize they can't.

Or what about the freeze reaction? This is part of the fight-or-flight reaction, where the individual freezes with fear, and is unable to move. They may also be unable to speak. Many clear-cut rapes elicit a freeze response (the woman quoted above described one when she 'turned off'), but grey area rapes can also result from a freeze response, especially if it happens during consensual sex. For example, a survivor of sexual violence may be enjoying sex until suddenly they are reminded of their trauma and freeze. If their partner fails to check in, that consensual activity could turn into a grey area rape.

This is why it's so important that consent education go beyond 'no means no' and 'unable to speak means no'. Consent should involve checking in regularly during sex, and looking for enthusiastic consent rather than passive assent.

But certainly many sexual encounters fail to follow these practices without becoming nonconsensual, just like many people ride in cars without seatbelts and don't get thrown from the car. If a parent didn't make sure their child was wearing a seatbelt, and the child got thrown from the car and killed, we wouldn't call that parent a murderer. The child is just as dead, but the parent's wrong is clearly less severe. Similarly, if a sexual partner fails to check in and winds up doing something their partner didn't want but couldn't say no to, we shouldn't call them a rapist. But their partner is just as much a victim.


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