Author Vanessa Grigoriadis talks about her book at Politics and Prose last Saturday. Credit: Tessa Dolt
By Tessa Dolt, September 12, 2017, 5:20 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 beer 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. On Saturday she talked about her book, “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus” at Politics and Prose Bookstore.
“[The book is] 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.”
“Blurred Lines” addresses this nation-wide debate across college campuses about what is considered consensual sex and what is sexual assault.
43-year-old Grigoriadis spoke to a largely older audience at the Washington bookstore. The conversation about consent and what is considered sexual assault has expanded with the current generation of students on college campuses, according to Grigoriadis.
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 because of the number of sexual assault cases involving fraternities, according to Grigoriadis. “These incidents at Wesleyan weren’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, “they’re more concerned with racism, sexism, gay rights, trans rights, and sexual assault,” said Grigoriadis. She read from her book, “But the way that they talk about these issues 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, said Grigoriadis. She met with Emma Sulkowicz, a former student at Columbia University who made a name for herself in 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,” she said. “We don’t want to hear ‘Don’t get raped.’ We don’t want to 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 they said 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 across the U.S. started filing Title IX complaints, going to Capitol Hill with petitions, and going to the media with their grievances, according to Grigoriadis. “If you hear the students’ narrative, they’re not so sure that the Office of Civil Rights was going to 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 from victims have reached the media’s attention, according to Grigoriadis.
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 gang rape involving seven men who went by the alias “Jackie” told her story to a reporter from Rolling Stone, which was later retracted and proven to be false.
“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.
University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo sued Rolling Stone, claiming that they portrayed her as the “chief villain” in the story. Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, the alleged perpetrators of Jackie’s false rape, also sued Rolling Stone for defamation. The magazine lost both cases.
According to Grigoriadis, the Rolling Stone story inspired groups of accused men to speak up and organize. Grigoriadis spoke with several of the accused’s families who felt that American young men 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 said DeVos, a mother of four, is thinking carefully about what she is going to do in terms of policy.
Grigoriadis said, “The question of good judgment and when that crosses into being a sexual assaulter is a very interesting question to contemplate.”
“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 [consent]. 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.”