So. Now that I’ve produced a mess of words on the subject, I want to return to the mapping convo from a different angle. Namely: How do we respect the status of survivors who don’t see themselves as survivors?
Talk of (non)consent, boundary violation, and internalized victim-blaming ahead.
Sometimes (read: most of the time), whenever I read something about a negative or complicated experience with a partner, one where the writer indicates that they didn’t want what was happening or consented out of incapacitation or fear of the consequences, but also that they don’t see the experience as willful violation on their partner’s part (or otherwise attribute some of the fault to themselves), I end up thinking to myself, “This sounds like rape,” or “This sounds like assault,” or “This sounds like abuse.”
And while that may be my reaction, I’m also under the understanding that to reply with, “You’re wrong. How you feel and think about this is wrong. This was ________,” would… not be the most appropriate response.
Granted, that example might seem blunt to the point of being hyperbolic, but regardless, should convincing people to count more of their experiences as violence be a part of this conversation? Do we want that? Does that help?
Look, I don’t like the term “gray consent” both because I don’t find it personally useful as well as because of its easy co-optability, and that’s why this conversation feels tricky to me, but I also don’t see anyone (yet) going, “Alright, what’s the minimum amount of consent possible? I need to get someone to have sex with me.” What I do see is the potential for what happens in any conversation about grayness of any kind: people disagreeing over what counts as “gray” and what doesn’t. So when we come upon a personal narrative marked as “gray” that we, on the contrary, see definitively as sexual violence — can we talk about what constitutes an ethical response to that?
While I don’t have answers, I also think it may be worth acknowledging the potential for “gray” misrecognition to be a step in the right direction. That is to say, in some cases, it may be necessary to wade through a pool of uncertainty before approaching a more decisive condemnation. If you push for a more clear-cut, black-and-white ruling, internalized victim-blaming can take over, and I can see people retreating back into “I could have said something” and “I shouldn’t have led them on” and “They just didn’t know.”
What I’m saying is, I think it may be important to give survivors space to process their experiences gradually, and that extends to the categorization of them, as well.
But I also want to acknowledge the obvious risk here, which is that ruminating for too long in this space and expressing too much internalized victim-blaming as grounds for graying nonconsent could — if we nod along without question — make things harder on other survivors and, worse case scenario, give encouragement to abusers and perpetrators. Besides all that, presumably we don’t want survivors calling “gray” what isn’t gray for their own sake.
So the sticky question is, how do we, as a community, support, protect, and correct each other in a way that’s actually helpful? How do we encourage someone to condemn the actions of a partner they may still feel guilty towards?
I really don’t know, but if we’re going to keep mapping, I don’t want to ignore the question, either.