Clearing the Murky Waters of Grey Area Sex
By Alana McConnell | Illustration by Yi Jong
CW: This piece discusses sexual misconduct. If you do not have the capacity to read this right now, please don't or please be mindful while you're reading and stop when necessary. AUT Counselling and Mental Health Services (free for all students) Call (09) 9219292.
You go over to a boy’s house for dinner. You’ve been on one date, and have been talking on Tinder for a few weeks. After dinner and wine, you go to his room. You didn’t go to his house planning to have sex. You want to get to know him better, foster more safety and communication. Though you know that going over to someone’s house invites the idea of sex, you believe that you will be able to assert yourself. He starts to kiss you, and before you know it, he is reaching for a condom. You want to speak up, to slow things down. But you don’t want to create a disruption, cause a scene, or get rejected. It's easier to go along with things, even though you don’t actually want to. It feels like you are in too deep. You go through the motions, but it's more of a performance than a pleasurable experience. As you walk home later in the evening, you feel awful. You feel guilty, like you let yourself down. You feel dirty and angry with yourself. What stopped you from saying no?
Or maybe you are in a long term relationship. Your partner comes home from a night out with his friends. He is clearly very drunk and very horny. He wants to have sex with you, and though you are feeling tired and not in the mood, you let him have sex with you because its easier than saying no. After he finishes you turn over and go to sleep. You clearly were not enjoying yourself, but he was too drunk and too horny to notice. He may not realise it, but he makes you feel sometimes like you owe him sex.
Maybe something along these lines has happened to you, or happened to a friend you know. Maybe you’ve heard variations of these experiences when you are decompressing with your close friends after a big weekend, or late night chats around a table with a glass of wine in hand. Everyone knows that these experiences aren’t quite right, but we are scared to fully engage with them. That’s when the term grey area comes in, because as Rachel Thompson said, “we do not currently have the terminology to describe these experiences."*1
Some people view rape as a black and white issue. Either there is consent or there isn’t. The rapist always knows what they are doing. The lines are drawn in the sand. But what this conversation has left out is that sex is a continuum. A complicated continuum that draws on massive complexities of power, gender, expectation and communication. Something that may not be considered to be rape can still be violating and damaging. In a world of Tinder hookups, Bumble escapades and Hinge flings, the journey of intimacy and sex is propelled at hyperspeed. This inevitably results in grey areas and murky waters when it comes to our sexual experiences. The question is raised, was that an actual assault or was that just really bad sex? Madeleine Holden wrote in Metro Magazine, “that sex is often so bad that women leave encounters crying and feeling confused, grossed out and empty is worth talking about, but its difficult to do so freely and honestly within the punitive framework of the criminal justice system, where sex is understood in binary terms."2 The more women you talk to, the more you realise that this idea of “grey area sex” is not niche or new. And it is near impossible to foster a transparent and progressive conversation amongst ourselves if we cannot even articulate what we are talking about.
When babe.net released an article in 2018 titled “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life” it added another layer to the explosive Time’s Up movement. It helped propel the debate of bad sex vs. sexual assault into our everday discussions and our Twitter debates alike. Some people dismissed the account, saying that it was just a bad date. Some people blamed the woman Grace, for not giving him a clear and definite “no.” As it was released at the height of the Me Too movement, critics used it as an example for the movement going too far, as the progress of feminism being undone. The article did however help to open our awareness about how “so many people’s experiences lie somewhere between great consensual sex and bad, extreme sexual violation”, as PhD researcher Elise Whittington put it.3 The worrying thing is that one person's interpretation of consensual and mutually enjoyable sex can be wildly different to the other person participating in it. Maybe Aziz Ansari - who is known for his “woke” standup on feminism and being a sexual assault activist - doesn’t deserve jail time, and doesn’t deserve to have his career ruined. There is no benefit of lumping him in with the other perpetrators in the Me Too movement like serial rapist Harvey Weinstein. But hopefully the feedback he received after that event made him reflect upon his own impact and role within the complex landscape of consent in heterosexual dating.
Sometimes saying yes is easier than saying no. In a perfect world we would be assertive and self-assured individuals who were always in control of our circumstances, only having sex with respectful and communicative partners.
We would be completely transparent about our desires and needs, and it would be fully accepted. We would leave sexual encounters feeling energised and fulfilled. If this were true, grey area rape would not exist.
The more women you talk to, the more you realise that this idea of “grey area sex” is not niche or new
But our very imperfect world and the society within it can create detrimental expectations and unhelpful beliefs that women hold themselves accountable to. Some girls and women see their role in sexual encounters as being “desirable” rather than assertive, said Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls and Sex. This may manifest in the phenomena known as “spectatoring”, defined by Masters and Johnson (1970) as rather than focusing on one’s sensations and sexual partner, you are anxiously focusing on doing the appropriate thing and how you come across to the other person. If we as women are told that our worth lies in our desirability, our youth, and our beauty, then no doubt this will result in sexual experiences that veer away from pleasure and onto performance. Speaking up and being assertive about what we want can be very difficult, because it is risky and invites rejection. We don’t want to be seen as a “tease”, and we can feel like we have reached the point of no return in a sexual encounter. It can be easier for women to just “lie there” and endure it, instead of taking the sexual experience into their own hands.
Cultural shifts are slow and oftentimes we don’t see the effects immediately. When sex education is taught in schools, we need to add to the limited conversation that only outlines how to ward off STIs, avoid getting pregnant, and talks about consent in binary terms that is not true to reality. We can keep creating and watching films and TV shows that depict the complexities of sex and intimacy in a nuanced and thoughtful way. We can support realistic and healthy porn instead of violent porn that is devoid of foreplay and intimacy. We can empower young people to voice their desires, needs, and anxieties confidently to their partners. We can demystify female orgasms and pleasure, which is still completely shrouded in mysticism and oftentimes overlooked. We can move away from male sexual entitlement and spectatoring, and both parties' pleasure will be equally valued.
There is so much work to do, but the best thing we can do in this current moment is to be okay with having vulnerable and uncomfortable conversations with one another, whether it be our sexual partners, our siblings or our friends. Though it is tricky territory to navigate, we will naturally see a reduction in shame, stigma and self-blame, and these grey area sexual experiences will become unearthed and stamped out.