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Feminist Current

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Feminist Current was founded by Meghan Murphy, a freelance writer and journalist who has been actively engaged in the feminist blogging community since 2010 and has been producing feminist radio since 2007. Meghan is from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, holds a Masters degree in Women's Studies from Simon Fraser University and is completing a graduate degree at the University of British Columbia's School of Journalism. You can find more of her writing in Ms. Magazine, Herizons Magazine, The Tyee, Megaphone Magazine, Good, and at rabble.ca.

On 'gray rape,' Girls, and sex in a rape culture

| March 15, 2013

About five years ago, I was out and about with some dude-friends. We went to a bunch of bars, danced, drank, etc. I was single and also, therefore, mingling. Flirting, they call it. Eventually when there was no more bar-hopping to be had, we went back to a friend’s house and laughed and talked and made jokes and took stupid photos. One of the men I’d been flirting with, let’s call him Brad*, gave me a ride home. We got to my house, made out, and I said something along the lines of “Alrighty then, see you later!” He said “No, I’m coming in.” I said “No, you’re not.” This charming back and forth went on for a little while until, eventually, he did come in.

So there was no force, no screaming, no violence. I didn’t feel afraid, per se. I “gave in”, I suppose you could call it. I imagine he thought he was being charming. This is likely a game he had played (and won at) dozens of times over. I, on the other hand, felt repulsed. I’d had sex with someone that, while yes, I was attracted to, was flirting with, and even kissed, did not plan on or want to have sex with. It wasn’t part of the plan. It become “part of the plan” because this man didn’t take my “No thanks!” seriously (and was clearly unconcerned with what I wanted) and because I eventually gave in. I didn’t know what to call it when I told friends about it. I think I went with “date rapey behaviour”.

Amanda Hess wrote about the most recent episode of Girls for Slate. In the article, entitled: “Was That a Rape Scene in Girls?” she describes how the Adam-Natalia sex scene wasn’t one that you might call the cops over; but it also wasn’t consensual in any true or ethical sense of the word. It wasn’t acceptable sexual behaviour by any means. But was it rape?

Hess writes:

"What happened here? On the one hand, Adam has fulfilled Natalia’s initial requests—he is on top, comes outside of her, no soft touching. On the other hand, he is no longer being “really nice” or taking things “kind of slow.” This time, no one is laughing. What was abundantly “clear” the first time is now muddied. The first time, Natalia communicates with Adam to do just what she wants; the second time, Adam wields her words against her to do what he knows she really doesn’t. So when Natalia says, “No, I didn’t take a shower,” Adam says, “Relax, it’s fine.” When she says, “No, not on my dress,” he comes on her chest instead. “Everything is OK,” except when it’s not."

She goes on:

"There is rape—a crime reported to the authorities, investigated by the police, and prosecuted in the courts. And then there is everything else that is not consensual, but not easily prosecutable, either: “gray rape,” “bad sex,” “they were both drunk,” the “feeling” of being “borderline assaulted.” It’s what happens when a person you want to have sex with “has sex with you” in a way that you do not want them to."

It’s muddy, yes. But we all know (or should know), that it isn’t ok. It’s what happens to women. It’s a run of the mill experience for many of us in this culture. It’s not something easily categorized as either “rape” or “consensual”. As many of us know all too well, there’s much more middle ground. And that “middle ground” is often disturbingly comparable to legal rape; but sometimes more difficult to talk about or sort out in one’s mind.

What happened between Adam and Natalia has happened to me before in one form or another. Once, when I was about 19 or 20, with a boyfriend who was angry and blacked out from drinking. I didn’t want to have sex, he did. We didn’t have sex. Instead, he masturbated over me.

Was it rape? Not technically, no. Was I going to call the cops and have him charged? No. Was it acceptable behaviour by any means? No. Was it a show of power? Yes. Did it make me feel sick and dirty and violated? Yes. Was it ‘consensual’? Hell no.

While “’no means no,’” Hess writes, “it is not the only measure of consent.”

After the incident with Brad — the “No, you’re not coming in”/”Yes, I am coming in” incident — I didn’t know quite what to call it. I told a couple of friends, one of them being one of the dude-friends I was out with that night, a friend of mine and of Brad’s. I said that, well, I suppose you would call it a kind of date rape. But no, it wasn’t “call the cops” date rape. It was, “Ok. I guess you’re coming in.” And “Ok, I guess we’re having sex that I didn’t really want to have.” My friend agreed that this was “date rapey behaviour.”

What happened was perhaps unclear in a legal context, but the way I felt about the situation was far from unclear. It wasn’t ok. Those I told about my experience knew it wasn’t ok.

On International Women’s Day, Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford, allegedly told transit advocate and publisher of the Women’s Post, Sarah Thomson that she “should have been with him because his wife wasn’t there.” And then, she says, he grabbed her ass.

Classy guy that Ford his, when Thomson went public about the alleged sexual harassment, he not only accused her of peddling “false allegations,” but he used feminism against her, saying: “What is more surprising is that a woman who has aspired to be a civic leader would cry wolf on a day where we should be celebrating women across the globe.”

A woman called a man out on sexual harassment and he actually had the nerve to use the woman’s movement against her.

I have a point. I’m getting to it.

Life happens in funny ways sometimes and five years later I was (briefly) dating a relative of Brad-the-sleazebag. Let’s call him Dave*. Needless to say, I didn’t tell Dave what had happened. I assumed it would come up at some point, but not on the first, or second, or third date. It became clear, eventually, that he what he knew was that we’d slept together about five years ago and that I had hated Brad ever since.

That relationship didn’t work out and, by coincidence, our mutual friend mentioned the whole “date rape” thing to Brad. He lost his shit and demanded I clear his name, to which I replied: “I don’t think I should have to say ‘no’ more than once. I’m not sure what you believe constitutes date rape, but if you want to avoid being accused of such things in the future, my recommendation would be to respect and hear ‘no’ the first time a woman says it.” He didn’t take that very well. He was enraged, in fact.

In some less-than-friendly parting emails between Dave and I, it became clear that, while I hadn’t told him exactly what had happened, Brad had told him about the “date rapey” descriptor. Via email, Dave accused me of somehow twisting the scenario around in my crazy, crazy head, in the process, “doing something” terribly cruel and unwarranted to poor, innocent Brad. Not only that, but, by describing my experience as one that was not consensual in any way I’d like to understand the word consensual (Let’s talk enthusiastic consent, hey? Not, I-wore-her-down-until-she-eventually-gave-in, consent) I was a bad feminist. Because, I suppose, what good feminists would do would be to pretend as though talking women into having sex with you even though they’ve said a number of times that they’d prefer not, is totally fine. His email was eerily Rob Ford-esque, saying: “given your role as a defender of women’s rights I find the hypocrisy staggering.”

Oh the hypocrisy.

Rather than simply take responsibility for his behaviour and admit that his behaviour was unacceptable, Brad’s primary concern was to defend his sleazebaggery and paint me as an evil liar, out to get him at any cost! He didn’t want to connect what he understood to be rape with his own behaviour and when men don’t want to understand or be accountable for their own behaviour, they accuse women of lying, of being crazy, or, apparently, of setting women’s rights back with their devious and delusional stories.

See, these men think they’re the “good guys”. The bad guys are in movies, climbing through windows or attacking women in parking lots. And those guys do exist, without a doubt, but if men are unwilling to acknowledge their own behaviour as part of a rape culture, women are going to continue to experience these traumatic “gray” areas and not feel able to call it out. If men are more interested in protecting their ingrained beliefs that they are right and good and entitled to behave in these ways, than treating women as more than sexual conquests, they aren’t likely to change.

The comment from Dave was so odd (and hurtful, as it always is when people victim-blame), partly because, as a feminist, what I’d always felt most guilty about was, first of all, that I hadn’t been “strong enough” to stop the sex I didn’t really want to happen from happening, and secondly, that when I described the experience to a few friends, I couldn’t be completely clear. “Date rapey,” I called it. “Not the kind of thing you press charges over but, you know, I said no, he said yes. And then we had sex anyway. I felt gross about the whole thing.” Shouldn’t I be able to name this incident in some kind of firm way? I felt I should know better on a number of levels. And here I was being accused of failing feminism for entirely opposite reasons.

I suppose you could call these “gray rapes”, as some people did with regard to the scene in Girls where Adam tells Natalia to crawl to the bedroom and then says to her: ““I want to fuck you from behind, hit the walls with you,” to which she does not say “no”, but is clearly not enthusiastically on board. He does fuck her from behind and then pulls out and masturbates over her. She says: “No, no, no, no, not on my dress!” Her face conveys how disturbed and unhappy she is with Adam’s behaviour. The lack of consent isn’t really confusing. He comes on her chest. “I don’t think I like that,” Natalia says. “I, like, really didn’t like that.”

Is she going to call the cops? No. Will she press charges? No. Will she even say that what happened was date rape? Probably not. Was she violated? Most definitely.

Hess writes:

"… though terms like “gray rape” help some people talk about assault outside of the context of the legal system, they shouldn’t be used to excuse the aggressor—they should help raise the standard of what we all consider acceptable sexual behavior, whether or not the cops are called."

It’s scenarios like these that leave us without words to describe our experiences. They also leave us open to accusations of “crying wolf” or making “false accusations”.

But we know what our experiences are. We know when there is not consent and yet we can’t call it rape in a legal sense. These experiences leave us vulnerable to being silenced, blamed, and disbelieved. They leave us feeling unsure of ourselves. We ask ourselves what happened — Was it rape? Was it “borderline assault”? Was it just a bad experience that most women probably have? Should we have said “no” more clearly? Loudly? Firmly?

Certainly it’s something more than just a “bad experience” or “bad sex”. And yes, it’s muddy, but only because we live in a rape culture, where the line between consensual, nonconsensual, and legal rape are horribly blurred.

*Names have been changed

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