Casual hookups cause "gray rape"?

Cosmopolitan reports on a "confusing form of sexual assault" caused in part by sexually forward women.

Published August 29, 2007 11:25PM (EDT)

I finally got around to picking up a copy of the latest Cosmopolitan, which has sparked quite a debate among feminist bloggers. The source of the upset is a "special report" with the headline, "A New Kind of Date Rape." The breaking news, as reported by Laura Sessions Stepp, is that "casual hookups, mixed signals, drugs, and alcohol" are causing "gray rape." She says it arises from "today's hookup culture" and "the idea that women can be just as bold and adventurous about sex as men are." It's a kind of "sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial and is even more confusing than date rape because often both parties are unsure of who wanted what." Except it's clear in the "gray rape" cases she presents that the women did not want sex and did not give consent; they were raped.

Before we wade any deeper into this emotional and political quagmire, let's acknowledge that Stepp is the author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both," a treatise against the alleged hookup culture of today's youngsters. She's also penned several cutting-edge exposés for the Washington Post like this article about wingmen, written in the year 2006. She's also reported on how young women are emasculating men, kicking love to the curb in exchange for dirty, emotionless sex, and, my personal favorite, turning into such loose chicks they sink dicks.

In short: Cosmopolitan had a writer well known for reviling today's supposed hookup culture report on a type of rape that is ... "a consequence of today's hookup culture." Come on! Stepp has been laying the groundwork for some time now. Phase 1: Documenting that a hookup culture exists. Phase 2: Making a case for its harmful side effects (men's total confusion and impotence, women's emotional deadness). Now, she's entered into Phase 3: Implying that loose young ladies are aiding in their own rapes and clouding our definition of sexual assault. Stepp writes:

A generation ago, it was easier for men and women to understand what constituted rape because the social rules were clearer. Men were supposed to be the ones coming on to women, and women were said to be looking for relationships, not casual sex. But these boundaries and rules have been loosening up for decades, and now lots of women feel it's perfectly okay to go out looking for a hookup or to be the aggressor, which may turn out fine for them -- unless the signals get mixed or misread.

Now, that statement, taken on its own, seems fairly accurate. It is much more common today for women to be sexual aggressors and it is possible for sexual signals to be misread. But, how do either of those things legitimately complicate definitions of rape? A woman can be a sexual aggressor without signing away her rights to stop short of intercourse. And it has always been the case that sexual signals can be misread, hence that illuminating maxim: "No means no."

All of the real-life examples Stepp uses in her piece involve plenty of alcohol, though. Contrary to her thesis, these aren't simply stories of sexually aggressive women who are raped after coming onto men and then refusing their advances at the very last minute -- most of the women clearly say no and yet the man continues while they drift in and out of consciousness. In response to the article, Jezebel's Moe wrote a post headlined, "'Cosmo' Wonders: Is It Rape If You Had Too Many Jaeger Shots to Remember It Anyway?" She went on to share a personal story about how, during her college years, she went home with a guy from her ex-boyfriend's frat. They fooled around, but when he took out a condom, she asked what he was doing and "said 'no' a bunch of times." She writes: "But I'd had two forties and I kept drifting in and out of consciousness -- my tolerance, obviously, wasn't what it is today -- and I woke up to find him sticking it in ... when I came to I just froze, stopped, turned over and slept."

But Moe takes issue with the feminists who recently started a letter writing campaign protesting Stepp's article: "...if you're reading Cosmo for purposes other than to revel in its unique special brand of inanity you have bigger issues with your sexual identity than what to call that time you fucked that guy you didn't really want to fuck."

Then, Feministing and Shakesville joined in the fray. Feministing's Ann argued that what Moe experienced was not "date rape" or "gray rape" but rape: "Calling it what it is -- RAPE -- doesn't mean you have to have a specific reaction to it. No one is requiring you to be traumatized." Melissa McEwan was incensed:

I'm pissed that the woman who wrote the Jezebel piece has decided to go after feminists who are angry about the original 'gray rape' piece in Cosmo ... But I also feel profoundly sorry for her, because I've rarely seen an example of a woman so desperate to dissociate herself from the stigma of rape, so willing to engage in such pitiable semantic gymnastics to redefine a rape as something else, so clearly resolved to the notion that to admit victimization is to admit weakness.

As far as the law is concerned, a sexual act is rape or it isn't -- there's no room for gray. Of course, in the real world, crimes and injustices (like, perhaps, some of the examples Stepp uses) are not always prosecutable or punishable. Reality isn't as black and white as the law requires; neither are women's feelings about these types of encounters. As much as the situation that Moe describes sounds objectively like rape, she makes a good point in arguing that there isn't any one kind of rape and that "it is only in recognizing, and accepting ... nuances -- even as we hold ever tighter and faster to our beliefs and moral codes and whatever we hold dear -- that we will ever come to peace with any of the horrible shit that happens in the world."

The problem is, those nuances require nuanced reporting. The dangers of drinking to the point of incapacitation are real -- they should be talked about. We should also talk about the fact that it's often hard for women who were raped while they were intoxicated to the point of incapacitation to come to terms with their experience -- or to feel justified in calling it what it was. It's possible to talk about and question the nuances, the gray areas, without either blaming the victim or minimizing sexual assault when alcohol is involved. Women are responsible for their actions; they're not responsible for others' actions.

The concern that a woman can be more vulnerable to rape when she's drunk is nothing new, but Stepp cloaks this old caution in her special brand of "hookup culture" hand-wringing; making it appear brand-new and, once again, seeming to scold those loose 20-somethings who so vex her. Stepp manipulates women's stories of being raped while incapable of giving consent to fit her own agenda -- in other words, to slyly make an argument against casual sex and women's sexual aggression.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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