The Myth of the Gray Area and Rape Culture

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Peter Drucker

Recently, in an online forum for Sex Coaching professionals, a colleague posted a question that she labeled a “gray area” about consent. Here is the paraphrased question:

Partner A has explicitly said “no” to penetration, but consents to outercourse, (external hand/finger stimulation, oral sex). While engaged in outercourse, Partner A talks dirty to Partner B about intercourse (“I wish I could do you/feel you inside me.”) Partner B initiates intercourse, penetrating Partner A.

As both a Sex Coaching professional and a date rape survivor, I don’t see a gray area in this scenario. Even calling it a gray area is upholding our current rape culture because it implies that a woman gives consent to penetration simply by being sexual and/or talking dirty. In the above scenario, Partner A explicitly said “no” to penetration. Nothing about what she said or did changed that “no” to a “yes.” Only the word “yes” would have done that.

As long as we label scenarios like the above as “gray areas,” we condone rape, because we readily substitute a woman’s explicit “yes” with words or behavior that are not “yes.” And we do that culturally because at some level, we believe that if a woman is behaving in any way that is sexual, she is consenting to penetration. That, my friends, is a rape culture assumption.

In the above scenario, if Partner B felt confused about whether Partner A’s dirty talk meant that she had changed her mind, it was his responsibility to ask before initiating intercourse because he wanted to move beyond an explicitly spoken boundary. There is no room for assumptions or guesswork. He should have asked: “You sound really turned on talking about penetration. Have you changed your mind? Can we have intercourse?” She might have responded: “No, I haven’t changed my mind. It’s just a huge turn-on for me to talk about it while you touch me.” Or: “Hell, yes, I’ve changed my mind! I want to have intercourse!”

In short, nothing but a clear conversation followed by an explicit “yes” changes the above scenario from rape to consensual intercourse. Labeling it a “gray area” suggests that men are allowed to treat behavior and words after “no” that are not “yes” as a “yes” rather than training men that they must stop and ask if confused. Why do we continue to shift the burden of a man’s choice to override a woman’s boundary onto the woman?

Please share this post—it is a message that needs to be communicated repeatedly and often until we eliminate this tragic cultural bias. It may take a few generations, but why not try for our daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters?