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.
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