digging up the roots of gender-based violence

Grey Rape: is still rape guys

[content note for descriptive assault, rape, child rape, strong sexual language]

Alia’s story, (names, locations and descriptors have been changed for anonymity)

Alia was young, vulnerable and naive when she met Jonathan and she was definitely enthusiastic about finally having a “real” boyfriend. Jonathan was a guy that seemed really into her and he would courteously come to her door to pick her up to go out. He was nice. He was kind. He was a gentleman. According to Alia Jon really was a good guy. He had a tough life but still made pretty decent grades. Not the best, but decent. He was gangly and awkward, but sweet. Jon was not by any means conventionally attractive; however, he had an intense stoicism that was often cut through with a surprising smile or simple expression of concern. This characteristic made him seemingly handsome. Most girls didn’t really have an interest in going out with Jon but he did have a lot of friends.

Alia had lied to Jon, she lied and said that she was fifteen, when in actuality, she was thirteen. Jon was seventeen. She didn’t lie to him in order to intentionally betray or hurt him. She simply wanted his acceptance and intensely feared his rejection. She was thirteen and presumably a child. Innocent intentions. This relationship with Jon is where she thought she would arrive, what she thought would bring her into womanhood, a quiet comfort, a sense of being loved and cared for, a rite of passage, a perception of acceptance with other women and girls as an adult, where she could let go of her confusion over gendered expectations and traditional roles, where she could finally live safely and no longer fear violence at the hands men. At far too young of an age she understood that men were dangerous. In her mind, she understood that men were mean. While in Alia’s adult life she doesn’t see all men in this way anymore she also didn’t have the words in her youth to describe or understand her discontent or fear and anticipation. She only had a child’s hope.

It was a beautiful spring night in the early 90’s and Jon had picked her up to take her to the roller rink in a small suburb of Chicago. He wasn’t able to drive just yet and his older brother was their escort. Vanilla Ice was the jam and MC Hammer pants were the fad. Alia can still vividly remember the cracks on the wood-paneled rink floor, the smell of dank sweaty kids and the faint lingering of hot dogs and nacho chips that permeated the rink air. She remembers all of this so vividly because of the assault that would happen shortly, an assault that would alter her life and crush her hope, all in less than five minutes of time and lurid reality.

They had made out a few times and there was often kissing, on top of the clothes touching and last time he even went under her shirt. She always felt scared and uncomfortable, she often felt her body tense up when he took it to the next level, but she also enjoyed his touch and felt mostly comforted in his embrace. At the skating rink that night everything changed for Alia, forever. Jon led her over to a corner of the rink that was darker and somewhat obscured from view. No one was in the direct vicinity; however, there were folks skating by and around. He began to kiss her and held her close and firmly, which was normal, and then something shifted. Jon slid his hands down her side and into the waist of her pants and paused with his fingers searching for a way to come in contact with the skin beneath the elastic of her undergarment. She froze and held still while waiting to see what he is going to do next. Casually and without a word Jon put his hand down her pants and then began to penetrate Alia with his fingers.

And, yes, this was rape.

I’m sharing Alia’s story today because it’s a common story. It’s a story that throughout my lifetime far too many women have recounted and shared with me. They retell it in amazing detail and sometimes report re-experiencing it at certain points in their lives. It’s not always the same story with a date and a boy like Jonathan; however, it is often a story of one partner not seeking permission and the other partner being justifiably fearful of speaking up. The extraordinary commonality about their stories is that they rarely, if ever, considered the experience to actually have been rape. They knew they didn’t want it to happen. They knew they never said yes or no. They knew that the experience has stuck with them forever. They knew the sadness and pain they felt in the aftermath. They knew the heartbreak and isolation. They knew their future fears and distrust of potential romantic partners in sexual interactions. Despite many of these indicators they are still surprised when I use the word ‘rape’ to describe what occured.

It’s a problem that in today’s current culture we still don’t have a collective definition of what rape is and what it means, so for clarity, I will tell you my definition of rape:

*If you influence, manipulate, trick, coerce or force an individual to have sexual intercourse, vaginal, oral or anal, against their will, knowingly or unknowingly, without explicit verbal consent, you may have committed rape. Penetration, no matter how slight, is necessary to call the act rape and ejaculation or release is not necessary. (sadly this is necessary to include) Penetration may be of the vagina, the mouth or the anus and may be by the penis, figure, tongue or any other object. It is also considered rape to use threat, coercion or influence to force an individual to penetrate another individual with any part of their body.

The purpose in writing about this today is to have a conversation about the way in which fearwe talk to youth about sex and consent. We need to educate ourselves first, and then our youth, as most of them have no idea and are too afraid and/or ashamed to talk about it openly and candidly. In the situation described above, Jonathan committed rape, in that moment he was a rapist. Even if that is not what he meant to be or do. The moment he penetrated an individual without explicit and expressed consent he then committed a sexual assault. What I am proposing is that the baseline standard of consent to be explicit consent. I am proposing that we tolerate nothing less. When Alia shares her story about Jonathan it appears from the way in which she describes their interactions that raping her was not his intent. Yet, we are all acutely aware that intent does not always translate to impact. This is not grey rape. It is not date rape. It is simply rape. I am not saying this to discredit any form of rape. I merely want to come to a consensus that all forms of rape have a detrimental impact on the lives of survivors. This is not to get into any kind of debate over what type of rape is better, or worse, of more life impacting. The survivor may not always have that word for it, but she (and sometimes he) often experiences it as a violation of bodily autonomy that stays with her, in some form, for the rest of her life. She may experience shock, shame, withdrawal, anger, fear and it sometimes affects her ability to trust. Along with other common symptoms associated with survivors of sexual assault.

For further clarity on this situation:

Jonathan did not have explicit verbal consent. She was afraid to move and felt paralyzed. He was bigger, stronger and older. She feared that if she told him to stop that he wouldn’t like her anymore, she was a child and his confidence in performing this act made her feel like this was what was “supposed” to happen next, she didn’t feel like she had the right to say no because she had allowed it to go so far, she felt guilt and shame because her body was responding to his touch even though she did not want for it to respond.

Jonathan may have thought he had consent because Alia did not stop him when he paused at her waistline, in his mind it might have been fine because she didn’t say no, most likely he really did like her and her body was responding to him, he looked confused and hurt when she barely spoke to him the rest of the night, he was visually distraught and perplexed when she broke it off a couple of weeks later.

Those of us that work in the realm of eliminating gender-based violence know very well that this is not always, or even usually, the fact of the matter in instances of rape. There is an abundance of scenarios in which the perpetrator does not care about having consent in the slightest. This is another issue.

Picture1I want to be very clear that I am not calling for criminalization of the situation between Alia and Jonathan. As a matter of fact, I am very confident that would have further traumatized Alia and is not what she would have desired to have happen. What I am calling for is community accountability, education and consciousness-raising conversations. There are folks having conversations around consent that educates and necessitates one clear standard of explicit, enthusiastic verbal consent that no longer is pivoted on the idea of no means no, but that only an enthusiastic yes means yes. Once this conceptualization of consent becomes the standard and is taught to our masses far and wide, there will be no such thing as “grey rape”.

But the conversations are not happening enough.

CONSENT means to have permission. In the negotiation of sexual consent the standard must now be embraced that consent is a mutual and explicitly verbal consent that is engaging between all involved. It is enthusiastic and free of intoxicants while understanding that this consent is based in four primary ethical considerations.

  1. Consent is A FREE CHOICE
    The idea here is that if you cannot comfortably say no, then yes has no meaning. To give your permission, you must be able to say yes or no. Obvious instances where there is not a free choice is when there are weapons involved or the threat of violence. Yet, it is not always so simple and other factors lead into an individual’s ability to say no. A young girl once told me, “I knew if I kept saying no he would break up with me, I knew I wasn’t ready yet, but I also didn’t want to break up.” Even though they were only dating a couple of months, he had already told her that he wasn’t going to wait very long. I’m not saying that she was sexually assaulted (this is not for me to decide); however, giving in because of fear of consequence does not translate into authentic consent. I hope for a day when our young people will strive for authentic consent as this is the standard that we uphold as a society and culture. This is not the kind of consent that we are demonstrating to our youth in movies that profit from promoting the idea that all you need to do is work “harder” to convince her, trick her, coerce her, or just get her drunk.
  2. Consent is a PROCESS
    This really is a simple concept. Just because you have consent to perform one type of intimate act, does not mean you have consent to perform another. Just because kissing is cool does not mean it’s okay to touch. Simply because touching is permitted does not mean that clothes can come off. Once clothes come off does not mean that you have free and open reign to do whatever you like. A douche dude once said, “If you are a woman do not take your pants off if you are being intimate unless you want PENIS” Nope. That is not how it works buddy. Also, just because intercourse has begun does not mean that it can’t then be ended. Everyone has the right to change their mind and no one owes you sex, ever. When I talk about consent in classrooms with young men I’m often faced with discontent when I introduce the idea of explicit verbal consent. Many guys feel like talking about it and checking in is going to kill the mood. It won’t. Trust me fellas, if you find the right way to talk about it creatively, to check in, to ask, it will only make the experience that more trusting, meaningful, and well, fucking fantastic.
  3. Consent is ACTIVE and not passive
    Giggling, changing the subject, squirming away, apprehension or other body language cues does not communicate a yes or no. It communicates a need to slow your roll and check in with your partner. I don’t know about you but I want to know that my partner is engaged in what is happening and is enjoying the experience. One way to get a better idea: are they are actively participating? If they are not participating, try to find out why, even it is challenging or seems like a hard conversation to have. This can make all the difference between a hot and meaningful sexual interaction and a sexual assault. First and foremost, you don’t want to ever hurt someone in the ways that this type of violation hurts and damages an individuals life. This is most important. Secondly, the type of guilt and remorse that is attached to the realization of such a violation has the potential to be devestating as well. And folks, if that is not enough for you to seek authentic consent, then perhaps considering the potential jail time and sex offender registry might be a motivator in seeking authentic and enthusiastic consent. I do hope that it does not have to go that far.
  4. Consent is based in EQUAL POWER
    Consent is not possible when there is not equal power. This can sometimes get confusing; however, there are clear examples of when power distributions make it clear that consent is absolutely not possible. Adult/child. Student/teacher. Caregiver/dependent. Employer/employee. There are also instances where power distribution can influence one’s ability to consent but does not eliminate the possibility. What are some things that give people power? One’s relative size and strength may affect their partner’s ability to consent. One’s gender may influence their partner’s ability to consent. One’s social class or access to money may influence consent. Taking into account the power dynamics and distribution does not eliminatdeceptione the ability for two consenting adults to engage in sexual activity. It does mean that the individual with relative power has the added responsibility to engage in consent seeking conversations while attempting to level the “playing field”.

Now go forth and have great consensual sex!

Consent Resources:

On the Critical Hotness of Enthusiastic Consent
Consent is Sexy
This is not an invitation
Students Active for Ending Rape
Men can Stop Rape

One response to “Grey Rape: is still rape guys

  1. mieprowan October 23, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    I had a similar experience when I was seventeen. The guy was absolutely oblivious to the obvious fact that I was not enjoying this experience, and in fact managed to work out where I lived and showed up the next day, back for more. I was a freshman in college and the other girls in the dorm were teasing me about my “new boyfriend.” (this was a bar pickup). Meanwhile all I was thinking was “please make him go away.” I hid and finally he did.

    I didn’t say no, I didn’t try to fight, but I certainly did not say yes or otherwise express any enthusiasm for the man’s actions. It was an ugly experience. If men want women to be more enthusiastic about having sex with them, it might help if they would refrain from such callous behavior. We get blamed for holding out but when we are trusting and open to new experiences and get used like that, trust gets a lot less appealing. They are as a class far too comfortable with pushing for what they want and being uncaring about how it affects the woman. It’s a kind of invalidation.

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