The concept of “gray rape” is not unfamiliar. Its meaning is understood with little explanation necessary yet its troublingly more difficult to pinpoint in context. The first time I can remember hearing the term was when I was listening to an Amy Schumer interview on The Howard Stern Show this past summer. She talked about when she herself was gray raped — or “graped” as she called it because she’s a comedian and that’s what comedians do — by her high school boyfriend. She woke up to finding him inside of her; this was also her first time having sex.
Her story stuck with me not because it was unbelievable but rather it was so unbelievably believable, so familiar it seemed strange to articulate in words. It made me think, Wait a minute, I know this. You can imagine how uncanny it seemed when she waltzed onscreen as Natalia’s newly engaged friend on a recent episode of GIRLS that so unflinchingly brought up the topic of gray rape again.
You’ve seen the scene between Natalia and Adam that I'm talking about and if you haven’t, you might have read coverage from the handful of websites and online magazines willing to call it out the next day. The reactions from the media, on social media, in the comments section and from viewers in general have varied, but most can agree what they saw was degrading and difficult to watch. Even if you’re into that sort of thing (keyword: into), there was a malevolence to it that went far beyond sexy or fun. And even three weeks after the episode aired and two after the Steubenville verdict, let’s keeping talking about it for a long time because it sure as hell isn’t going anywhere.
It’s a strange world when a teenage girl whose sexual assault is publicly witnessed by her peers then makes headlines receives death threats for “ruining the lives” of the scum who so willingly destroyed hers. In this case, everyone wants to weigh in on a personal nightmare they know little about. Then when a TV series like GIRLS created to entertain and spur cultural discourse among the masses shows a fictional scene so many of us know all too well, we’re not quite sure what to think or say.
Marianne Kirby of XO Jane wrote it best: “It seems like no one wants to call gray rape just plain rape because then it's really serious. We'd have to talk about why it is so damn common for women to wind up in sexual situations they don't really want to participate in but feel they cannot refuse. We'd much rather just call it bad sex and move on.”
The problem with moving on, however, is nothing changes. We live in a culture where this kind of thing happens all the time and what makes it so challenging to talk about is the scale we allow it to exist on. There are clear legal definitions of rape, but we seem to label it on our own anecdotal terms when other emotions are involved. Is it “more rapey” if you’re drunker than he was? Is it “less rapey” if you two have had sex before? We’re not talking about a stranger holding something to your neck or a relative sneaking into your room when you were too young to know what was happening. This is someone you may have hoped to go home with earlier in the night.
I would also like to point out that while I’m speaking from the perspective of a straight female about a straight female experience, I recognize this happens far too often to straight men as well as in the LGBT community. I’ve heard numerous guys talk about when girls have uncomfortably forced themselves on them, which is also unacceptable. The other week, I myself thoughtlessly reinforced the idea of rape culture with an offhand remark to someone I was having dinner with. He told me the last time we hung out he was really groggy and out of it and my immediate response was, “It could have been the Rohypnol I slipped in your drink!”
Clearly it was a joke and I admit I have a dark sense of humor, but it wasn’t funny enough to bring up in the first place. I suppose in my mind, it was okay for me to say because I’m a freckled 5-foot 3’ personification of a jellybean — in other words, I’m completely harmless. But it’s not really a matter of whether you can get away with it or not, it’s about doing something that might make someone else uncomfortable. I felt bad afterwards.
So instead of rating a sexual situation with a color gradient, let’s just identify when someone does something we don’t like as Wrong. And conversely, if there’s a moment when you’re not sure how you’re making your partner feel then you should stop and find out. Consent can be given through body language and enthusiasm just as displeasure can be expressed without explicitly saying “don’t” or physical resistance. If you don’t know what’s going through their head, why not err on the side of caution by asking?
And this isn’t a lesson on what kind of sex to have. As long as you’re a willing participant, then you do you. Rather, do him or her. But not once should you be made to feel like you could be tagged out by a Japanese love doll or a high schooler’s tube sock, not even by someone you care about. So yes, let’s keep talking about this with our friends, our families, our colleagues and our therapists. But most of all, let’s talk about it with the people we’re sharing our most intimate moments with, all while understanding that’s who they are — people.