A few years ago, I had a “meeting” with someone who was a member of my general social circle, but not someone I would describe as a friend.  I use the quotation marks around “meeting” because I was told we were going to discuss the possibility of me doing some writing work for a project he was starting, but I suspected other motivations on his part.  We had met years before when we were dating a pair of sisters and then ran into each other again on a fetish dating website, so we knew of each other’s proclivities and he had made it no secret that he was attracted to me.  I was in an open relationship at the time, which he knew as well.  My attraction level to him at that point was fairly non-existent and could’ve gone either way depending on how things went as we got to know each other better.

The meeting took place at his house and began with wine.  Once things got a little tipsy, he started massaging my feet and I didn’t protest.  Though I was in a relationship, our sex life had been going through a lull and the physical touch felt good.  We did talk about business for a while, but nothing much of consequence was said.  Then the conversation turned to a more personal, more sexual nature and this did not disturb me.  Given my career and lifestyle choices, I frequently have conversations that center around sex, so this was not unusual.  He came around eventually to propositioning me and suggesting a BDSM encounter between us.  I did not reject the idea.  In fact, I acknowledged that it may be a possibility in the future, but said I didn’t want to do anything tonight.  I was tired and I wanted to get home to my partner.  He said okay and changed the subject, poured me another glass of wine.  He continued to rub my feet and slowly move farther up my leg.  Again, the touch felt good, but I wasn’t ready to go any further with him that night.  I reiterated that I had to get going and actually stood up to leave at one point.  He was a smooth talker and ended up convincing me to stay.  Then it was “just one kiss,” then it was “let’s go into the bedroom,” then a blindfold was put on me and then some harsh treatment of my breasts and a rough blowjob ensued.  It stopped there and I went to the bathroom, saw the damage done to my easily bruised skin.  I cried a little in the bathroom, but put on a composed face before going back out.  He asked if I was okay.  I said that it was too intense for me at the time and I didn’t enjoy it.  He apologized.  We hugged.  I went home.  I never once said no.

Some people, including many people that I personally know, would call this rape.  I would not.  This is the kind of situation that falls into the weird, uncertain area of “grey rape”, a term popularized by Cosmopolitan magazine in a 2007 article that discussed the “new kind of date rape” that results in one or both parties being confused about whether what happened between them can actually be called rape.  The term has come up a lot in discussions of what the media and the American president have dubbed the epidemic of campus sexual assault plaguing the nation’s colleges.  It was bandied about after an episode of HBO’sGirls showed one of the lead characters having a sexual experience with a guy she was dating which she did not enjoy during or after, but to which she never explicitly said no.  It’s a dangerous term, because rape is a serious crime and an incredibly traumatic and damaging event in a person’s life and when we call a sexual encounter that we didn’t like, but didn’t expressly refuse, the same thing, it threatens to delegitimize and take the power away from the word itself.

Based on my own experience, I have a few suggestions for how to avoid being involved in a grey rape situation.  My intention is not to victim-blame or slut-shame, but as women who are fully in control of and enjoying our sexuality, we need to take some responsibility to make sure our sexual encounters with all our partners are as mutually satisfying, respectful and safe as possible.  These are things both sexes could incorporate and remember, especially in an increasingly casual hook-up culture.

 Be Clear About Consent And Mean It

If you want to have sex, come out and say, “I want to have sex.”  Don’t be vague.  Don’t be coy.  You’re a modern woman and your desire should not only be allowed, but encouraged.  If you don’t want to have sex, say, “I don’t want to have sex,” and then, importantly, don’t have sex.  If you’re not sure if you want to have sex, say, “I’m not sure if I want to have sex,” then move on to the next step to figure out how to talk about hard and flexible limits.

 Know The Difference Between Hard Limits And Flexible Ones

Hard limits is a term that most people outside the BDSM community may not be familiar with, unless they’ve read 50 Shades Of Grey, I suppose.  These are the boundaries that you are not willing to cross under any circumstances or, at the very least, without serious, sober discussion and consideration well ahead of the act.  Whether you’re into the BDSM scene or not, it can’t hurt to discuss hard limits with a sexual partner before things get started.  Once you set these limits though, do not go back on them in the heat of the moment.  If you’ve decided that oral is okay, but any intercourse is out, keep it out.  At least until you’ve had time to think about it and discuss it together before your next encounter.

 Eliminate The Intoxication Issue

The effects of alcohol and drugs are a huge issue when it comes to grey rape since it can be so difficult to tell how much a person’s judgement is impaired when they are drunk or high.  One person might easily do their taxes after a case of beer while another might be completely out of the range of sound mind after a couple.  Even if an intoxicated person directly says, “I want to have sex,” they may be too incapacitated to make that decision legally.  Things get even dicier when both parties are wasted and it becomes harder for either person to determine if the other is sober enough to make the right decision.  The best policy is to be completely sober while having sex, but, let’s be honest, a lot less sex would happen that way.  It’s not exactly realistic to avoid any intoxicated sexual activity in a culture where drinking is the norm in clubs, on campuses and in our homes.  So, with that in mind, keep the drinking to a minimum, especially during your first encounters with a new partner.

Get Your Shit Together

Human beings have sex for all kinds of reasons:  physical gratification, affection, self-validation, loneliness, status, societal expectation.  Not all of these are good reasons to have sex.  If your desire to be with someone is born of insecurity, isolation, a desire to fit in and do what’s expected or other general mental fucked-up-ed-ness, there is a good chance that you will feel bad about having sex after it’s all over.  Again, it’s not exactly realistic to expect that we will never have sex when (or because) we’re feeling shitty.  It’s human nature to want to fill up voids with something that feels good and damn the consequences, but you are much more likely to come away with a positive experience if you go into it with the right intentions and motivations.

Don’t Worry About Your Reputation

A lot of people stick with a sexual situation that doesn’t feel right to them because they’re worried about what the other person will think if they put the brakes on.  This happens a lot to younger people, but any of us are susceptible to it whenever we’re feeling less than confident in ourselves.  What if the other person gets angry and never wants to see you again?  What if they call you a tease?  What if they spread rumours about you in your social circle?  What if they just don’t think you’re as cool and sex-positive and open as you want them to think you are?  First of all, there’s very little chance that any of that is going to happen, especially once you’ve graduated high school.  Regardless, none of that matters if you’re going to leave the encounter feeling bad about it.  If it’s not right, don’t do it.Anyone’s who is not willing to wait for you to figure out what you really want is not worth having sex with anyway.

Get The Fuck Out!

There were several points during the experience I described above at which I could have and should have just left the premises.  I should have left because I wasn’t sure about this guy yet.  I should have left because I said I was going to leave and made excuses in order to leave.  I should have left when I started not liking what was happening.  I should have left because I could.  I should have left to give myself time to think about whether it was something I wanted to pursue or not.  I didn’t leave and it ended up being an unpleasant piece of my sexual history that I hope not to repeat by being clearer, more sober, mentally healthier and less worried about what anyone else thinks in the future.

Regret isn’t a bad thing.  It teaches us what to do differently in the future and helps us set a standard for ourselves.


  1. Great article! I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately because as someone who makes a career out of talking about sex, I want to make sure that I’m empowering women to say both yes and no. But, as you say, what about those “grey” encounters where consent is not as clear as refusing a cup of tea and having someone force it down your throat? I think your suggestions are excellent and I would love to see a companion article about male (or dominant) responsibility in such encounters. It seems to me that so much depends also on people refusing to act on anything less than a clear yes or no as it does on them giving it.