Terms like “grey zone sex,” “lukewarm sex,” or even just “bad sex” have been used to describe intimate acts that appear consensual (i.e. the word “no” was never said) but can feel deeply violating and far from pleasurable. Writer, podcaster, and educator Ashley C. Ford shared a conversation she had with a friend that rings painstakingly true for so many women in her now-popularized twitter thread:
Me: Do you like having sex like that?
Her: Well, I like him a lot
Me: Yeah, but when TWO of you have sex TOGETHER do you get pleasure from sex?
Her: Sometimes. I guess I think of it as something I do for him. Like a thank you, or a compromise.
A society that requires sex out of someone as a gesture of gratitude is, to put it nicely, a society that has normalized a culture of invasion of personal space and disregard for bodily autonomy.
To better understand what causes these grey zones, it’s worth closely examining the contours of our dating and relationship culture: there are inherent power differences undergirding many heterosexual relationships, whether they be serious long-term relationships, casual hookups, or one-night stands, all giving rise to the grey zone.
Heteronormativity, the gender binary, and patriarchy became institutionalized after the advent of industrialization. In a time of great movement and change, creating gendered spaces was deemed essential for the overall stability of society. Women’s bodies became closely-monitored properties of state that were required to guard private spaces (namely homes) so that men could effectively control public life. Cultural Studies scholar Susan Bordo put it best: “the discipline and the normalization of the female body has to be acknowledged as an amazingly durable, flexible strategy for social control.” Our current norms around dating and intimacy are the product of longstanding intersections between colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal powers. Respectful and consensual heterosexual sex continues to oscillate between the ever-sacred economic unit of the household and changing social norms.
While women have slowly won access to control various aspects of public life, coming into contact with an inherently patriarchal public space has had even further implications on women’s bodily autonomy; for example, the #MeToo movement has highlighted the alarming levels of sexual harassment in the workplace. As feminist humorist Cynthia Heimel famously said, “the only women who don’t believe sexual harassment is a real problem are women who have never been to the workplace.”
The experience of having a body that is constantly subject to social coercion cannot be directly translated into clear-cut rules and policies. Nevertheless, in this moment of cultural change and reckoning it is important to foster meaningful dialogue about the safety of women’s bodies both within private and public spaces, and how our current norms around sexual intimacy contribute to feelings of insecurity in these spaces. Multiple sexual violence prevention organizations have pushed the affirmative consent model–a freely given, enthusiastic yes, as a clearer indication of consent–yet, the question of how true this “yes” really is still rises. There is no real yardstick to measure enthusiasm and freedom: the opportunity to freely make choices about your own life has been systematically tainted for people who are not cisgender men.
Jessica Bennett’s New York Times opinion piece titled When Saying “Yes” is Easier than Saying “No” sums up the complexities of sexual encounters for many women: “Our idea of what we want – of our own desire – is linked to what we think we’re supposed to want, with what society tells us we should want.” And society’s restrictive gender and sexual norms for anyone but cis men hold true no matter the decision: for every “yes” hesitantly given, the same stigma exists to push women and non-binary people away from something they really want to do. Fear of shame and judgement restricts us from being truly open about our sexual desires.
So how do we combat the inherent power imbalances in our relationships? Having open conversations about pleasure and comfort is a good place to start. It’s important to create an environment through which we can reveal ourselves to each–what makes us satisfied, and what does not. Multiple studies have shown that many women fake orgasms to please their partner during sex at least once in their lifetimes (if not more). While this may not be every woman’s experience, it does highlight how normal it has become to compromise a woman’s needs during intimacy.
In order to truly have consensual relationships, along with valuing the presence of yes, we have to acknowledge that pleasure is different for different people–even if this acknowledgement means going beyond traditional modes of intimacy.