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Experts Explore the Nuances of “Gray Rape”

New York City, October 15, 2007 -- Moderated by Court TV journalist Ashleigh Banfield, “The Changing Definition of Date Rape” Symposium brought together John Jay students and a panel of experts for a thought-provoking, often emotional discussion.

Co-sponsored with Cosmopolitan magazine, the standing room only event was prompted by “A New Kind of Date Rape,” an article written by Washington Post reporter Laura Sessions Stepp about “gray rape” that appeared in the magazine’s September issue.

“From time to time, outside institutions approach us to engage in discussions on important, tough topics,” noted John Jay President Jeremy Travis in his welcoming remarks.  “I’m honored that Cosmopolitan asked us to put on this forum.”

The Cosmopolitan article defined gray rape as “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.”  Author Stepp observed that a typical situation would involve both parties getting drunk, having sex, and the woman subsequently being unable to remember if she said “no” — or said it forcefully enough. 

Neil Irvin, national director of Men Can Stop Rape, insisted that the phenomenon was nothing new.  “Rape is still rape,” Irvin declared, “and it does us a disservice when young men and women are confused about this.”

Factors that some identified as contributing to the “gray rape” conundrum — including drinking behavior and the emergence of a “hook-up culture” — were dismissed by anti-violence activist Joe Samalin and others as red herrings.  “It lessens men’s ability to understand the word ‘no.’ We still need to hold a lot more men accountable for their actions,” stressed Samalin.

A specialist in intimate-partner violence, Professor Chitra Raghavan of John Jay’s psychology department took exception to the Cosmopolitan article’s assertion that women have been empowered to pursue their sexuality.  “What’s happened is that women are not legislated anymore,” noted Raghavan.  “There’s a huge difference for it to be legal for women to pursue sex and for it to be socially acceptable for women to pursue sex.”

According to Raghavan, “studies have shown that women’s sexual interactions do not change significantly if they have been drinking.  Bringing alcohol into the discussion is characteristic of the tendency to blame women in sexual assault cases.  We blame alcohol, or the hookup culture, rather than the perpetrator.”

“Women under the influence of alcohol don’t communicate any differently from those who are sober,” asserted Katie Gentile, director of John Jay Women’s Center.  “Rape is the least falsely reported crime, and the hardest to convict.”  She cited a Massachusetts study that found “men use alcohol all the time to ply their dates to them to be submissive enough to get raped.”

Panelist Linda Fairstein, former prosecutor in charge of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan district attorney’s office for 25 years, maintained that in the criminal justice system there’s no such thing as gray rape.  “Gray rape is not a new term and not a new experience,” remarked Fairstein.  “It’s always been my job in law enforcement to separate out the facts.  Every case has to be looked at carefully — and differently.”

“It can still be rape if a woman doesn’t say no but still doesn’t say yes,” commented panelist Robert Laurino, chief assistant prosecutor in Essex County, NJ.  He pointed to what he saw as a larger question in such cases, namely the recreational use of drugs and alcohol, which he said has started to reach the proportions of a “public health crisis.”

According to one study cited by Laurino, 40 percent of women who are examined for sexual assault, admitted that they used drugs or alcohol.  “Predators use alcohol strategically,” Laurino continued, “because they know it’s going to impair the credibility of the victim.”

Pointing to the prevailing culture of masculinity, Irvin of Men Can Stop Rape added that teaching men what to think and do regarding sexual assault is more valuable than teaching women how to deal with it.

“We live in a man’s world and women don’t know they have the right to say no,” pointed out one female student.  “It’s important for women not to blame ourselves,” said another student.  “It’s about men’s accountability.”