As of January, more than 200 colleges and universities had investigations pending regarding their handling of sexual violence reports. With their schools under scrutiny, students today are grappling with fraught legal and ethical questions as they form their own sexual identities. Vanessa Grigoriadis’s new book, “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus,” follows college students at schools across the country as they navigate personal relationships and emerging political movements.
The Post spoke with Grigoriadis, a contributing editor at the New York Times magazine and Vanity Fair, about campus assault and the effort to combat it. The following interview is edited and condensed for clarity.
Grigoriadis: When I went to Wesleyan in the 1990s, there was a movement against sexual assault as well. The university was nicknamed PCU. [Wesleyan inspired a 1994 comedy of that name, satirizing the school’s political correctness.] Many of the progressive issues explored today had their seeds in that ’90s movement, and when I saw that many of these ideas were cropping up in the mainstream, I was fascinated. I had spent over a decade writing about popular culture — Paris Hilton and the Kardashians — and I saw these ideas starting to infiltrate even there.
We’re on the cusp of this amazing moment, when the mainstream is taking this all seriously, instead of kind of laughing at it, which is what they did in the ’90s. You could argue that sexy young co-eds getting raped will always make news, but now it’s linked with radical ideas about gender — the way women should be treated inside and outside of the bedroom.
Post: Coverage of sexual assault often takes an investigative approach — with journalists interviewing the victim, the alleged perpetrator and school administrators in an attempt to get to the bottom of a specific case. While you interview victims and perpetrators, you rarely try to make conclusions about particular incidents. Instead, you look at how new ideas about sex, rape and consent affect all college students. Why did you choose that approach?
Grigoriadis: Part of it was that I wanted to do a macro book, a really national book, and doing that meant it was harder to hone in on specific cases and still get a flavor of what’s going on all over the country. Another part of it is that these cases are really hard to figure out. I’ve read a lot of “here’s one side, here’s the other side” reporting, and that’s not satisfying to me. I don’t need 17 stories where we don’t know if he did it. But we also can’t say: “Well, it’s hard to figure out, so let’s throw up our hands and move on.”
I wanted to see what all the stakeholders wanted: What are their perspectives? What are their motivations? And what is the genuine harm that comes to women because of sexual assault? Even though it’s really complicated, I hope I at least succeed in showing you who these people are, and what their arguments are. Whether they’re true or not, everyone can make up their minds.
Post: You spoke to college-age men and women about topics that are not only controversial but also deeply intimate — and for some, traumatic. How did you get young people to open up to you about their personal experiences?
Grigoriadis: First of all, I do look pretty young. Everyone knew I was a reporter, but I do kind of blend in and look like someone’s weird older sister who was there for the weekend. But I also think that the younger generation loves to talk about sex. Everything’s out in the open — there’s no shame. That’s a core principle of being 20 years old right now. And you’re asking questions about what it means to live an ethical life, and how that intersects with your sexual identity. College, in many ways, is about discovering your sexual identity. I had a lot of the same conversations that college students are already having with each other.
Post: Throughout the book, you argue for the adoption of “yes means yes,” or affirmative consent, policies. Some criticize these policies as being unfair to alleged perpetrators, and others ridicule the sexual norms they seek to encourage. (You talk about students jokingly asking each other questions like “May I elevate the level of sexual intimacy by feeling your buttocks?”) What’s the argument for affirmative consent?
Grigoriadis: We have all of these young women saying they’ve been violated, feeling violated. Some of them didn’t say no at the time because they didn’t know how to, they were afraid they’d be physically hurt, they felt it would be rude, or they felt frozen in the moment. So, obviously, “no means no” doesn’t work. Clearly, we need new standards. These surveys coming out with obscenely high numbers [of women who’ve experienced sexual assault] — one in five, or one in four — they’re very detailed and very clear. We can’t write off all these women as having mental health problems or having regretted sex. Some of these women are just telling you what they genuinely feel.
There are going to be serial predators who come after you, and they don’t care if you say no. We can’t fix that problem. But there are a lot of other guys who are schooled in America’s weird gender norms, and they’re just not paying attention to what the woman wants because they don’t care if the woman is having a good time — they just want to have sex. We can fix that.
Post: Many of the campus activists you interview are among those derisively called “social justice warriors,” mocked or feared for insisting on what some see as impossible standards of political correctness. You refer to many of these activists as heroines. Why do you admire these activists?
Grigoriadis: These people are not some extralegal justice force coming down from the heavens to cast out the bad guys. They’re just regular kids who are not that different from the hippies in the ’60s or the gutter punks in the ’90s. They are sensitive kids who care deeply about moral issues, who want to treat others with dignity and respect.
And I’ve seen the Middlebury video [of campus activists attacking a professor attempting to moderate a panel with Charles Murray, a political scientist whose work has drawn accusations of racism]. That was disturbing. But that’s not the norm.
Like youth movements that have come before, [the movement against sexual assault] is about idealism and giving peace a chance. It’s about asking how we can treat people better. Because it’s not being said in this sweet little John Lennon fashion, it’s become terrifying for older generations who see it as a threat to the moral standards of today.
Post: What would you like to see journalists and academics writing about sexual assault to consider going forward, as this topic will no doubt continue to dominate the news?
Grigoriadis: I want people to take a wider look at this issue, to say, “What is it about these cusp millennials and their understanding of sexual and gender identity that’s useful?” instead of just focusing on the most extreme bleeding edge. The really good stuff that people are doing is combating gender norms that say that men should be the pursuers and women should be the pursued, that girls who have sex are sluts. They understand that gender and sexuality are on a spectrum and are mutable, and none of us should care what anybody wants to do with our gender or sexuality because it’s not threatening.
This is a family of interlocking ideas that are fresh and exciting, and that are taking new root among the younger population. And they’ll bleed into the culture at large, because these people will graduate from college, and they’re not going to forget everything they learn. They’re going to bring those ideas with them.