A Gen X-er’s Investigation Into Sexual Assault and Activism on College Campuses

Feature photo

Author Vanessa Grigoriadis talks about her book at Politics and Prose last Saturday. Credit: Tessa Dolt

By Tessa Dolt, September 12, 2017, 5:21 p.m.

WASHINGTON – Vanessa Grigoriadis, mother of two, had her 24-year-old babysitter’s driver’s license in hand, ready to prove to any fraternity brother that she belonged at the party. Little did anyone know, Grigoriadis jotted down observations in her reporter’s notebook next to crushed cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon sprawled out on the bathroom floor.

It was the summer of 2014, and Grigoriadis was reporting on campus sexual assault for New York Magazine. Three years later, the award-winning journalist in profile writing is a contributor at New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. Last Saturday she paid a visit to Politics and Prose Bookstore in D.C. to talk about her book, “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus.”

“It’s about the new rules of sex on campus. It’s about how students are now figuring out, negotiating about how to have sex that is thoughtful and compassionate, leaves the partner with more self-esteem versus less self-esteem,” Grigoriadis said. “And a lot of us grew up in a country that really didn’t promote that. But right now there’s a vast transition going on on college campuses.”

43-year-old Grigoriadis spoke to an audience whose memories of college are foreign to the millennial’s experience today. The conversation about consent and what is considered sexual assault has expanded with the current generation of students on college campuses.

The research for “Blurred Lines” began at Grigoriadis’ alma mater, Wesleyan University. Twenty years after her graduation, all-male fraternities had been banned from the school directly because of the number of sexual assault cases involving fraternities. These incidents aren’t necessarily happening at the fraternities parties, but often times afterwards and involving students in Greek life, Grigoriadis said.

While students looked the same to her, dressed in plaid flannels and Dr. Martens boots, Grigoriadis said they’re more concerned with racism, sexism, gay rights, trans rights, and sexual assault. Grigoriadis read from her book, “But the way that they talk about them are very different. It’s about what is consensual and what is not. What type of sex is ethical and what is immoral are essential to life at Wesleyan today.”

At Columbia University, students are known to be outspoken about their unjust experiences. Grigoriadis met with Emma Sulkowicz, a former student at Columbia University who hit the mainstream media in fall of 2014 when she gave the school an ultimatum — unless they decided to expel her rapist, she would carry her mattress around campus until graduation.

Activists on Columbia University’s campus like the Queer Army and Students for Justice in Palestine joined in protest with Sulkowicz by bringing their own mattresses that read messages like “Don’t Rape.” “This is the primary message of this new wave of activism. We don’t wanna hear ‘Don’t get raped.’ We don’t wanna hear about what we did wrong. Let’s talk about the behavior that led to the problem,” Grigoriadis said.

“Columbia was slow-footing a lot of cases that they shouldn’t have been,” Grigoriadis said. A group of sexual assault survivors called Red Tape formed in response to Columbia’s ineffective Title IX policies. Their name refers to the red tape that the university forced them to go through to report sexual assault incidents.

Under the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Students took matter into their own hands and started filing Title IX complaints, going to Capitol Hill with petitions, and going to the media with their grievances. “If you hear the students’ narrative, they’re not so sure that the Office of Civil Rights was gonna follow through until they started doing their own activism,” Grigoriadis said. Currently, over 300 federal complaints are in existence across 55 universities, and several stories have reached media sources.

The false story that came from the University of Virginia set back the movement on campus and in the media, Grigoriadis said. An alleged victim of a seven-attacker gang rape who went by the alias “Jackie” told her story to a reporter from Rolling Stone, which was later retracted and proven to be false.

“There’s a lot of really messed up stuff going on, but this was a story that took all of the most violent tropes, married them with the idea of a corrupt, Southern school that wanted to protect boys who that had really done wrong,” Grigoriadis said.

This story inspired groups of accused men to speak up and organize. Grigoriadis spoke with several of the accused’s families who felt that American boys today are “guilty before innocent.” Grigoriadis quoted one mother in particular that said, There’s a big difference between being an 18 or 19-year-old and not having good judgment and being a criminal with intent to harm.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently gave a speech at George Mason University where she said policies need to balance the rights of the victims and the accused in Title IX investigations. “She’s positioned herself really well as Mrs. Mom,” said Grigoriadis, who believes DeVos, a mother of four, is thinking carefully about what she is going to do.

Grigoriadis said, “The question of good judgment and when that crosses into being a sexual assaulter is a very interesting question to contemplate.” “Blurred Lines” addresses this nation-wide debate across college campuses about what is considered consensual sex and what is sexual assault.

“Many Americans think of rape as a physically violent act of penetration. That’s right – if it didn’t happen that way, it’s not rape. Sexual assault does not have to involve penetration,” Grigoriadis said.

“Consent. Nobody really has the same definition. We’re trying to figure it out. Students love this word. It’s really interesting to the undergraduate mind. It’s interesting to my mind. What is it and what is it going forward? That is really the question that needs to be answered right now.”



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