Originally published: 06.12.12
When you sit there with your friends and the subject of rape comes up, this is one of the most persistent rape myths that they put forward. OK maybe that’s just my friends. I apologise for them in advance and I’m working on getting new ones, I promise.
The idea that there are “grey areas” in women’s bodily integrity; that perfectly nice men are confused by the assumption that if you want to enter another human being’s body, then you ought to be 100% sure that they want you there and you ought to check that that’s the case, is surprisingly widespread and accepted even among people who are reasonably educated, lefty, progressive in their views on all other subjects. The grey area myth, tells us that normally-functioning compos-mentis men who are allowed out unsupervised, can’t be expected to know that they need to check another human being wants them in her body, because of the famous grey area which confuses them and makes them into accidental rapists, who may have done the wrong thing, but surely don’t deserve jail?
In reality of course, when you challenge the men you know about grey areas and ask them directly: “so if you’re not sure that a woman wants you in her body, do you just go straight in and ask questions later then?” they are shocked and offended. “Of course not!”
But somehow, although they would never do that, they assume that other men would.
Why? Because they are the man-haters they accuse feminists of being when we suggest that it’s a good idea not to rape women? Possible but unlikely. Because they are particularly wonderful men, completely above the normal run-of-the-mill type? Are they remarkably lovely, respectful, decent men who any woman would be lucky to have in her life? Are they exceptionally good catches? Interestingly, many of them actually do believe this. They have bought the version of men our culture sells us, of selfish, self-centred knuckle-draggers who really can’t be expected to take responsibility for their own behaviour and only they and their friends and Ryan Gosling are different. This clearly makes the pool of acceptable men available for your average heterosexual woman of any discrimination at all, extremely small and I’m never quite sure if they are overly pessimistic or if I am overly optimistic. In their own circle and minds of course, it ensures that their status as “fantastic catch” is maintained. So I’m slightly suspicious of their jaundiced view of other men, it’s too much to their advantage not to at least query it.
In reality, most rapists rely on the belief in the grey area, to enable them to rape women and not even get accused, let alone convicted of their crime. They know that if they can set a woman up to look as though there may have been a break-down of communication, a confusion, a misunderstanding, a grey area, even where the rape victim, police, CPS and jury believe that the woman is telling the truth (and we know that mostly, people believe rape victims are lying even though only about 4% of reported rapes are false allegations), they will still get away with it because everyone – including the victim – will give them the benefit of the doubt and decide that although it is rape, it happened in the infamous grey area and therefore doesn’t count. 85% -90% of rapes aren’t reported. That’s partly because most rapes can be made to look as if they happened in the grey area.
Rapists know the grey area is their friend, so they set their victim up very carefully, to ensure that the worst thing that can be pointed at them, is grey area stuff. When I was raped, my rapist walked up to me while I was chatting to a friend and kissed me on the mouth without any warning. He held me against him and kissed me, counting on my surprise and disorientation, that I wouldn’t protest or hold him accountable for what I now understand to be a sexual assault. Then of course, it was just counted as a man acting on impulse (like the ad slogan) or trying it on, which was considered normal and reasonable.
It took me years to realise that what he was doing there, was setting me up; if the very remote possibility that I would report his raping me occurred, he would be able to point to this kiss, as proof that I’d “got off with him” earlier on in the evening and rely on the police to support his right to penetrate a woman he had earlier on been seen kissing. Also, something I didn’t realise for years, he was testing the waters – my lack of outrage or fury at his behaviour (I ran off giggling with my friend) gave him a clue as to how easily he could manipulate my behaviour later on.
When I left the party venue with a big group of people, he was suddenly there in that group and he honed in on me and chatted in a normal, friendly manner as we walked to the cab office, before deliberately slowing his pace and imperceptibly, very gradually, separating us off from the crowd. So to a police officer, CPS officer and jury member, it would very much look as though I was quite keen on him and his story would be that I was a bit drunk, it was consensual and I regretted it afterwards. It wouldn’t get to court and it wouldn’t even earn him social opprobrium among our mutual friends and acquaintances. In the eyes of all of them, they might believe that I wasn’t actually lying – but they wouldn’t condemn him as the rapist he was, because they would assume that he genuinely believed I liked him and this was one of those famous grey areas where he’d made an honest mistake and I’d over-reacted.
And of course, I also persuaded myself that it was one of those grey areas; rape victims are no different from everyone else in society and we are subject to the same messages, the same cultural influences and the same assumptions as everyone else. As women, we’re socialised to override our instincts -we’re always being told that they’re wrong – and the fact that I felt that he’d raped me, wasn’t enough for me to assume that was good enough to assume he’d raped me; like most other people, I accepted rapists’ definitions of rape and sex and I accepted that this was a grey area.
Except that it wasn’t. Unlike most rape victims, my rapist did actually tell me (once he knew there was absolutely no chance of him being held legally or morally accountable for it) that he’d raped me. After the rape, I went out with him for about 3 weeks until I could stand it no more. (Read why in my blog post here http://herbsandhags.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/how-i-became-rape-victim.html if you want an explanation for that). And when I dumped him, he made it clear that he knew what he’d done, that it wasn’t a grey area, that it wasn’t a miscommunication. In the intervening years I realised he did that as a power kick; he wanted to let me know that I’d been his victim, he didn’t want to leave me with the comforting illusion that he was basically a nice guy who’d made a mistake. He wanted me to know that he’d set me up and ensured that he’d get away with rape.
That’s what most rapists do. They don’t “accidentally” rape women. They don’t “misread the signals”. Every day, men who pretend that they are incapable of telling that women don’t want them to penetrate their bodies, read hundreds of social signals expertly. They know when to joke about with the boss; when to back down gracefully in a meeting without losing face; when to negotiate hard and when to keep some back for the next deal; they know when to banter with their colleagues and when to be professional. They know when to slap down someone in a pub or a club or on a train and when that would be dangerous – most men, like most women, are very, very good at negotiating social signals.
Even when they are a bit drunk, in pubs and bars and coming home after a night out, they know when it would be dangerous to get raucous or lairy and when they can throw their weight about safely. Yes alcohol does lower inhibitions, but men are still remarkably good at picking up social cues even when drunk. If they weren’t, their daily lives would be full of unnecessary and draining conflict and public consumption of alcohol would simply be banned as far too dangerous to allow. Only when it comes to sex, do they suddenly lose the ability to read signals and sense reluctance, fear or resignation – and not only can they not read social signals, they also suddenly lose the ability to ask a straight question: “Are you OK with this?” “Do you want this?” It’s remarkable isn’t it? Loss of social signal reading ability and other communication skills, like asking questions. How very emasculating the grey area must be. Er…
The grey area makes it possible for rapists to set their victims up, to rape them without being held accountable for it. It rests on the assumption that a woman in the same space as a man, is responsible for him not raping her, rather than a man being responsible for not raping a woman. Every time people talk about grey areas in rape, they are re-inforcing that lie, that men can read social signals in every other area of their lives, even when they are drunk, except in sexual situations.
Looked at dispassionately, it’s incredible that even sensible people do this. It’s time we recognised what the grey area is: the area where rapists persuade the rest of us, that they didn’t mean to do it and that the woman they were with, has no right to have her bodily integrity respected because she’s in the grey area with him. The grey area is a rapist’s safe space, which is why most of them manipulate their victim into it. Let’s take away their safe space. Let’s stop giving house-room, to the concept of the grey area.