Shades of Grey

Originally published through Esperanto Magazine


Consent is a fairly black and white issue.

If two people are having sex that have both made it clear that they’re down for it, then it’s a fun time for all. If one of them indicates that they don’t feel like it, but the other one makes it happen anyway, then it’s rape. Rape is bad, and you should never do it – not the most difficult concept to grasp, yeah?

Well, apparently, some people have trouble wrapping their heads around that simple fact. A 2009 study in the US showed that one in twenty college boys will admit to having committed rape – as long as you don’t call it that. When anonymously asked questions like “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone who did not want you to because they were too intoxicated to resist?” and “Have you ever had intercourse with someone by force or threat of force?” participants (who did not identify themselves as rapists,) answered yes.

A year later, the bright sparks of Edmonton, Canada, had the revelatory idea that instead of addressing rape prevention materials to the victims, it might work a little better if they targeted the people actually committing the crimes. They scrapped the conventional wisdom bullshit, like “don’t wear short skirts” and “don’t drink,” and plastered the city with an advertising campaign called Don’t Be That Guy.

This campaign features posters with slogans like “Just because she’s drinking doesn’t mean she wants sex,” “Just because she isn’t saying no doesn’t mean she’s saying yes” and “It’s not sex when he changes his mind.” It was so successful that major cities around the world started asking if it was cool for them to use the campaign as well.

One example? The rape rate hadn’t dropped in Vancouver for years – until the posters were distributed, when it fell by 10% within a year.

What this study, and the result of the ad campaign show, is a phenomenon that Cosmo calls “grey rape.” These are situations where sexual assault falls outside the stereotype (like the dark stranger leaping out from behind bushes, or the drink spiker.) Because these cases don’t fit the social narrative, people – including survivors, law enforcement, random commenters, and even the perpetrators – are less likely to classify what happened as rape.

Why is what you call something so important? Because when we refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of what has occurred in these situations, we allow them to become normalised and forgivable. They become “a bad night” or a “misunderstanding” instead of rape. We allow them to happen again.

To be clear, “grey rape” is just as terrible as the types of assault we usually associate with the term. It still results in lifelong psychological effects and trauma for the victim. It’s still very much illegal. It is still, 100%, rape. The difference is that in this case, the parties involved aren’t always sure of their rights.

What if they say no, once, but you say, “Come one baby” and keep going – and after that, they don’t resist?

What if it’s the reverse of the situation you’re probably envisioning – that it’s a boy who doesn’t want to have sex, and a girl climbs on top of him anyway?

What if the victim is not so drunk they’re passed out, but are still too intoxicated to undoubtedly indicate they’re okay with what’s happening?

What if someone makes it clear they aren’t interested in sex, and you deliberately get them drunk to the point of being unable to walk or speak clearly, and then they agree to let you do them?

What if someone you’ve had a crush on for a while invites you into their home, offers you a drink, and starts making out with you, but then says they don’t want to have sex – is it wrong to assume they’re being coy and hold them down?

What if it was someone you’d had sex with before – what if it was a long-term partner – and you only forced it that one time?

According to Victorian law (as well as the laws of just not being a societal skid mark) all of the above cases could be prosecuted, with a maximum sentence of 25 years.

But in cases like these, the victim is more likely to blame themselves, and even less likely than in other cases to pursue justice. The reality is that these sorts of assaults – ones by an acquaintance, friend, or partner, without physical violence – are far more likely to occur than the mentally disturbed stranger from Criminal Minds.

So let’s just all agree. Sex is only okay if you know the other person is in the same mindset you are, and consent and respect for the other person take priority above all else. If you aren’t sure, ask. Don’t be that guy.

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