I’ve been intrigued by a recent article in the Washington Post by Laura Gianino, who wrote about her sexual assault and was verbally assaulted by internet trolls in return. Her story is all too familiar – plenty of assault survivors know the pain of not being believed by people who weren’t there when the assault took place – but the comment section was filled with sentiments like “You are absolutely right that it’s unconscionable when women are harassed for speaking up – but you are the wrong person to be making this point, because what happened to you wasn’t rape.”
You can read Gianino’s account of her assault here. Now, I have my own judgments about what happened to her – and as an assault survivor myself, I am very sensitive to how people use the emotionally-charged word “rape” – but the point of this post isn’t to pass judgment on what did or didn’t happen. That would be for a jury to decide, should her case ever go to trial.
When I read stories that are similar to mine, I feel validated. But stories of “grey rape” like Gianino’s make me question everything I can remember about what happened to me. Most of the criticism lobbied at Gianino was that she didn’t clearly say “no” – when her boyfriend asked if she wanted to continue, she said, “Kind of.”
“How was your boyfriend supposed to read your mind?!” the comments demanded. “I’m sorry you felt violated, but sexual miscommunication is not assault. You are giving real survivors a bad name by calling this rape.”
Again, I can’t speak with any authority on what did or didn’t happen to Gianino – I wasn’t there – but after mulling over this subject for a while, I realized that you can evaluate a negative sexual experience based on how your partner treats you in non-sexual situations. Here’s what I mean:
My husband and I have struggled with sexual miscommunication – I’m sure many couples have, and that doesn’t make a relationship unhealthy or abusive. It’s been frustrating when we both want different things – but my husband genuinely cares about my well-being. He supports my goals, champions my successes, encourages me in my failures, and is quick to apologize if he says something mean during an argument. He knows that when I’ve had a bad day, as much as he’d like to sit with me, sometimes the best medicine is for me to be alone for a while.
In short, he’s someone who respects my autonomy and personhood outside of the bedroom, so I don’t have to worry about him taking advantage of me inside the bedroom.
Contrasted with my relationship before him, J was manipulative, controlling, and dismissive of my feelings. He humiliated me in front of my friends, and turned the situation around so I was the one acting out of line: “I’m just never going to be good enough for you, am I?” He’d get irritated if I called him while he was out with his friends, but got equally upset if I didn’t answer my phone when I was out with my friends. He’d go through my closet and tell me which clothes I should get rid of because they weren’t sexy enough. He forced me to walk several paces behind him if we ever went out in public, and when no one else was around, he’d slap my ass even though I had told him several times that I hated when he did that.
It’s no surprise, then, that a person who had such little respect for me in non-sexual situations had such disregard for my autonomy when I made clear what my physical boundaries were: and he violated them, repeatedly. He would say, “Sorry I hurt you, I was having too much fun to stop.”
Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. With abuse, there are patterns. There is escalation. A manipulative, entitled person will showcase that behavior in other ways, not just sexually.
The exact details of the assault(s) have grown fuzzy over the years, but I will never forget the humiliation I felt. I don’t recall whether I said “No” loudly enough, or maybe it was “Stop” or “Don’t” – but I remember how degraded he made me feel. I remember him saying “What did you expect, wearing those tight pants?” And that is enough to validate what happened to me.
Those are a few things to consider if you ever find yourself struggling to evaluate a “grey rape.”
Like this post? Check out A Stunning Accusation, a novel that explores the issue of rape culture.