#MeToo and the Dreaded Gray Area
I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts on the #MeToo movement, and I have a lot of them. I feel the conversation is complicated, and the topic of sexual assault and misconduct cannot, as a whole, be made black and white. There are, dare I say it, some very real gray areas.
First, the term “gray area” can so often be silencing and poisonous to victims, and I do not use it without careful consideration for where and how I define areas becoming gray.
Before I get into a discussion of the “gray area”, there are some topics within the total #MeToo conversation I’d like to draw attention to first. The following are things I haven’t seen discussed nearly enough:
- Women are not the only victims of sexual assault, and men are not the only perpetrators.
- While some of this topic does fall along cis gender binary lines, let’s acknowledge how many trans and non-binary people face assault, rape and violence. 64% of trans people will face sexual assault in their lifetimes. That is nearly two-thirds of a total population of people. Sit with that one for a second.
- Queer people across the board often face higher rates of sexual violence.
- Ditto people with disabilities.
- An assault-free Hollywood should not be the only goal. Most victims of sexual assault do not have the platform to speak about their experiences so openly and garner so much public support, and I feel it is the duty of those with public voice to speak for those without, not only for themselves.
- Right now, ICE is arresting and deporting people who seek help after facing domestic violence and assault.
- Sexual assault and rape are rampant in prisons and jails, and have been for a very, very long time. The majority of it is perpetrated by prison and jail staff, not other inmates.
No, you cannot truly separate this issue from class, race, immigration status, mass incarceration, sexual orientation and gender identity. Is there something to be said for a focused movement on a focused problem? Sure. But when the problem is this societally ingrained and so heavily linked to other power structures and oppressions, if you’re not looking at the full picture, you’re just not looking.
Now, as for the topic of the gray area, I’m going to begin by outlining a few things that are not in a gray area:
- Engaging in sexual activity with a person who is unconscious or too inebriated to give consent. Seriously, enough with this one. Yes means yes. Everything else does not mean yes.
- Using any threat of harm (be it physical, material or emotional) to coerce someone into having sex. Ditto reverse threats, i.e. offers of assistance in careers, schooling etc. in exchange for sex that would not be made available without sex.
- The right of those who feel they have been assaulted to define their experience as assault, even if someone else disagrees with their definition.
This is not an exhaustive list, as there are many more issues that are quite black and white, but those are some of the key ones that I have often seen mislabeled as existing in a “gray area.”
Now, what makes an area gray?
In my view, a gray area is not a dubious cloud of things that are all “maybe not that bad.” Precisely what makes an area gray is that opinions and lines drawn differ depending on the person, the circumstance and the past experience of the listener receiving the story. Things are not gray only because they fall between assault or bad sex, because the same experience may be quite plainly one or the other depending on the person.
I think the majority of stories we’ve recently seen thrown in the “gray area” can be classified by one or more of a few categories:
- Power discrepancy-based gray area.
- Communication-based gray area.
- Differing definitions of assault.
- Toxic sex culture.
Note: these are all intimately linked to one another and often cannot be separated. In each, there are cases where I feel a situation can be quite black and white, and then it can start to get gray. Often, the issue of the gray area is one of “Whose responsibility is it to account for this?”
Here’s what I mean:
The power discrepancy-based gray area.
Take the hypothetical of someone putting a gun to your head and saying “Will you have sex with me?” You say Yes. You have sex. You are not shot in the head as a result.
We can all agree this is a pretty black and white situation. There is a massive power discrepancy because the person asking for sex has literal, immediate power of life and death over you. Consent cannot be given.
Now, instead of a gun to your head, it’s the threat of being fired, losing your home, not receiving a promotion, getting a bad grade you don’t deserve. The area may be graying, but it’s still pretty cut and dry. A threat has been made or implied, and consent cannot be freely given.
Where it gets gray: instead of direct power over a situation, the person has an indirect influence. They have celebrity or public power. They have your admiration.
Can people in two positions of vastly different power ever freely consent? I would say, yes, at times, but that the power discrepancy needs to be considered as a mitigating factor that affects people’s choices.
And the question remains: whose responsibility is it to account for it?
The communication-based gray area: A-side.
This encompasses issues of misunderstood, misgiven, coerced, or dishonest consent.
I have a very particular view of communication, and that is as follows: it is (pretty much) always your responsibility to say what you mean. Don’t say No and mean Yes, don’t say Yes and mean No. Period.
So why is this gray? Even within my hardline stance on communication, I still very firmly feel that the area can be gray. Consider the following:
Are there conditions under which one cannot reasonably be expected to say what one means?
Are there threats or power dynamics at play?
Is there tremendous social conditioning against honesty?
Will there be a backlash if one is honest?
If the answer to any of the above was “Yes,” then you can see for yourself why it’s gray.
And the grayest question of all remains: Whose responsibility is it to account for these factors?
Communication: the B-side.
Still on the subject of communication and the importance of honesty, there is one other thing I want to discuss. I feel it is abhorrent to turn someone into an aggressor without their consent.
What do I mean by that?
If you consent to an experience verbally but your consent is dishonest, you put your partner in a position to hurt you without them seeking to do so.
Yes, there are tremendous limitations on the ability to be honest. But it is also important to note that dishonest consent hurts everyone involved. Not only can the experience hurt the person who gave dishonest consent, it also hurts the person who received that consent and acted accordingly, in the assumption of honesty.
Differing definitions of assault.
In my view, it is the right of someone who feels they have been assaulted to define their experience as they see fit.
There are experiences I have had that I could choose not to classify as assault but do, and many more I could choose to classify as assault and don’t. They are my experiences, and how I define them is my decision.
Yes, there are legal definitions of assault and rape, but I am certainly not one to use the law as a moral compass. Many of these definitions don’t account for power discrepancies, cultural conditioning, or numerous other factors. In terms of what actually constitutes an assault, that can only be known by the felt and lived experience of the person to whom it happened.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
First, trauma is felt individually and internally. No one can define for you what experience is or is not traumatic. Second, it is obviously possible for the same experience to be traumatic to one person involved and not to another. It is also possible for an experience to be traumatic to one person and a similar experience not traumatic to another person. Third, the presence of trauma is not necessary for an experience to be assault. Likewise, assault is not the only reason why someone might experience trauma from a sexual experience.
Toxic sex culture.
On the whole, the way we fuck is fucked up.
Of the partners I’ve given explicit consent to have sex with, I would say easily more than half asked for or did things I wasn’t comfortable with. The vast majority focused on their own pleasure during sex, not mine. Many pressured me not to use a condom. Many fucked me in ways I didn’t find enjoyable and never once asked what I wanted. Many pressured me to have sex in some way through whining, complaining, or such a strong sense of expectation and entitlement that I wilted in response.
This kind of experience is ubiquitous. The above certainly does not apply to every partner I’ve had, but those circumstances or something similar have happened to nearly every woman I know.
And, mind you, these are all experiences to which I gave explicit or implicit consent. I would not classify any of those experiences as sexual assault, but I would fully understand why, in some cases, someone else would. And I’ve been left to question why I don’t consider many of those experiences assault.
The first thing I can point to is that I said Yes, or did not say No. And yet – consent given is not always freely given, and at the very least, there is so often a tremendous amount of social pressure to say things you don’t mean.
The question remains, whose responsibility is it?
Mine to be absolutely honest in when I say Yes and No?
My partner’s in understanding the heaps of conditioning around giving consent one might not actually want to give?
Personally, I skew heavily towards the “Mine” camp: No one should have to read your mind. But I think there is something to be said for people, all of us, being aware of mitigating factors to absolute honesty, especially around sex.
Which brings me back to what I mean about toxic sex culture: that maybe the most helpful question to ask in these cases isn’t Whose fault is it?, but rather, What can be done to remedy the situation going forward?
A paradigm shift.
Much of reparative and restorative justice focuses less on victim-perpetrator paradigms and questions of guilt and culpability, and more about what can be done by the individuals, the community and the society to combat violence and suffering going forward.
In this light, it is crucial to recognize and acknowledge that gray areas do exist. There is not always a clear-cut case of wrongdoing and guilt, and in many cases, such a desire to pinpoint who is or is not responsible for a particular circumstance only helps to perpetuate the same kinds of situations happening.
It is far more helpful to say: We are all, in some ways, responsible for the culture we create. I do not see this as victim-blaming. Many aspects of sexual culture are causing many people to suffer, and having an honest conversation about that can sometimes be more helpful than drawing lines. The question to ask stops being Who is in the wrong here? and evolves into:
What are we, as individuals, communities, and a society, going to do about it?