feminisms now

The Sexual-Assault Generation Gap

“There are no strangers and no ski masks in this book,” writes journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis in the introduction to her new book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus.

Long gone are the days when self-defense classes and blue security phones on campus were the extent of sexual-assault prevention. Gone, too, are the days when lines like, “You’re a good girl, I know you want it” (good riddance, Robin Thicke) are seen as acceptable in a conversation about sexual boundaries. Over the past five years, campus activists have worked to rewrite the rules of consensual and nonconsensual sex — often leaving young men and university administrators struggling to keep up. It’s a major shift since Grigoriadis’s years as a Wesleyan student in the 1990s, and since my own college days in the early 2000s. In fact, the particulars of how you feel about this issue are probably informed not just by your feminist beliefs, but by how long it’s been since you were a college student.

Taking on the role of a sometimes-awkward anthropologist examining young-person behavior, Grigoriadis set out to learn what, exactly, is going on with heterosexual hookups on campus. She interviewed hundreds of students. She attended a training seminar for campus Title IX administrators, the people tasked with keeping their universities compliant with federal regulations on gender equality and, more specifically, with handling sexual-assault complaints filed by and against students. She spoke with researchers trying to figure out how to get kids to communicate better about sex. And she spent time with many of the activists who pushed this issue out of the dorms and into the headlines, like Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who spent a year lugging her mattress around campus to protest administrators’ failure to punish one of her fellow students for assaulting her in 2014.

In some ways, ideals of sexual equality have never been more accepted beyond the safe space of the campus women’s center. The entire state of California and hundreds of universities across the country require freshman orientation to include training on the meaning of consent. Colleges have hired armies of Title IX administrators. Thanks to media-savvy activists, campuses that make headlines for mishandling a sexual-assault case can expect to see a 10 percent drop in applications. Campus bookstores are full of T-shirts that say “Consent is sexy.” Wokeness has become a turn-on. Grigoriadis quotes an article from the Cut last year in which a man refers to blow jobs as “the wokest sex act masquerading as the most degrading.”

But in the past six months, Grigoriadis says, the conversation has radically changed. “It’s turning into 1993 again,” she tells me. She compares Unwanted Advances, professor Laura Kipnis’s crusade against overly “PC” sexual politics on campus to Katie Roiphe’s mid-’90s manifesto The Morning After, which labeled feminists as self-styled victims. Meanwhile, under Betsy DeVos, federal support for Title IX programs is in jeopardy. And a few high-profile stories of wrongful accusations have become cautionary tales for any reporter who may have been inclined to print a “she said” with no “he said” attached.

To complicate matters, while Grigoriadis agrees with the underlying politics and major aims of the anti-assault activists — she supports a “yes means yes” standard for consent — she thinks that failing to acknowledge how murky and complex this standard can be in practice could ultimately undermine the movement. “I’m fully aware that I’m treading on a million third rails,” she told me. “But I also don’t want to see this movement blow away.” After all of her research, she thinks nuance is the only way forward. I called her up to talk about it.

The legal definition of “consent” is pretty clear and widely accepted these days. So which lines are still blurry?
We are looking at a new sexual standard now. Not when it comes to violent assault, or assault of people who are passed out — I’m not arguing about that stuff. I believe in that stuff. I’m talking about the weird, mushy, unexplained middle stuff with consent.

Most feminists would say that there’s not a mushy middle: If there’s no consent, it’s rape.
We’re stuck in this weird vise where one side says 90 percent of cases are bogus, as Candice Jackson, Betsy DeVos’s deputy, said. The other side says that every single case of sexual assault is incredibly traumatic, and the woman has zero responsibility in any way — which again, I believe! — but let’s be honest, we’re in a situation where some of these cases do look bad. I just want people to say, “Look. We socialize in a different way now. We think it’s okay for our platonic friends to sleep in our beds. We think it’s okay to put sexy pictures on Instagram. We think it’s fine to talk raunchy in a bar, to go on anonymous dating apps.” Things have changed, particularly for this young group who have only had sex once or twice before in their lives. They’re coming out of it feeling incredibly violated. We need to do something about that. If the conversation was more nuanced, maybe we could get to a more honest place, you know?

I graduated from college more than a decade ago. But when I was reading about the encounters you describe in the book, I was like, “This seems familiar.” Have things really changed generationally?
It’s always been that some guy you don’t know grabs your ass at a frat party; or you’re sleeping in your dorm room and some weird guy from two floors down sneaks into your bed in the middle of the night. Those things have always happened. What’s different is that people are saying those bad experiences are assault, and those men are either assaulters or rapists. That can’t have been the case when you were in school.

Honestly I can’t remember too much about how the issue was framed on my campus. I did bristle when I read your description of campus anti-rape activists today, that they “see no reason to align their self-presentation with their politics,” meaning they wear crop tops and talk about waxing. It’s always been easy to knock young feminist women for their self-presentation. I remember reading Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, which was published in 2005, the year after I graduated, and being so angry that she seemed to place the blame on young women for “raunch culture” rather than judging the men who were profiting from it.
First of all, Ariel’s one of my best friends, and we went to Wesleyan at the same time, so we have a similar POV in a lot of ways. When I was in school in the ’90s, with Tristan Taormino, Jaclyn Friedman, Ari Levy and her dyke band … I mean, these people were not participating in that kind of girly culture. And I wouldn’t say that people are venerating it now — they’re pointing out the problems with it — but they’re still participating in it. It is different from 1995, and the culture is different. There’s no ingenues wearing turtlenecks. Molly Ringwald wore turtlenecks. That’s different. You can’t deny that now, everybody’s transformed themselves into a pin-up doll.

But maybe if there are more women in crop tops talking about feminism, it’s because a basic social-justice vocabulary is in the mainstream now.
I find it to be so exciting! And to see the rise of people like Lady Gaga, Kesha, or Taylor Swift, of this new icon where they’re like, “I’m going to be honest about the trauma, and that’s how I’ll use my power also.” I’m pretty impressed by that, because I definitely grew up pushing all my emotions down, never letting anybody see me sweat. I feel like an old fogy thinking, “Oh, this is such a radical time!” My mom is a feminist artist and started the first women’s gallery on Wooster Street in 1972. I grew up with Nancy Spero, Ana Mendieta. I’ve always been really interested in radical feminism. That’s why I think Emma Sulkowicz is exciting. It’s exciting that people are actually listening and engaging in these ideas.

It’s tough to generalize about big cultural shifts, but I imagine it was even harder to write about students’ traumatic intimate encounters. There are so many in this book.
The main challenge was how to present stories like the Vanderbilt football rape or the University of Minnesota gang rape that happened with their football team, while at the same time, presenting stories that were … you know, more in the “Okay, we’re redefining sexual assault” realm. And I want to argue that we should redefine it. But I also want to present it honestly.

You talked to young men who swear they thought they had consent, but they clearly didn’t. How much should intent matter?
This is what’s so tough about this. The violation may be the same. There’s a story that I have in the book about the boy who was a freshman in the Midwest and a virgin (or so he says). He took a girl home, and she said, “Do you have a condom?” He put one on, and then he couldn’t get hard so he took it off. She gave him head, he didn’t put the condom back on, and he penetrated and came inside her. She left really suddenly, and then she said to him the next day that she was going to get a Plan B pill. He gave her money, and he asked her out. And she brought him up on charges. I mean, this is generational. Some people would just say, “Forget it. This is not sexual assault.” I think we can probably assume there wasn’t an intent to harm there. You feel for this kid, but she still feels violated, and she was violated. So what’s the answer in a situation like that? This is where we have to talk about the spectrum of punishment, and a lesser punishment for somebody like that. Just have him do a seminar, or meeting with a counselor every week for a semester, or writing an apology letter. Something like that. I’m not sure that that kid should be expelled and probably lose his scholarship.

The problem with making this about the accused perpetrator’s intent means trusting his story. Even for you as a reporter, it was often impossible for you to get “all sides” of any given assault story. I can only imagine how tough it is for a campus inquiry panel.
When I met the actual people who are running the courts, the Title IX officers, these people are not the morons they’ve been portrayed to be. I think this is one of the real mistakes of the collegiate anti-rape movement: continually needling the universities. Great! Now you’re not going to have [the campus courts]! Now there’s going to be this high standard of proof, which is never going to work for you. The high standard of proof does not work in these cases. In a tiny college town, I would not tell a girl to go to the police. I really wouldn’t.

One of your interview subjects, a Wesleyan student named Chloe who was assaulted, told you, “There’s a difference between being illegal and being unethical.” That has really stuck with me in terms of thinking about institutional response to this issue.
Exactly, and this is where you can see, logically, why the university has to do this. I’m not going to say that what happened to her was not also illegal: By the letter of the law, that is a criminal act. By the spirit of the law, we can see where he can be punished by Wesleyan in a way that doesn’t involve prison time or her having to go through a four-year-long experience. To destroy these Title IX departments is just going to put us back where we were before.

Which is why I’m so interested in how prevention efforts have shifted. You talk about how women’s self-defense programs are out of fashion right now, because they’re perceived as putting the burden on women to keep themselves safe. But you also describe how some of the most popular types of anti-rape campus training these days — such as encouraging bystanders to intervene — have not been proven effective at reducing assault, either.
There has been a lot of money poured into figuring out “what else can we do.” So bystander education is saying, if you see a girl who is completely wasted and you see some guy she barely knows putting his arm around her at 2 a.m. and moving her towards the door, you should definitely step in. This is the “after-school special” story. The idea that girls will look out for other girls has clearly been a thing forever. But this idea that a guy could come in and stop that? I think it’s interesting. But in a lot of these programs, they’re not finding great outcomes. And then there’s this idea that if you just say “consent” a million times and put it on a T-shirt, then students will be like, “Yeah! I get it! Consent! That’s right!” That’s not working, either.

You write about a Canadian researcher, Charlene Senn, who is training young women to vocalize their desires as a means of knowing their own boundaries. Her whole idea is that if young women are encouraged to develop a clear idea of what they’re comfortable doing sexually and with whom, they’ll be better able to stick to those desires when they’re in the heat of the moment — and not just avoid rape or coercion but have better sex. I was surprised her work is so controversial.
Well, if it wasn’t controversial, other universities would be teaching it! Senn was able to get “rape resistance” going (she doesn’t want to call it “risk reduction” to make it clear that she’s talking about resisting coercion, not reducing risk) because she’s this very cool, 55-year-old feminist psychologist in Canada who was studying all of these problems for years. And finally, about ten years ago, she just got frustrated and said, “I’m going to make my own program.” The exciting part about it is she doesn’t just teach self-defense in terms of breaking wrist holds, but the full spectrum of not only what you need to do to resist coercive men, but to create a holistically good sex life. The way she integrates these two ideas is truly the answer, to me. There’s something about teaching girls in the way she does, that they should think about what sex they want to have, and think about it beforehand.

It doesn’t surprise me that millennial women, who were raised to be planning-oriented, like the idea of articulating their desires and boundaries.
This is about a new sexual etiquette. It’s really just about figuring out what makes people feel good and feel loved in that moment, even if it’s not a relationship and just a casual-sex thing. College kids may not know the legal definition of consent, but everyone knows what it means when you turn your head away. A lot of guys don’t really care, or they’ve been socialized to think a girl pretends she doesn’t want it when she really does. I think the vocalizing is a way of making that clearer. As you say, planning is real in. This is not slacker-dom 1995 anymore.

In the book you say that a lot of these women face gender inequality for the first time in their college sexual experiences, and that’s one reason it’s so difficult. When I read that, I questioned the activist tactic of starting with sexual assault on campus and then branching out to address it everywhere. Because if the young women experiencing assault on campus are so privileged that this is their first roadblock … maybe we should be starting somewhere else with our activism. Perhaps we should prioritize the safety of another group of people who face more systemic challenges.
There are a hell of a lot of college students who come from not-so-privileged backgrounds. I guess the question is, is sexual inequality part of this final frontier, or is it a sideshow? I definitely would’ve liked to have written more about the different kinds of sexualities and genders and how they intersect with sexual assault. I still think the problem is anybody who sleeps with a man. Right? [Laughs.] I wasn’t going to say that, but …

I know neither of us is super-hopeful about the future of federal government support for these programs, but have campus activists succeeded in changing the culture more broadly?
Everybody who’s studied this agrees that none of this would’ve happened without those initial campus activists getting in university’s faces through the media. That’s their project: bringing it off campus. This whole thing has been about gender equality. Everybody who’s involved knows that, even Milo Yiannopoulos! Milo knows when you change culture on a campus, it changes everywhere. At the same time, I see what’s happening with Roe v. Wade. I’m not that idealistic. It could come down to things getting better for the middle class and above. It’s hard to know. What I do know is that a lot of the women I interviewed who are college activists are going to get law degrees. They want to be bad-ass activist attorneys who push the law into more and more gender-equal spaces.

That’s how we’ve gotten almost every major set of rights.
Exactly! And I’m not talking about like, one girl here or there. I’m talking about many of them. Many. Cultural standards change so quickly, but lawyers will hold the line if the rest of the culture doesn’t. You can see that front coming from a mile away.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Vanessa Grigoriadis on the Sexual-Assault Generation Gap