The Mighty Logo

When You Feel Like You're Living in the 'Gray Area' of Rape

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I have had something to say for a long time, but I’ve been afraid. I was scared no one would believe it, because for so long I myself couldn’t even believe it for more than a few thoughts at a time. Every day I would have to cope with whatever I believed about my rape at that moment (ex: It was all my fault. It wasn’t abuse. He planned this out. He wanted to hurt me. It was just a teenage mistake. We were both wrong.  I shouldn’t even be thinking about this anymore).

• What is PTSD?

I am finally just barely at a place where I can say it’s true — it’s rape. But the journey I’ve been on to reach this point, a journey I’ve been on for five and a half years, is important. I feel obligated to share it with this confession.

I didn’t say “no” to my rapist. I didn’t fight him. In fact, I continued to show up places alone with him, subjecting myself to further abuse. I did what he told me to. I wore what he requested. At the time, I knew I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, but I couldn’t even consider the option that he would do anything bad or wrong to me. After all, he was a very good friend of mine for years, and besides the orders he gave that kept me isolated, he did continue to act like a friend sometimes. He would hold me when I cried, so I forgot he was the reason I was crying. He said he was feeling guilty and ashamed too, so I believed my feelings were normal and acceptable. He told me sex was supposed to hurt right now because he was stretching me, so I thought it was normal. After all, he would know, and I wouldn’t. He knew I trusted him. 

But it’s complicated. I was insecure, and whether he exploited that or not I can’t know, but my insecurity allowed me to latch on to the idea that because he wanted me, I could feel better about myself. Granted, it wasn’t true — I never felt shame like I did being with him. But I convinced myself this was good for me and my self-esteem, and because of that, I was desperately trying to make sure I didn’t do anything that would cause him to not want me anymore. Because of that, I lied to him. I could not hide the fact that his having sex with me caused me physical pain, but I told him it was also good, like he wanted. Just like he wanted me to wear short dresses and heels to school.

Is it confusing to you yet? Are you blaming me at all? Are you questioning my use of the word “rape”? I can’t know what you think, but I can tell you some of this has left me questioning myself for a long time. I hope it is just me. I hope you have faith in my feelings and you see how he was wrong and must have known a little better. But maybe you have the voice in your head like I did. 

Sometimes that voice came from the things I would read and hear about other people discussing their support for rape victims or just general feminist rants. People say things like, “It’s black and white, there is no gray. Rape is rape.” And that left me feeling worse. I thought, If that’s true — if I was actually raped — I would never question it. It would be obvious. But mine wasn’t.

I can tell it in a simpler way. Someone who I guess I willingly made out with one time before, put his penis inside of me and didn’t bother to ask if it was what I wanted. When my clenching vagina tried to keep him out, he did everything he could to get it in, and eventually he did. I never offered my consent, and he never asked if he had it. And he didn’t have it, though I didn’t express that. Sexual intercourse without consent. Rape.

Many rape victims do not say “no,” and they don’t fight. Instincts tell us not just “fight or flight” but also “fight, flight, freeze or fawn.” Many rape victims freeze. I froze. You can’t say “no” when you’re frozen. 

The law does not require affirmative consent. While I sympathize with lawmakers needing to have proof for a person to be prosecuted, and while I acknowledge this is a crime that is so often hard to prove, I believe the definitions of the laws themselves do impact our social understanding of crimes as well as our behavior. I believe affirmative consent says “no means no” is not enough; “no means no” presumes silence as yes. Affirmative consent says “yes means yes,” and that’s that. Affirmative consent would not replace laws which govern when one is able to give consent — a yes from a minor, somebody who is mentally or physically incapacitated, somebody who is under the actor’s care or supervision. These would still be invalid, and those scenarios would still be rape. But when consent is legally valid, it must be actively given, not simply implied, inferred or acquiesced to.

Educating and enforcing affirmative consent would remove the gray area so many deny or fear. People who are raped by their spouses or people they have previously had consensual sex with would be much more easily protected but more importantly, validated. I would not have needed half a decade to accept what happened to me was rape if I didn’t have to blame myself for not expressing my “no.” I can’t understand why it should fall on me to say “no,” but it shouldn’t fall on him to ask. But that’s the world we live in, a world where he doesn’t actually have to, a world where for a lot of people, they’ve never needed to be asked so bluntly. 

I don’t live in that world. I live in a world where he didn’t ask. He didn’t give me a chance to consider what I wanted, so I didn’t either.

Was he supposed to know that? Maybe he did try to read the signs, but he read the wrong ones. Maybe he read my body’s lubrication as a sign it’s what I wanted. Maybe he didn’t know that rape victims are still humans and human bodies react to stimuli. Maybe he didn’t know that some rape victims actually orgasm, and that doesn’t mean it wasn’t rap, or traumatic, or that it couldn’t ruin the victim’s life.

We went to a high school in a state with some of the most progressive sexual education laws in our country, and I didn’t know all of these things. I had to learn them in order to understand why I felt like I was raped, why I feel like I have PTSD and realize I had vaginismus and sexual aversion and social anxiety. I questioned myself until I learned all of this and more, until I spent years researching, working through a self-help book called the Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz (which I highly recommend both to survivors and people interested in educating themselves) and writing essays and poems to only myself because I didn’t feel safe to share them.

 It took me five and a half years to share the fact I was raped. It has been five and a half years of being completely alone, of eventually telling select people all the details and wishing they would see what I felt, and no one did. Thankfully, I am no longer in a place where I need to hear it from somebody else. Now I’m telling you: I was raped. I’m still dealing with so many of the consequences of this. I still have flashbacks. I still need to be reminded that I am safe and that my friends are here for me. I still struggle to bring it up to people who already know because I still feel pressure to be over it. But I understand better why I’m not. And my hope is that you can understand too, and if God forbid you are with me in the gray, that you feel comforted in knowing I see you. You shouldn’t have to be afraid to admit it. Gray can be rape, and it is just as brutal, traumatic, violating, degrading, damaging and real.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Thinkstock photo via Victor_Tongdee.

Originally published: August 29, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home