Defining the Blurred Lines

Photo credit: Yael Malka

This past July, I went on a date with a guy I had met the week before at a concert. He invited me to hang out on his roof and listen to music. This seemed a relaxed and fun summer date -- and I accepted. I greeted him in front of his building in the late afternoon and he took me to his apartment, saying he wanted to give me a tour before we headed up to the roof. Immediately upon entering, he took me into his bedroom and started removing my clothes.

It was not as if I weren't attracted to him, or didn't have any interest in having sex with him at some point -- but not then. But it was happening so quickly it was hard to stop, and I went along with it, convincing myself that I wanted it too. He had this look in his eyes of distinct determination -- like he was intent on getting precisely what he wanted -- and I felt frightened by it. I kept going back and forth between convincing myself I was into it and playing along, and frantically thinking of ways to bail myself out. But I didn't stop him, and it happened. Needless to say, I never saw the roof.

For several days following, I kept quiet. I felt humiliated and utterly confused by the event and didn't understand how this had happened to me. As a self-proclaimed feminist, having majored in Women's and Gender Studies, I was sure I had the necessary tools to prevent this sort of thing.

But after days of mulling it over, embarrassment and shame turned into rage. And suddenly, for whatever reason, I felt like talking.

Telling my friends about my experience was hard, but not in the way I thought it would be. Yes, reliving that experience was difficult and unpleasant, but the true challenge was being able to describe exactly what had happened. Had I been raped? I wasn't sure. Had I given consent? Maybe? I wanted to talk about what I had experienced, but I couldn't find the words to appropriately describe the situation. "You know," I'd say to friends, "it was kind of in that grey area between rape and consent. Blurry lines." Any terminology I could come up with was so extremely vague it was impossible to articulate anything.

So, I set out to learn more about this thing -- this form of sex that is unwanted and un-enjoyed -- the "blurry lines" between rape and consent. During the fall of 2014, I researched the concept of "unwanted sex" and spoke with dozens of friends and acquaintances, both men and women, to find out if they had ever experienced this kind of sexual situation. What I found absolutely floored me. Not just some of the women I'd spoken to, or most of the women I'd spoken to, but ALL of the women I'd spoken to had experienced this unwanted and un-enjoyed sex that fell somewhere between rape and consent. Furthermore, almost all women spoke about these experiences as if they were normal parts of having an active sex life -- as if sometimes you just have to put up with being pushed into a sex act you don't want to take part in.

During these conversations, I heard a wide-range of attempts to define these experiences. One woman referred to her experience with unwanted sex as "disheartened sex." Other women simply referred to it as "a weird night," or "bad sex."

But what actually happens here? What does it mean to have an experience in which one engages in unwanted sex, but does not feel explicitly forced into the sex act? And why had 100 percent of women I spoke with experienced this?

One reason many engage in this kind of sex act, I discovered, is because they fear refusing their partner could potentially result in an unpleasant encounter with them. Many of those I spoke with reported, "giving in" -- and some actually used the term "consenting" -- in order to avoid a situation that might become awkward, uncomfortable, or even violent. They feared that escaping the situation with the necessary force and aggression would result in an extreme reaction from their partners. One woman put it this way: "I thought that if I refused him again, he might actually rape me." Another described a situation in which she ultimately "consented" because she feared a "non-consensual experience." She reported not stopping "because I didn't want this person to get angry and hurt me."

A few others described situations in which they gave consent to a particular sex act, but felt their partner took advantage of that consent by assuming a "now anything goes" mindset. One woman described an experience in which she "fully consented" to intercourse with a man pending the use of a condom. But mid-way through sex, she noticed the condom was lying on the floor. The man had removed the condom, without her knowing, and proceeded to have unprotected sex with her. When she realized what was happening, she became furious and immediately told him to leave. "I know I wasn't raped, because I consented, but he changed the terms under which I consented, so what is that? I don't know what to call it, but it was definitely a violation of some sort."

Many also reported feeling unable to stop a situation from happening once they were already engaged in foreplay. Another woman said: "he just sort of went for it and everything just sort of happened so fast that there wasn't time for me to cut it off. Then this mindset kicks in of like 'well, I'm already here, let's just let this happen.'" This notion of "just letting it happen" was referenced with extreme frequency in interviews and seems to imply that in these encounters, "consent" is neither given nor not given, but rather left out of the discussion altogether. The fact that these women never consented, but didn't not consent is confusing for them, and makes claiming the terms assault, rape or victim, seem less legitimate.

Perhaps because there truly is a "middle-ground" when talking about assault, or perhaps because legal definitions of rape are varying, and often muddled, victims of these other unwanted sex acts do not seem to be claiming any term. Whatever the reason, rape does not appear to accurately describe this type of other, unwanted sexual experience, or speak to those who are victims of it. These types of unwanted sexual experiences sometimes involve verbal consent, and sometimes do not; they usually include verbal coercion, but do not have to; they can start wanted, but become unwanted. Indeed, these kinds of sexual scenarios are different, rampant, and seemingly, nameless.

Language is powerful, and sociologists and psychologists have long studied how language affects experiences. Summarizing recent work in her 2008 dissertation "Unwanted Sex Versus Rape," Charity Wilkinson illustrates how the lack of or availability of language can change the way we perceive human behavior. Language is a tool used to maintain power, she argues; those in positions of power create the language which can therefore be used to "devalue women or ignore their experience."

Based on both my personal interviews and existing statistics on victims of sexual assault, I speculate that these forms of unwanted sex are experienced primarily, (though not exclusively) by women. Because of the generalized power of men in our social world (or more relevantly, the lack of power of women) it is no wonder that these other unwanted sex acts have gone unnamed. Perhaps we lack the language to be able to describe these kinds of sexual encounters because it is a largely female experience in a male-dominated world.

Recently, this kind of sexual situation has received some attention in popular culture. In her 2014 book Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham, writer and creator of HBO's Girls, recounts an unpleasant sexual experience while in college: She and "Barry" head back to his apartment after a party and have intercourse, which she describes as being "terribly aggressive." Mid-way through the encounter, Dunham realizes the condom is not being used, but rather dangling from her roommate's potted plant. She then abruptly stops, and throws Barry and his clothes out of her dorm room.

She recaps the experience months later to a boyfriend, but has trouble articulating what exactly happened to her, "I am just angry that I don't have better words," she tells him. Years later, while telling the Barry story to her co-writers on Girls, she describes the experience as "a sexual encounter that no one can classify properly. A condom winding up in the potted plant against the will of the girl being fucked." In response, her co-writers shake their heads and agree that rape isn't funny. "But that's the thing," I say. 'No one knows if it's rape. It's, like, a confusing situation that...' I trailed off."

This tendency to "trail off" when talking about unwanted and un-enjoyed sexual experiences perfectly illustrates the problem. It is, of course, difficult to talk about one's own traumatic experiences and to identify as a victim. In fact, according to RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network) many victims of rape (68 percent) never report their assault to the police, and many more do not come forth and identify themselves as victims to anyone. Perhaps Dunham did not fully articulate her experience because she wished to steer clear of labeling herself as a victim of assault. But I also think it's possible that her "trail-off," is a result of her inability to find language to accurately describe her experience.

My sample size was, admittedly, small and homogeneous, as I interviewed heterosexual white women more than any other demographic. But if this small sample even approaches reflecting the experiences of sexually active youth in modern-day America, then this thing, this form of un-enjoyed and unwanted sex, is not just a problem, but an epidemic.

Language is power, indeed. After speaking with dozens of articulate women and hearing them try to string together vague terminology to try and describe their experiences, it seems obvious to me that we lack the language necessary to be able to speak clearly about some experiences involving non-consensual sex. Perhaps using terms like unwilling consent or coercive consent would be a start. But these conversations have shown me that people have had a wide variety of experiences involving unwanted and un-enjoyed sex, and thus there must be a wide variety of terms available for them to claim.

In a perfect world, we would not need any more language to talk about assault. More concerning than the fact that we have a serious lack of language to describe unwanted sexual situations is the fact that sexual assault, rape and unwanted sex are so rampant in the first place. However, through creating more language to be able to talk about unwanted sexual experiences, we can bring them into focus and into the discourse of American sex culture. We need language so we can stop describing experiences as having "blurry lines," or being in "the grey area," and "trailing off" when we try to talk about them.

So let's talk about the grey area and blurry lines. Let's define them, and let's develop language that is true to those experiences.

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.