Last year, my suitemates and I developed a ritual of morning-after recapping. The day after a party, we would sit on the couch in our common room and talk through everything that had transpired the night before. I would laugh as we rehashed what led us to a stranger’s bedroom, but often (and I can only speak for myself) these stories were told with an undertone of regret that never quite made it to the surface. I would smile as I told the tale of sneaking away from a Tinder date at four in the morning because I couldn’t stand to be in the same bed as him anymore.
But some of the situations were no joke. These messy, less-than-ideal sexscapades were never fully deconstructed. It was easier to move on and pretend that we were happy with what happened than admit that maybe we felt vulnerable afterward. That is not a healthy way to come to terms with one’s sexual experiences—it’s ignoring and simplifying them instead.
Sex is never black and white—there’s a middle ground between enthusiastic consent and unwanted, sometimes criminal, actions that we just don’t talk about. I’m talking about the grey area. It’s the phrase some advocates for enthusiastic consent and open communication in the bedroom tend to dread—mostly because of the “Blurred Lines”-style connotations that go with it. But it does exist, and continuing to ignore it contributes to the erasure of women’s sexual experiences. I know the grey area is real because I’ve felt it—after sexual encounter where my “enthusiastic consent” was more of “yeah, sure.”
The idea of enthusiastic consent is a necessary ideal we should keep pursuing, but at the moment it’s just that—an ideal. At a school like Emerson, where extensive and essential conversations about consent are constantly taking place, we should continue to hold people to a high standard for consent. Saying there is nothing in between an enthusiastic, sober “yes” and assault silences occurrences that don’t quite fit either. We’re all incredibly complex beings and our actions can’t always be quantified. Not acknowledging the grey area and not separating it from encounters that cross a line can also delegitimize the realities of sexual assault survivors.
Absolutist views toward sex are limiting and confine us. These grey-area encounters don’t begin to compare to the feeling of violation and loss that come with being sexually assaulted, but that doesn’t make them any less real. By refusing to talk about them in an honest way, we as women—or anyone engaging in a sex life—are denying ourselves the opportunity to deconstruct and come to terms with what happened. The longer people remain silent, the worse their emotional state and attitude toward their sex life becomes. There is a way to understand this ambiguous area and live your life: it starts with validating its existence.
This limiting binary doesn’t have to exist, and as soon as we admit that there is an in-between, we can move forward with a more open conversation about what these sexual encounters mean—and all the power dynamics that go along with it.