The culture of sexual assault: a take on transformative justice and the “grey area”
Trigger Warning: this piece contains potentially triggering material related to sexual assault, gender based violence and consent.
Consent is a comprehensive experience. It is a mutual verbal, physical and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation or threats. It’s not just a verbal “yes” or “no” — it involves being intentional with the person (or people) you choose to be intimate withand checking in with them through physical and emotional cues.
Consent is constant. Consent is continual. Consent can be taken back at any time — just because your partner(s) agree to one thing, doesn’t mean they’re agreeing to all of the things. After all, no is a complete sentence.
Consent is fucking necessary. And while it sounds easy enough, in the year 2018, people still don’t understand it. Or, willingly choose not to understand.
We can’t begin to discuss consent without mentioning Tarana Burke, who started the Me Too movement in 2004. Me Too centered the voices of women and femmes who experienced assault at the hands of men. The #MeToo hashtag prompted thousands of Facebook statuses, Twitter threads retelling experiences with harassment, violations of a person’s boundaries, molestation, rape and assault, and messages of solidarity from one survivor to another.
Men also spoke about their experiences openly, despite their trauma with patriarchal notions deeply rooted in homophobia and toxic masculinity. Patriarchal standards are maintained through denying and minimizing a person’s experience, victim-blaming, deceit and manipulation. And I’ll say #YesAllMen for this one — all men and folks on the spectrum of masculinity carry trauma.
Lessons on sex ed from a lens of abstinence, of prevention, but rarely touches on consent, healthy relationships and pleasure. We don’t do a good enough job teaching kids how to have healthy sexual relationships and leave them to their own devices, whether that looks like watching porn on the internet, or pissing competitions on who can do what to whom first — placing bets on women and femmes as though they were livestock from the comfort of a high school locker room.
By definition, sexual coercion is “the act of using pressure, alcohol or drugs, or forced to have sexual contact with someone against his or her will,” and includes “persistent attempts to have sexual contact with someone who has already refused.”
Love is Respect lays out some of the ways in which your partner may coerce you: they make you feel like you owe them something, they react negatively when you say no or don’t immediately agree to something they want you to do, continue to pressure you after you say no, or try to normalize their sexual expectations (i.e. “we’re in a relationship and this is what people in relationships are supposed to do!” or “But you turned me on, so now you have to -insert activity here-.”)
Coercion is one of the ways the patriarchy teaches us to flex power and dominance over someone else.
ConsentEd mentions that “grey rape” has become this socially acceptable, albeit a problematic term, used to describe non-stereotypical sexual assaults. “Real” rape often refers to stranger assaults or ones with high levels of physical violence, but “grey rape” usually refers to acquaintance assaults — assaults occurring on dates, when alcohol or drugs are involved, or when the survivor has consented to some sexual acts, but not others.
Grey rape promotes the idea that miscommunication is nothing more than an “accident” and not an act of violence. “Grey” refers a space where a person is partially consenting on some level, as if partial consent is actual consent. Grey area rape is seen as “not as bad,” and some reach high enough to state that it isn’t real sexual assault but a case of “bad sex.”
But we aren’t mentioning one pivotal fact — the entire concept of “mixed signals” and miscommunication relies on the basic awareness that someone’s response isn’t an outright yes.
If you’ve been taking your self-care New Years resolutions seriously and unplugging from the internet, you might have missed the accusations of sexual assault naming Aziz Ansari as the perpetrator. I recommend reading Aditi Juneja’s piece, Allegations Against Aziz Ansari are Forcing a Reckoning Around Intersectionality in the South Asian Community as she writes about it from her perspective as a South Asian person.
Grey area rape excuses perpetrators of it from accountability and responsibility for their own assault is usually dished out towards the survivor, which leads to confusion and self-blame. They may be less likely to reach out for support. Once you read through the dozen think pieces floating around about these allegations against Ansari and the dreaded comments section, you’ll see exactly why victims don’t come forward with their stories. And if you are a survivor of assault, this comes of no surprise to you.
The victim’s retelling of a date gone wrong was massively triggering for me to read through, but it validated my experience as someone who has fallen into the “grey area.” My body forced me to shift from fight or flight to flat out dissociation so I didn’t fight him off. I just wanted it to be over so I could go home and shower.
When I decided to tell a few people, the messages started pouring in.
“I’m sorry that happened, but why didn’t you leave?”
“But weren’t you already having sex? You sure you’re not just mad because it sucked?”
“Well, you didn’t say no loud enough.”
“Were you drinking? What were you wearing?”
“Don’t blame him, it’s your fault.”
Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith’s 1999 study “Just Say No? The Use of Conversation Analysis in Developing A Feminist Perspective on Sexual Refusal” collected data from focus groups in 58 students in the United Kingdom. Conversation analysis involved the way in which words are used which includes pauses, overlapping speech, elongated syllables, verbal nods and rising tones. This includes things like ums, ahs, and I guess sos.
Kitzinger and Frith claim “both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no,’ and we suggest that males claims to have not ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.”
So it’s not mixed signals or blurred lines. It’s not miscommunication. It is an abject rejection to a person withholding consent. Kitzinger and Frith are saying that a “no” doesn’t matter to rapists because… well, they’re rapists.
If consent is not enthusiastic, or “grey,” then it’s coercion. It’s violation. It’s assault.
Why is this so difficult for us to collectively understand? Why do we insist on demanding the emotional labor from survivors of sexual trauma? Why isn’t validating their experiences and expressing empathy not our default reaction? Why do we need to see “proof”? And why do we always point the finger at survivors and not at perpetrators or the system that allows for rape culture to thrive?
Transformative justice allows us to think of systems of oppression as agents of trauma, and seek out ways to heal from them by not just focusing on individual experiences, but also systemic injustices that allow for injustices to happen in the first place.
We need to examine the ways in which we can provide justice and closure to survivors and hold perpetrators and abusers accountable.
We must prioritize the safety of the survivor and empower them to make whatever decisions they see fit when seeking accountability.
A collective sense of responsibility needs to exist. In what ways do our schools, churches, friend groups, music scenes, work places, etc. allow gender oppression, abuse and violence?
And for the accused, as well as those who have committed abuse must acknowledge it. Understand the negative impact of your actions on the individual(s) and that avoiding accountability makes that person feel worse. Ask your direct community to help you in the process. Take accountability through the ways in which the individual(s) see fit. Commit to never harm someone else again.
Transformative justice isn’t easy. There are no blueprints that guide the process. But if we are committed to one another’s liberation, we must start by providing more options for trauma-informed and survivor-focused healing. We must provide early sex education that isn’t limited to just abstinence and disease prevention, but on consent, boundaries, pleasure and healthy relationships. We must bust the myth of “grey area” rape.
If we focused on teaching consent and boundaries instead of trying to scare people away from the most common and natural activity of our species, I think we could make major headway in the effort to turn our collective story from #metoo and #itwasme into #notme, and even #weconsentedanditwasdelicious. — adrienne marie brown
To read more about grey area assaults, check out Christina Cauterucci’s “I Always Felt Weird Around Him After That,” where 56 people share their “grey area” stories for Slate Magazine
To read about brain-based responses during assault, read “Why Victims ‘Freeze Up’ During Sexual Assaults” by Jackie Hong for Vice