What Do We Mean By Grey Rape?

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
Back in 2007, a Cosmopolitan article titled “A New Kind Of Date Rape” went viral. The article introduced the concept of “grey rape,” which writer Laura Sessions Stepp defined as “ 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.” The women she interviewed described their experiences as "grey rape" because they were drunk; they'd previously consented to sexual activity with the perpetrator; they didn't say no loudly enough; and they didn't think of themselves as “victims.” 

Is "grey rape" sexual assault?

There was an immediate backlash to the article, and critics pointed out that all the interviewees Stepp used as examples described situations that were clearly rape. For example, the article begins with the story of a woman named Alicia who, as a college student, took a male friend to a sorority party with her. They both got drunk and consensually made out, and Alicia told the friend she didn’t want to have sex. He agreed, but then a few minutes later, “pushed her down on the couch and positioned himself on top of her.” Alicia told him, “No, stop,” but he penetrated her anyway; when he did, she “tensed up and tried to go numb until it was over.” Alicia defines it as “grey rape” because she worries she said “stop” too softly: “Maybe I wasn't forceful enough in saying I didn't want it."
Writing in the 2008 anthology Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape, Lisa Jervis argued, “Grey rape and date rape are the same thing: a sexual assault in which the victim knows the attacker and may have consented to some kind of sexual activity with [them]. Survivors of such attacks have always been reluctant to name their experience ‘rape.’”

Can you file a police report for "grey rape"?

You can't file a police report accusing someone of "grey rape" — legally, it's not a thing. “Certainly, in the criminal justice system there’s no such thing as grey rape,” Linda Fairstein, chief of the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, told the New York Times about the Cosmopolitan piece. "Grey rape is not a new term and not a new experience. For journalists, it may be, but for those of us who had worked in advocacy or law enforcement, this description of something being in a grey area has been around all the time. It’s always been my job in law enforcement to separate out the facts.”
However, the cases described in the Cosmopolitan article would all be able to file, simply, reports of sexual assault or rape: assault by a partner, friend, or acquaintance, including someone you have previously had consensual sex with, is still assault.

The changing meaning of "grey rape"

However, in more recent years, there’s been something of a reconceptualization of the term "grey rape" and the "grey areas" of consent. This discussion has been sparked by high-profile stories about sexual encounters that the women didn’t want or enjoy, but didn’t say “no” to, either — such the fictional New Yorker short story “Cat Person” and’s account of a woman named Grace’s encounter with Aziz Ansari. (In a statement after the piece was published, Ansari said he saw the sexual activity as consensual and was "surprised and concerned" to learn that Grace did not. "I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said," he added.)

In a 2018 article on Ansari in the Huffington Post, journalist Emma Gray called it a “grey area of violating, noncriminal sex.” She wrote, “Behavior need not fall under the legal definition of sexual assault or rape to be wrong or violating or upsetting.” 

In a 2017 the New York Times article discussing “Cat Person,” Jessica Bennett introduced a new phrase: “the place of no return.” She explained, “There are other names for this kind of sex: grey zone sex, in reference to that murky grey area of consent; begrudgingly consensual sex, because, you know, you don’t really want to do it but it’s probably easier to just get it over with; lukewarm sex, because you’re kind of ‘meh’ about it; and, of course, bad sex, where the ‘bad’ refers not to the perceived pleasure of it, but to the way you feel in the aftermath.” 

Is there a better term for "grey rape?"

Other writers agree that this kind of sex — sex that is consensual but still harmful — exists, and that we need to discuss it. In a 2018 tweet thread about “grey area” sex, writer Ashley C. Ford asserted, “It's clear that we need better more definitive language to have nuanced discussions about the spectrum of harm inflicted on the bodies and psyches of women during bad sexual encounters... It is easy to call out the grey areas, but it is much much harder to define them, to measure them, and to learn from them. You don't dismiss it because it's grey, you go deeper into it, and you have the tougher conversation.”

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