Grayness, Uncertainty, and Sexual Violence

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.


24 responses to “Grayness, Uncertainty, and Sexual Violence

  • Siggy

    I’m glad the discussion is finally reaching this point.

    Many years ago, I had an sexual experience which I might have mentioned once or twice on the blogs, which I was conceptualizing as consensual. Some time ago, I quietly changed my mind on that and classified it as nonconsensual (alcohol was involved, so there’s room for disagreement on the matter). So I’m still switching from thinking of it in gray terms to not-so-gray terms. I don’t think it would have helped for anyone to say, “sounds like rape”. I don’t know, it was so long ago.

    For me the emotional consequences are sequestered in the past, and it doesn’t matter how I think of it anymore. Mostly, it just means that whenever people talk about rape as a category, I am included in that generalization. And that just makes me feel more belligerent about the many ways feminists emphasize a relatively narrow set of narratives of rape and sexual assault.

    That, to me, is the value of discussing “gray consent”. It highlights a different set of negative sexual experiences. It allows them to be negative, without chaining them to preconceptions about rape and sexual assault. It allows people to talk about it without feeling like they’re speaking over other survivors of rape and sexual assault.

  • Elizabeth

    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.”

    Ohhh, you may not see it. But I have, and I see it frequently when I look at my blog stats (which is a big reason why my blog became an unsafe place for me). I definitely attract those people because of the type of writing I’ve done, and it’s way more common than you would think. They never use exactly those words, but it’s pretty damn clear that’s what they’re looking to do, and they really want permission to be horrible people. I just hope they don’t find some way to justify it from reading what I write.

    My own perpetrator would stop if I said something very, very directly… but then he would ignore every non-verbal cue, even every verbal cue that wasn’t EXACTLY a “no, stop” even though it should have been totally obvious what I meant. I think that’s how he denied it to himself that what he was doing was wrong. Or maybe just how he denied it to me, I don’t know. I have reason to believe he didn’t actually understand, but I do at least acknowledge the possibility that he did. Frankly though, I don’t give him that much credit to be able to pull off THAT level of acting.

    Pick-Up Artist communities are rife with that sort of bullshit. If you’re not willing to look at them directly (I know I’m not), read Clarisse Thorn’s Confessions of a Pick-Up Artist Chaser.

    I would absolutely advocate against using the term “gray consent” or anything similar. My solution in the past has been to call for accounts of sexual assault, and not use the R-word, so that people who are not comfortable calling their experiences rape would be more comfortable talking to me about them–and there were a lot, I mean a LOT of people whose experiences did legally fit the definition, but they just weren’t able to call it that (yet, I hope). And it was extremely surprising to see that so many of them couldn’t call it that despite how SEVERE the violence was. Obviously I won’t get into details, but imagine whatever the point where you would definitely use the R-word is and then magnify that by ten. You probably still wouldn’t get there.

    I’m sure that many people still didn’t feel comfortable with calling their experiences a sexual assault, either. But as for the best way to talk about these things, especially the best way to suggest to people that their experiences DO count… I think we shouldn’t just decide these things amongst ourselves. I think we should be looking to experienced trauma counselors for advice. That’s exactly what I intend to do.

    • Coyote

      Ah, I should have been more clear. When I said “I don’t see anybody doing X,” I meant in this immediate convo (us particular aces) in this little corner of the internet. But perhaps it would be good to be cautious anyway.

      • Elizabeth

        Ah, right, gotcha. But yeah, it’s worth noting that there are definitely “spies” to this sort of conversation coming in through search engines, especially from my posts. Probably not many would make it to these discussions, but even one could end up doing a lot of damage, so that’s a big part of why I’m being hesitant to post anything related (including just links) to my blog until I have something clear enough not to undermine the ethical consent model I’ve been developing.

    • Siggy

      “My solution in the past has been to call for accounts of sexual assault, and not use the R-word, so that people who are not comfortable calling their experiences rape would be more comfortable talking to me about them”

      It surprises me that there are a lot of people willing to call it sexual assault, but not rape. Does that mean they were willing to say it was non-consensual, but not willing to say that it was sex? I would have thought that instead, a lot of people would tell themselves it was consensual, because they think they put themselves in that situation, or think they didn’t do enough to say no. I would not have thought these people would classify it as sexual assault.

      I think Queenie provided many examples that clearly should not really be classified as rape or sexual assault. But I think it is also impossible to address these experiences without also addressing all the victims who mistakenly believe that their experiences do not “count” as rape or sexual assault. Therefore, I think education about the distinction should be a key part of the discussion.

      • Elizabeth

        It varies. In some cases where it’s not strictly PIV, yeah, they were willing to say it was non-consensual but were not necessarily sure that it was really considered sex, or if it could only be called molestation.

        There are a lot of people (both in that category and not) who felt that their experiences weren’t “bad enough” to count as a “real” rape, even though they were willing to admit that it was at least non-consensual in some way. I found that rape is generally considered the harshest word and it’s the hardest one to accept–I have a very hard time saying it myself, too. Sexual assault is used as almost a euphemism sometimes, or probably more accurately as a vague way to express non-consent but not actually get into any details, lest they be challenged. People are a LOT more likely to (invasively) attack someone making what they perceive as “false rape accusations” than someone who just says they were sexually assaulted. Perpetrators tend to adopt a strategy of “offense is the best defense” whenever the word rape comes up, and they also sort of train the general public to automatically question anyone who says they were raped. So it becomes a strategy for survivors to protect themselves, both from the hyper-skepticism/victim-blaming of others and from internalized self-blame for “making someone into a rapist” (publicly).

        There are also people who were criminally sexually assaulted more than once, and while they may consider some of their experiences rape, others fall short of that mental distinction (whether or not that’s actually true where the law is concerned). In that situation, sexual assault is used to describe all of them without getting into details they’re not willing to share.

        I totally agree that education on the distinction should be key. I have a lot more clarity now than I used to in large part because of having this massive amount of data about what others’ experiences have been like–which is not something most survivors have access to. Researching it is one thing (an important thing), but actually reading others’ raw confessions REALLY brings the point home. But even so, I still struggle with trusting my own discernment because I’ve been gaslighted so much. It’s easier to see the situation for what it is when you’re listening to someone else’s story.

        I think the distinction between validity and soundness (in logic) is a good parallel for making the distinction between those experiences which are clearly an unethical violation committed by a perpetrator, and those which shouldn’t be classified as rape or criminal sexual assault (i.e. partner is decidedly not coercive), but the decision to give consent was made under false premises (assumptions or cognitions based on compulsory sexuality, past trauma, etc.) like that you “need” to have sex in order to have a happy life or even be considered human at all. In that case, the consent given would be, in logical terms, valid but not sound. However, “unsound consent” sounds too much like saying the person is mentally unstable and that could easily go into victim-blaming territory, so I’m trying to figure out a way to express that concept without making it sound so bad.

        • Siggy

          I see. And I feel the same way about having trouble accepting the word rape. Since rape is a subset of sexual assault, there have been a few times I’ve called it that instead.

          Still, I’m worried about people who are sexually assaulted but are not even willing to say that much. Like, last night I saw a gay indie film that had at least two clear instances of sexual assault portrayed so casually, and this is coming from “progressive” filmmakers. I’m so pissed off at the massive failure of the gay community to recognize widespread sexual assault as such.

    • epochryphal

      I’m having a really negative reaction to this comment. Um.

      “we should be looking to experienced trauma counselors for advice” sounds…reifying authority, as though there is some unique repository of knowlege that MHPs (mental health providers) have access to and dole out, and that operating without it is unsafe and irresponsible.

      Maybe it’s my affiliation with the Icarus Project, which is about radically reimagining mental health/illness, about being your own best source, about the trauma and power structures built into the MHP model.

      Like. I’m reading a lot of things, books and dissertations and such, about trauma. A lot of them are shit (eg Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine) with great offshoots or big ideas (eg Somatic Experiencing, Generative Somatics, work on contemplative dissociation in Vinyassa meditation).

      Plus, having been intimately close with people going through MHP training, they are (in the good courses) specifically taught that they are Not All-Knowing or The Authority, and that there is so much value in grassroots community self-care models that cannot be replaced or substitued by formal mental healthcare or trauma care.

      Like sure let’s pull from all our resources, especially trauma counselors who know what they’re doing. But we also DO get to “just decide these things among ourselves” using our own lived experience and developing models that work for us. That HAS to be valid. It IS.

      Also, to preempt conversation about grey consent because it could be coopted, feels so so victim-blaming. And binarizing people into calling things assault or consent feels so coercive, and exactly part of what we’re trying to break away from. I don’t think you meant to do either of these things, but they’re coming up for me.

      • Elizabeth

        I’m sorry, I realize it comes across as very negative, that’s not really what I meant to imply. I was trying to address the issue of gently breaking it to a survivor that their experience is legally considered rape/criminal sexual assault, specifically. The average person just isn’t going to have the experience necessary to know the best way to say that without coming across as totally invalidating the person. And by trauma counselors, I don’t necessarily mean specifically mental health practitioners (I would have said that if I meant it; I was actually trying to be very careful with my wording). I mean yeah, they COULD be MHPs, but they could also be people who have been trained at a grassroots crisis center to respond to emergency calls, things like that. It isn’t any authority that we should be turning to, but rather people with experience dealing with these sorts of issues, because they will have (assuming that they’re good) figured out the least invalidating ways to address them.

        I’m not in any way trying to “preempt” or stifle this conversation, but just advise more caution about it. Like I said, I attract the creeps. I KNOW (firsthand) exactly the sort of damage that they do when they get the chance to talk about “grey areas” of consent, so I won’t be using that term, and I won’t be linking to these posts from MY blog, where I have tried to establish a model for ethical behavior to reduce sexual violence against asexuals–and there is no other competing guide on that subject. I have to be way more cautious about this than other people because of that.

        You’re of course free to define your own experiences in any way you see fit. But what I’m saying is, an ethical behavior model comes into conflict with this particular type of discussion of survivors’ experiences, which are frequently twisted by their perpetrators/society grooming them to think that what happened falls into a gray area, when it really does not. I want to find a way to NOT compromise the ethical behavior model while addressing this issue.

        The discussions I’m seeing so far really do not do enough to make a distinction between the grooming and the cases we don’t yet have good words for, where the partner does not participate in coercion but the ace only agrees for reasons of internalized societal pressure, trauma, and so on. They have been EXTREMELY triggering for me because of that. I am sure it is not anyone’s intent, but it certainly does feel like a very coercive influence to me, and it really reinforces the victim-blaming and gaslighting I’ve personally been subject to, so I’ve had to actively undo that after reading these posts. Were I not this far along in my recovery, I would probably completely retreat from the community. Knowing that, and having very definite proof that I am not alone in this experience… well, I advise more caution.

        • epochryphal

          Thank you so much for this response.

          That makes a lot, lot more sense to me. And brings up some very important issues. Thank you, again, for engaging about this.

          • Elizabeth

            I’m so glad it made more sense to you! I was really worried that I wouldn’t come across as coherent, as I was actually so tired while writing that response that by the end of it I literally started falling asleep. But you sounded really distressed, and I was worried about leaving you feeling that way, so I pushed myself to finish it sooner.

            I’m glad you commented about how my original response came across as triggering to you, btw. It’s hard to know how things are going to sound to others, so finding out where the communication gaps happen, when you accidentally step on someone else’s triggers, is very useful information. I really don’t know the best way to approach these things–I have a few ideas, but disentangling them from any rhetoric that puts survivors back into a victim role is so, so hard.

            Take care of yourself, okay?

  • captainglittertoes

    Ahh thank you so much for writing about these things. I am just coming to terms with my own assault, after not defining it as that so I could take care of my partner’s feelings about how she couldn’t be a rapist and she didn’t want to hurt me. I told myself I should have known I’d be triggered and unable to consent, etc. Labeling it assault and starting to ID as gray-a or something like it has been so calming (much of the time) and helpful. Thanks for validating what’s going on for me and helping me think it through!

  • onlyfragments

    I suppose it comes down to being very, very careful about not telling someone that what they believe is wrong. We try to be careful not to say “you’re too young to know ___” or “well you’re ___ so you can’t know ___” and this is one of those categories. You’re entirely correct that in many cases, someone HAS been assaulted but for myriad reasons doesn’t or can’t accept that’s what happened. But for others, it’s sometimes just a case of “well that was a bad experience”. It’s not my girlfriend’s fault if I end up not enjoying a particular sexual experience as much as a previous one. That doesn’t make it rape, or assault. As long as I am always conscious of my own feelings and make my intentions/wants clear, and as long as she always asks permission before moving forward, it’s never assault. Sometimes we just don’t mesh. But if anyone ever even HINTED that she was at fault for making me do something that made me uncomfortable, that insinuation would crush her – because she’s a survivor herself, and would never do anything to harm me. And to me, for my experience only, that’s what matters. So while it’s good to open others eyes to their own experiences, we also have to be very respectful that those experiences are theirs and not ours – we can’t determine the truth of them ourselves, even if something looks one way to us. It’s only for the person who was in that situation to decide.

  • queenieofaces

    I’m really glad this conversation is happening, ’cause a lot of the discussion so far has made me…kind of uncomfortable in the way it has side-stepped issues of sexual violence (especially since it originally came out of a survivor-focused space and was started by, you know, a survivor, but ANYWAY). Siggy and Elizabeth have already said a lot of what I wanted to say, so I’m not going to bother reiterating, but a few thoughts in no particular order (also, heads up, lots of sexual violence talk below; apologies if this is somewhat less than coherent, but, yeah, this discussion has not been doing good things for my head):

    There’s a reason why the original post was about mapping “grey areas of *sexual experience*” not mapping “grey areas of *consent*” (as Siggy noted, pretty much everything I discussed in my original post can’t be classified as sexual violence no matter how hard you squint), but it seems like everyone has latched onto the idea of “grey consent” and run with it. Grey consent makes me really uncomfortable for a lot of the reasons Elizabeth already articulated; it’s also been used against me (and probably many other survivors) in really, really nasty ways. One, which is a shared experience with at least 2 other ace survivors I’ve spoken to, is that a partner assaulted me in my sleep, then claimed I had consented, then, when I told them I couldn’t consent in my sleep, told me my BODY had consented. So the whole discussion over on Olivia’s blog about bodies knowing feelings before you do is a massive NOPE for me.

    I don’t think telling people “you were sexually assaulted; that was not consensual” is ultimately productive. I know it wouldn’t have been for me. I don’t remember when exactly I had the realization that what had happened was perhaps less than okay, but I can tell you I realized I had PTSD before I started calling it sexual assault. (And then there were several evenings of looking up all the sexual assault laws on the books and crying a lot and trying to figure out how to conceptualize an experience that’s classified differently under state and federal laws. *jazz hands*) I know what helped for me was discussions of consent and sexual experience that acknowledged nonconsensual experiences, and that sometimes rape is your well-meaning boyfriend in his bedroom, not the shady villain who lurks in the shadows and pounces on unsuspecting strangers. Like Siggy already said, I think building education about the distinction into these sorts of discussions is ultimately what we need.

    And if we’re going to be talking about the wibbly areas of consent, we NEED to acknowledge that some abusers are going to try to stand in that wibbly area and say, “Oh, no, this is GREY, not RAPE.” I know it will happen; that partner who assaulted me in my sleep kept trying to find ways to legitimize what they were doing and to prove that what they were doing was consensual or at the very least in a grey area (or that it was okay because they were confused and questioning and they didn’t mean it). The worst part is that, for a time, I believed them. And given that I’m not exactly uninformed about issues of sexual violence, that scares the crap out of me. (For the record, that experience was what pushed me to start being vocal about the intersection of asexuality and sexual violence, because I wanted to protect as many other people from that sinkhole as humanly possible.) So, I’m pretty much riding the extremely uncomfortable and triggered train with Elizabeth on this one, which is not really where I wanted this discussion to go.

    • Coyote

      I’m sorry for anything I’ve put y’all through, and I hope that making this post was a step toward getting things back on the right track.

      (I don’t have much else of a direct reply, but please picture that each paragraph received a bunch of nodding)

      So, from my less informed point of view, it looks like this discussion may be experiencing a tension between “challenging prevailing views of what consent looks like” and “challenging prevailing views of what nonconsent/assault/abuse looks like.” Does that sound right?

      • queenieofaces

        I think part of the problem is that any challenge to prevailing views of consent will necessarily (and probably unintentionally) pose a challenge to views of nonconsent. So unless you’re working nonconsent into your model, you might be moving around goalposts without even thinking about it.

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  • Aqua

    I forgot to read through this post as I was writing my newest one, which was more about the concept of gray-area consent, and how some people find it useful for their experiences (like I did), but how it can also be harmful. I think that if the concept of gray-area consent is going to be used at all, no one should label another person’s experiences as being gray, but also that if someone sees their experiences as gray, and not sexual assault, they should question why that is.

    One of the things I wanted to mention in my post is that I turned to the concept of gray-area consent, and believed my experiences with unwanted contact fell under a gray area for: not being “real” sex, and my partner had no intent of violence, so I didn’t want to see him as a perpetrator, and I caved in, he didn’t actively push it on me.

    I’ve had people tell me that all the “compromising” I did was me being sexually assaulted. I felt shocked, because I didn’t think it counted, but I also felt insulted, because I felt like they were demonizing my partner, and that to say that my experiences were sexual assault did a disservice to the “real” survivors of it. I know why the all-or-nothing idea of consent is supported, so there’s no ambiguity, to support survivors of sexual violence, by making it clear that what happened wasn’t their fault.

    • queenieofaces

      See, this is why I dislike the Stranger in a Dark Alley model of rape. I’ve spoken to a fair number of folks who went through a period where they blamed themselves/denied that what happened was sexual violence/thought they were just being oversensitive because their partner was so nice and so kind…except for that one time ze maybe kind of raped them, but everyone knows that rape is only perpetrated by strangers in dark alleys, and their partner is so kind and so nice and would never *want* to hurt them. And, the thing is, even those people who you would label as “real” survivors have these kind of doubts and look at a group of “realer” survivors and say, “Well, I didn’t experience something as bad as they did, so I guess it wasn’t sexual violence.” Even I struggle with those doubts sometimes. I’m not trying to convince you to label your experiences differently, but I did feel that it was important to point out that there are a lot of people who might fall more clearly into the “experienced sexual violence” category (who you might call “real” survivors) and still have the same concerns and doubts.

      Also, your point about letting people label their experiences grey vs. outsiders labeling their experiences grey reminds me of the point Sennkestra was making in the comments on my original post about ethical frameworks of consent vs. personal experiences of consent. I’m surprised nobody’s really picked that up yet, ’cause it seemed like an important distinction.

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  • Naomi

    This post continues to be extremely important to me, especially as the grayness of my own situation becomes more and more abused by those wanting to deny and vindicate the culprit.

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