On Consent And The “Gray Zone”

by Amanda Sileo


The New York Times recently announced that editors are seeking stories from college students on the topic of “Navigating Sex in the ‘Gray Zone.’” With the current climate of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, debates have sparked over what constitutes consent. The idea of a “gray zone” is often referred to — meaning sex that isn’t completely consensual, but isn’t sexual assault, either. In googling this so-called “gray zone,” another term comes up: “unwanted sexual experience.” The word “unwanted” is glaringly obvious here.

This  “gray zone” was constructed by a society engulfed in rape culture and should not exist. “Unwanted sexual experiences” are so common because open communication is missing from so many sexual encounters. Consent should be taught in sex ed classes, along with the necessity of open communication in a healthy sexual relationship.

In many sexual encounters, consent is often assumed, especially if nothing is said. This should not be the case. Gender stereotypes encouraging aggression and power in men create a common dynamic in heterosexual encounters where men act aggressively and women feel too unsafe to speak up. In a consensual sexual encounter, each partner should feel comfortable enough to be communicative, open, and honest about their boundaries. Consent should be mutual. 

A recent tweet by @neo_url went viral for its explanation of consent: “If you’ve ever tried to put your finger up a straight guy’s ass during sex, you’ll know that they actually understand ongoing consent, withdrawal of consent and sexual boundaries very well. They act confused when it’s our bodies.” When it comes to their own bodies, many straight cis men have clear ideas about consent — yet when it comes to women’s bodies, they act as though they are confused or the lines are blurred — that there’s a “gray area.”

In Yes Means Yes!: Visions Of Female Sexual Power And A World Without Rape, co-editor Jaclyn Friedman describes the evolving nature of consent and sexual encounters: “Sexual consent isn’t like a lightswitch, which can be either ‘on’ or ‘off.’ It’s not like there’s this one thing called ‘sex’ you can consent to anyhow. ‘Sex’ is an evolving series of actions and interactions. You have to have the enthusiastic consent of your partner for all of them. And even if you have your partner’s consent for a particular activity, you have to be prepared for it to change. Consent isn’t a question. It’s a state.” 

The state of consent evolves and changes as a sexual encounter does. And without the enthusiastic consent of your partner for a new sexual activity, you are no longer participating in consensual sex. There should be no confusion. If you can’t have conversations around consent and boundaries with your partner — if you just assume what your partner is enthusiastic about without asking — then sex should not take place. 

Another aspect of the “gray zone” is the idea that “no’ really means ‘yes,'” or that “No can be negotiable.” It’s true that sometimes a partner will feel pressured to the point of “giving in” to sex acts that they don’t want to do — but this isn’t consent. It’s important to teach students early about communication, consent, and honesty when it comes sex. Let them know it is okay to say no; that no has to be accepted; that no one should feel like they have to have sex with anyone; that no one “owes” someone else sex. Sex is not an obligation.

Along with teaching people how to say no, we also must teach them how to accept “no” — even a “soft no,” such as “not tonight” or “maybe later” — even silence. Anything that is not a “yes” is not consent. These “soft nos” are not invitations to press further. You still need to respect your partner’s boundaries. 

It may be uncomfortable to have conversations now, but as soon as we start talking about consent, then the sooner the “gray area” will no longer exist. 

top image by Tomás Castelazo/Wikimedia Commons

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