There is No “Gray Area” with Rape.

There is no such thing as “gray rape,” or “ambiguous rape.” Rape is black and white, simple to define.

image by Mattia Ascenzo from

Rape is rape.

How is rape easily defined (no gray needed)?

By consent.

Someone who is plastered drunk cannot consent.

Someone who is asleep or passed out cannot consent.

In a 2007 Cosmopolitan article, “A New Kind of Date Rape,” by Laura Sessions Stepp, she coined the term “gray rape” to describe “sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial.” This could look like a one-night stand that someone later regrets, for example.

Despite her headline calling it “new”, there is nothing new about the subject. In 1994, Katie Roiphe published The Morning After: Fear, Sex, and Feminism, an entire book that argues how people throw around the term “rape” too casually, especially in relation to describe regrettable but consensual drunken hookups.

That book was a reaction to the work of feminists looking to name an experience that is far from new but rarely discussed. As Robin Warshaw’s I Never Called It Rape sparked mainstream awareness of date rape only six years earlier.

Stepp, author of the Cosmo article that coined the term “gray rape” apparently sees no clarity into the fact that every example she uses to bolster her argument is, in reality, a clear case of nonconsent (or, in layman's terms, is rape). Thus, her article offering examples of and trying to bolster her proof of something she calls “gray rape” is, in fact, an article all about rape.

Here are some of the examples she offers readers:

“Alicia” told her date “flat out that she didn’t want to proceed to sex” and told him to stop before he “ignored her and entered her anyway.”

Uh…this is rape, folks.

“Laura” was in college when she got drunk and made out with a guy who then stripped off her pants and entered her, despite the fact that she said no.

This is also rape.

A twenty-year-old Naval Academy student woke up to a football player having sex with her. Again, rape.

So, where exactly is the gray area here…? The point is, there isn’t.

Laura Sessions Step foolishly punches holes all over the idiotic point she is attempting to make in the first place. Because the women in question, though, felt guilt, confusion, and self-doubt, as many victims do, Laura Sessions Step categorized their experiences as something other than violent crimes.

Repackaging rape victim's tendency towards self-recrimination as a mitigating- or at least muddying- factor contributes to and reflects a culture in which women will continue to be afraid that no one will believe them if they report a rape.

Laura Sessions Step, and many other like her, have tried to place excuses about and blame regarding rape in all sorts of places, such as on “hookup” culture, binge drinking, the decline of religious values, popular music, teenage hormones, “boys will be boys”, poor communication, bad parenting, and now this. “Gray” rape.

Yet, people old enough to be having sex are perfectly capable of recognizing nonconsent. It’s pretty much a no brainer.

Rape is one person saying, “I don’t want to have sex right now,” and the other essentially saying, “you don’t get to decide that.”

It’s further absurd that we act as though there is no way to determine who is telling the truth when people have conflicting stories.

Imagine if every person who was hit by a car was thoroughly investigated for evidence of suicidality, everyone immediately doubting the victim straight away and looking for all sorts of loopholes as to why it “might not have happened” or “they might have caused it themselves somehow,” while the driver’s claim of “I didn’t see him there” would be enough reason to drop charges on the spot. This is essentially what we do to rape victims. What was she wearing? Why was she out alone so late? How much did she have to drink? Well, she was flirting and even making out with him, so she must have wanted to have sex too (nope. You can enjoy sexual activities with someone and they decide you don’t want to anymore. Duh). The list of lies we tell ourselves to blame and doubt the victim goes on and on.

In other words, the blame for rape occurring is placed on anything and everyone other than the rapists themselves.

People who buy into the concept of “gray rape” perpetuate and encourage the cycle of victims to consider, what might they have done to provoke their attackers? And, whether there’s any possibility that those “nice” people just didn’t realize what they were doing could be characterized as a crime or even…actual rape!

Terms like “gray rape” continue to perpetuate the cycles of victim-blaming, victim doubting, and even victims themselves struggling with these things.

If we keep our focus on what the victims did wrong, or how the victim might have “misperceived it” instead of on what type of person rapes, or how he/she chooses their victims, or how we can prosecute sexual assaults more effectively, this continues the harmful ideas on how “good” and “bad” women behave and suggests that some victims “had it coming.”

Fault always lies with the rapist. Always. There is nothing a person can do to deserve rape. A woman could be lying naked, passed out, and alone in the middle of the street, and still, the fault would be 100% with the rapist. Rape is the fault and cruelty on the part of the rapist. The fault lies with the person who commits this heinous act, let alone, even considers it. End. Of. Story.

There are several rape myths into which our culture buys and heavily subscribes to:

She asked for it.

It wasn’t really rape.

He didn’t mean to.

She wanted it.

She lied.

Rape is a trivial event.

Rape is a deviant event.

She cannot “ask for it” because, by definition, rape is sex you did not ask for. So either, you mean that women who dress a certain way, or got drunk, or flirted, or acted in some other sexualized way somehow deserve to be raped- which would make you a monster- or you are wrong and she was not asking for it.

Rape is rape. There are no subcategories of rape, such as rape-rape, sort-of-rape, gray rape, etc. If a person was forced to have sex against their will, it was rape. Done.

He didn’t mean to rape. Yes, he did. Most rapists like to rape, and most do it more than once. Statistics have shown this. Rape is not an accident. (Rape myths like this one serve to offer comfort and peace of mind, rather than speaking to hard facts).

She wanted it. Again, rape, by definition, is something you did not ask for. So either she wanted sex, or she was raped. Both cannot be true at the same time.

She lied. This is the only myth that has a sliver of truth to it. Somewhere between 2% and 8% of rape reports are estimated to be false. This is quite rare though and not even close to a line of reasoning to hang one’s hat on. One should assume that if a person comes to report they were the victim of a violent crime, especially in a culture that typically tears victims to shreds and, most of the time, rapists get off scot-free, she is being honest about it.

Rape is a trivial event…hmmm. Don’t think so. Rape is the willful rejection of another person’s right to decide who may touch, let alone enter, their body. Raping someone is using them as a soulless shell. It is anything but trivial.

Rape is a deviant event. Wrong. We assume that rape is committed by creepy monsters, mentally ill or outwardly violent creatures slithering along in the back alleyways. Not people who might resemble, or even are, our friends, colleagues, or even our family members. As long as we believe this, it makes sense that “lots of victims are probably lying.” As long as this rape myth is true, he “must not have meant it,” or it “must not have been real rape.”

The truth is that one in five women and one in seventy-one men will be raped in their lifetime.

Most rapists are known to their victims.

Rapists rape deliberately and repeatedly, not because they like sex, but because they like rape.

Most men do not find the thought of an unwilling and/or unwitting partner even remotely sexy for the reasons that should be obvious.

Rape is not a failure of “normal restraint” but of humility. It is not a “mistake” but a deliberate choice to treat another person like a soulless object.

One thing we often forget with regards to rape, and our confusion about concepts such as “gray” rape: the victim’s account of the crime is evidence. Even if she was drunk. Even if she is accusing someone famous. Even if she is a sex worker. Even if she is transsexual. Even when the victim is a man. Testimony is a real and admissible form of evidence.

It isn’t enough evidence to hang a case on, but, we must stop putting the burden of proof on victims.

As soon as someone says “I was raped”, we can not say, “there is no evidence of this. Are you sure…? Wasn’t the situation sort of…gray?”

There is much evidence, in his or her testimony.

Of course, further evidence must be found. This, though, is evidence. And solid evidence at that.

Reframing consent as a “gray” area that is “always open to interpretation” affords plausible deniability to those like our media and pop culture who present criminal assaults as normal sexual behavior frequently across our media landscape. It normalizes imagery of sexual violence and adds to rape myths and the doubt they plant within us when in reality, rape is black and white. There is no gray area in rape.

(Source: Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture-and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding).

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author.

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