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Is There A “Gray Zone” in Consent?

If you’ve ever made a formal complaint of gendered violence, you might have felt that translating raw experience into the language of law is like describing a walk through the forest using only the formal scientific names of the trees. Whereas in lived reality, you saw the sunlight filtered green through the leaves, noted the precise shine off a beetle’s shell, and started at the sudden call of a bird, in telling it everything becomes technical, different. Whereas in lived reality, you were muddling through your discomforts, trying to use the right language to send the right signals, sometimes not sure what you wanted, the law is black and white. Did a sexual assault happen or didn’t it happen? Is there evidence?

It’s hard to translate the complexities of power, intimacy, and sexuality into a cohesive narrative for our own understanding, let alone to lodge a formal complaint. The schemas that feminists write in anti-domestic violence or sexual harassment pamphlets can seem simple, neat renditions of power and violence on the page, but when we look at some of our own experiences we may find them complex.

This complexity has been described by some as the “gray zone,” or the idea that there is a space between consent and non-consent. Katie Roiphe opined on the concept in her 1993 book The Morning After, in which she argued that college campus feminists’ activism against rape infantilized women by redefining ambiguously coercive sexual encounters as rape. Roiphe has continued to argue that contemporary feminists’ widening of the definition of rape is a puritanical infantilization of women in the guise of progressive politics. Laura Sessions Stepp, meanwhile, popularized the idea in her 2007 Cosmopolitan article about “gray rape,” or young women’s ambiguous experiences of assault or sexual coercion, often involving alcohol.

But there’s one problem: The “gray zone” idea has often functioned as a tactic to minimize or dismiss violence, and therefore evade accountability, by claiming that sex is inherently a murky, illegible realm.

Feminists on the other side of the debate respond to this by saying that consent is, after all, quite simple: It’s a freely-given, enthusiastic “yes” which is clearly and unambiguously signaled, as simple as figuring out whether or not someone wants tea.

I’ve used this consent-is-black-and-white line in my own work. And yet a dissonance remains. Just as the translation of sexual violence or harassment from lived experience to legal complaint can reveal those aspects of experience that remain fraught and ambiguous in our own minds, our experiences of gender, power, and violence are not always black and white. That is not to say that all experiences of sexual violence are somehow elusive or ambiguous; there are plenty of clear and egregious instances of violence in which the idea of the “gray zone” is a strategy used to sow doubt in the minds of victims.

But in many of our lived experiences, there is complexity. Perhaps an experience involves multiple kinds of intersecting power—class, race, sexuality, gender—or takes place in the context of an intimate relationship with power dynamics we can’t quite parse. For many of us, the complexity may revolve around the question of enthusiastic consent: Did I or my partner indicate it clearly enough?

These tensions recently came into relief in the discussion surround the Babe story on Aziz Ansari, a tale of a night of “bad sex” or sexual assault that is unsettling, yet ubiquitous. Feminist analyses of the incident emphasized that it was precisely the banality of the story that prompted pushback. If we admit that this is assault, many writers argued, we must reinterpret many of our own experiences, and that scares us; it means uprooting what we understand about intimacy, each other, ourselves. The more unflinching a gaze we turn to the violence of our own gender norms, the more we understand that coercion itself is a continuum.

There is a distinction, however, between acknowledging the complexity of gendered violence, and endorsing the idea that consent is an unknowable “gray zone.” Because power is multilayered, advocates of the “gray zone” logic argue, we can shrug consent off as an inherently flawed framework and accept that some degree of coercion in inalienable to sex. But when we think of gendered violence as complex, moments of ambiguity or discomfort don’t lead us to reject the responsibility of consent. They rather push us to ask deeper questions about how gender and power shape our intimacies and how consent itself is enabled or hindered by power relations. Experiences that feel violating yet ambiguous challenge us to think of violence as a spectrum of power and coercion, rather than a simple dichotomy between “good sex” and “rape.”

Katie Roiphe argues as much herself, albeit with the wrong conclusion, in her 2011 New York Times article, “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risque Remarks”:

The so-called rape epidemic on campuses is more a way of interpreting, a way of seeing, than a physical phenomenon. It is more about a change in sexual politics than a change in sexual behavior . . . We all agree that rape is a terrible thing, but we no longer agree on what rape is . . . The lines between rape and sex begin to blur.

Roiphe is right: It’s not that suddenly, more people are being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. It’s that we’re now labelling a lot of experiences as sexual violence when we didn’t previously understand them as such. And it’s true: That creates uncertainty about the meaning of rape, and of gendered violence more generally, and calls into question the “normal” idea of sex.

But here’s where I (and many of us) differ from Roiphe, and it’s a big difference. Whereas she takes the expanding definition of violence to indicate a society of puritanical paranoia, we take it to indicate a serious and important interrogation, in which violent gender norms can be revealed, reevaluated, and changed. This interrogation calls for us not only to expand our idea of violence, but to expand our critique of norms around gender and sexuality in general. If it is a normal experience for women to feel violated during sex, there is something wrong with “normal” sex. That doesn’t mean all patriarchal sex is rape. That doesn’t mean all sex which is uncomfortable, violating, or even coercive can be or should be criminal. That does mean we have to expand not only what we consider sexually violent, but how we respond to sexual violence.

If we understand sexual violence as necessarily committed against an innocent woman by an evil man who must be punished with years of jail time—then yes, it will be difficult for many of us to understand our own, daily experiences of violation as rape or assault. When we understand sexual violence as a coercive violation of someone’s bodily autonomy which is enabled by social power imbalances—which can be addressed through multiple processes of justice—we give ourselves the space to articulate our own experiences in all their complexity.

I don’t think consent is always simple. Power and intimacy are as complex as we are, and at the end of the day human intimacy is more fraught than tea time. But that doesn’t mean that consent is a useless framework, that sex occurs in some amoral “gray zone,” or that we’re somehow off the hook for ensuring that our own encounters are enthusiastically consensual. It means, rather, that when we acknowledge the complexity of our lived experiences of power and violence, we find that creating genuine sexual equality requires much more than firing a few men or sending them to jail (though these things can be important). It requires the creation of a new normal.

Header image: 2018 Women’s March in New York City, Wikimedia Commons.

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