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There is No Such Thing as ‘Gray Rape’

Cosmopolitan has graced us with an article called “A New Kind of Date Rape”, written by Laura Sessions Stepp (who many of us have found problematic for some time). In it, Stepp informs us that “hookup culture” is leading to “gray rape” (both terms invented or popularized by Ms. Stepp).

What’s gray rape? According to Stepp, “It refers to sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial and is even more confusing than date rape because often both parties are unsure of who wanted what.”

Let’s see what falls into the “gray rape” category in Stepp’s mind.

This is what happened: Alicia had asked another student, Kevin, to be her “platonic date” at a college sorority formal. The two of them went out for dinner first with friends and then to the dance. She remembers that they got drunk but not what she would call sloppy wasted. After the dance, they went to Kevin’s room and, eventually, started making out. She told him flat out that she didn’t want it to proceed to sex, and he said okay. But in a few minutes, he had pushed her down on the couch and positioned himself on top of her. “No. Stop,” she said softly—too softly, she later told herself. When he ignored her and entered her anyway, she tensed up and tried to go numb until it was over. He fell asleep afterward, and she left for her dorm, “having this dirty feeling of not knowing what to do or who to tell or whether it was my fault.” While it felt like rape to her—she had not wanted to have sex with Kevin—she was not sure if that’s what anyone else would call it. “It fell into a gray area,” she said recently. “Maybe I wasn’t forceful enough in saying I didn’t want it.” Even today, she is reluctant to call it rape because she thinks of herself as a strong and sexually independent woman, not a victim.

Let’s examine that.

1. Alicia said no.
2. Kevin ignored her and penetrated her anyway.

I’m not seeing the grey area here. Let’s look at the legal definition of rape: “Forced and non-consensual sexual penetration of any body part by another body part and/or object. A person is forced into sexual intercourse through threats, physical restraint, and/or physical violence. Consent cannot legally be given if a person is under the age of 16, mentally disabled, or incapacitated (intoxicated, drugged, unconscious, or asleep).”

So we have a person here who was non-consensually penetrated; in addition, she was intoxicated and therefore legally unable to consent. But this wasn’t a mixup on Kevin’s part - it wasn’t just an absense of enthusiastic consent. Alicia said no. On all counts, this is absolutely rape.

Stepp seems to think that this is just a bit of confusion based on “hookup culture” (coincidentally the subject of her book). “A generation ago, it was easier for men and women to understand what constituted rape because the social rules were clearer. Men were supposed to be the ones coming on to women, and women were said to be looking for relationships, not casual sex,” she says. “But those boundaries and rules have been loosening up for decades, and now lots of women feel it’s perfectly okay to go out looking for a hookup or to be the aggressor, which may turn out fine for them—unless the signals get mixed or misread.”

Which seems very victim-blaming to me. Very “if you act like a lady, you won’t get raped; it’s your fault for confusing him.”

Rape is not a matter of confusion. Nor is it a matter of mixed signals. Rape is an act of power and aggression, not a thing your friend accidentally does because you were flirting with him; studies show that most rapists premeditate the assault. (David Lisak’s research on the topic is fairly chilling, showing the predatory mindset of serial rapists who literally isolate their victims from the “herd” to prey on them.)

I find the promulgation of the idea of “gray rape” deeply disturbing. To be very clear, there is no such thing as “gray rape”. What there is is a rape culture highly invested in not calling this what it is. By telling rape survivors that there was a “gray area”, people like Stepp are telling them that the rape was their fault - if only they hadn’t been drinking. If only they’d been saving themselves for marriage. If only they dressed modestly and didn’t flirt. “Gray rape” is nothing but a pseudosociological reframing of classic victim-blaming.

Alicia is reluctant to call her rape what it is because she wants to be seen as strong and not a victim. I would suggest that if we really want to help people who don’t call rape rape because they don’t want to be victims, we call them what they are - survivors. Articles like Stepp’s do far more harm than good; they are a huge step backwards, and can lead to massive setbacks in the recovery of rape survivors - if you’re told “it was a gray area”, told that you can’t call it rape even to yourself, told that you’re partially at fault for someone raping you, you’re far less likely to seek help. Far slower to heal.

In the world we’re working for, we call rape what it is. We say flat out that the only person to blame is the rapist. We get people help. And we don’t have articles like this.

(Want to support the great work BARCC is doing? Sponsor me in BARCC’s Walk for Change, or walk with us!)

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Posted by Shira

Shira formerly served as a volunteer with BARCC's Survivor Speakers Bureau and Prevention Services. She also formerly worked as BARCC's volunteer and program assistant. Shira also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories and poetry, and much of her outreach was done within the community of science-fiction fandom and the closely-allied local polyamory community.


  1. Thank you so much for this article ❤️

  2. I agree with all of this, but at the same time girls can be a tease. They don't want to look too easy so they say No. They want to test how much you desire them so they say No. But they want you, epecxt you, to keep asking, keep asking, keep asking until they say Yes. So often, when they say No, they really mean Yes. That's why there's confusion. And there's a big problem when these girls say No and really mean No! Because then nobody takes them seriously.

  3. I agree with this post 100%

    <a >smokeless cigarettes</a> <a >tonsil stones</a>

  4. :) I am film izle. For information whitening

  5. Thanks for all of the comments, everyone!

    @Rosa - I'm so sorry to hear that. Your friend can call BARCC's hotline for support, no reporting necessary - and so can you, if you need resources to help her or just need someone to talk to.

    @Vivienne and @Juliana - excellent points!

    @Rachel - To sell magazines and books, exactly. Regarding communication about sex... that tends not to be what's happening, especially with drug- and alcohol-facilitated rapes. What we see more of is a rapist deliberately giving alcohol and drugs, to lessen their victim's ability to fight back and to sell them the "confusion" and "miscommunication" lines later. David Lisak's research is chilling - "An overwhelming majority of these men (80.8%) reported raping women
    who were incapacitated because of drug or alcohol use." 63% of the rapists in the study committed multiple rapes - "It also suggests that the image of the drunken male college student who accidentally crosses the line between sexual pressure and rape is inaccurate, because so many of the undetected rapists in this study committed more than one rape."

    "The basic weapon is alcohol," Lisak says. "If you can get a victim intoxicated to the point where she's coming in and out of consciousness, or she's unconscious

  6. Maybe I am out of the loop because it has been at least 10 years since I had a training on rape and sexual assault. I had never heard the term gray rape before reading this article. I thought it might be a term where consent is unclear, which could hypothetically happen on occasion. But that isn't the example given. The example is clearly a date/aquaintence rape (just like it was 20 years ago when I started college and we had programs to prevent it). Why call it something else, except to sell magazines?

    I don't like this article because it confuses 2 important points. 1) Date rape is still rape (even if it would be hard to prove in court) and survivors deserve support and not blame. 2) Communication about sex is often unclear especially when alcohol and/or drugs are in the mix, especially when the people involved are young and not very expereinced about sex and dating. Maybe things have shifted a bit over the years but people have been "hooking up" and having one night stands for decades now. However, new young women and men enter the dating world all the time. Since Cosmo has a younger target audience it would have been nice to see an article that would help young women take care of themselves (as in tips to talk to a partner about sex, common assumptions men and women make about sex and dating that are different, etc.) I think there is a lot of room for discussion about avoiding situations where there is poor communication or poor decision making going on. I also think there is a way to point out potentially risky situations without blaming victims.

    I wish I knew how to get across to men the point that you need to get clear consent (and not just the absence of a definite "no") before proceeding with sex. But that is a whole other discussion.

  7. Vivienne, you definitely hit an an important point there. It's easy to make an "enemy" of a stranger, but harder to reconcile the mixed emotions that happen when it's someone you trust --- I imagine a lot of similar emotional conflicts occur with incest and other familial abuse.

    It's hard to get support from your family and friends when the perpetrator is a member of the same social circle/family.

  8. I violently loathe the term "gray rape."

    The reason I think a lot of women tend to accept the term and avoid saying that acquaintance rape was rape is that we don't want to admit that we trusted and cared about someone who would do such a thing. Stranger rape is one thing--that's some random person with no relationship to us. Whereas when it's someone we know and trust, it can be hard to accept that we cared about someone who would hurt us and disrespect us in such a way. From there, it can be easy to wind up on the path of then questioning EVERYONE and suddenly feeling like none of your relationships are valid and trustworthy. It can cut us off from our support networks when we need them most. So to some women, it can feel better to just say it wasn't rape. It saddens me that this is what our culture has brought us to.

  9. I'm really sad about how apropos this post is to me today; I just found out that a friend of mine was recently sexual assaulted by an acquaintance of hers. I don't know any of the details, but I do know that she's planning not to report it, and that she feels terrible about that, on top of how terrible she feels about the event itself.

    Bleeeeh :(

  10. Just wanted to thank you, Shira, for all of the great information you've been posting. I find myself looking forward to your posts, even though it's a strange subject to "look forward to"... I appreciate what you're doing and how you are helping give voice to the deafening silence still surrounding various forms of rape.

  11. Thank you for writing this. Although it is very normal for a survivor to feel confused and not want to label an experience as rape, the article in Cosmo encourages self blame. I hope that suvivors who feel confused about their experience seek help from BARCC or other RCC's to better understand their experience.

  12. I hate this line -

  13. YES. I don't know how the notion still persists that rape is just one of those "misunderstandings" that happens between "friends." As if that's the price women have to pay for imagining they can be "friends" with men, or equal, or fully human, or free. GUH.

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