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Vanessa Grigoriadis On How Shoe-Leather Reporting Shaped Her Latest Book

by on September 14, 2017

Vanessa Grigoriadis’ Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus is a  thoughtful overview of sexual assault on today’s college campuses. Interviewing over a hundred students, parents, and university officials, Grigoriadis combines meticulous research with beautiful writing to produce a panoptic view of today’s college campus. A sensitive look at a painful topic, Blurred Lines is a must-read for parents of college-age children. Grigoriadis spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on August 31st, 2017.

How did you start writing about this topic?

In 2014 there was a mass amount of attention in the mainstream media on college sexual assault, which was something I really hadn’t seen since the 90s. Even in the 90s it was just kind of a brief story and then everyone started making fun of it. There were skits on SNL about how ridiculous asking for consent for sex was. Katie Roiphe wrote The Morning After, which was her manifesto about how date rape is ill-defined and overblown on campuses, and physical violence is the only kind of behavior that should be considered assault. I was just kind of shocked that we were entering a time where this was in the papers almost, I don’t want to say daily, but certainly weekly.

One thing that’s so striking about the book is what you call your “panoptic” approach to sexual assault. Can you talk about what you mean by that and why you decided to take that approach?

I think that this is a sweeping national book that covers pretty much every angle of this story, from the Baylor story to the UVA scandal to the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers case to obviously the woman carrying the mattress in Columbia. Not only that, but also I interviewed survivors and survivors’ families, accused boys, their moms who have created a really powerful network, and politicians. I really looked closely at the role the media has played. I looked at the university administrators and the way that they’re handling cases. I tried to interview people from all of those different groups and get their perspectives, because they all have very deeply held beliefs about what’s happening here and how we can solve this.

In terms of how we can solve this, what needs to be done?

I assert very firmly that we need to co-educate fraternities on campus, because the Greek systems played an enormous role here. Not necessarily assault at the Greek houses, because that’s not where they happen most of the time. But by creating an atmosphere that is very louche, that is alcohol-drenched, that is completely unsupervised by adults, that is a place where guys who want to pick up freshman girls can go, and a place where freshman girls are being invited.

And in regard to freshman women, in the book you talk about the Red Zone. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

The first month or so of a female freshman’s students time on campus is the most dangerous. Certainly because they are socializing with people that they’ve never met before. They’re probably a bit too trusting of them. They’re drinking a lot and they probably have little drinking experience in their past and they’re unclear on what their boundaries are. As much as we see freshman girls walking around together in a little herd around campuses, if a few people peel off from that herd then they are vulnerable. In a lot of cases, we’re talking about experiences that girls are having in their dorms with freshman boys. They wander into a boy’s dorm room at two in the morning to smoke a joint and the boy’s going, “Wow this girl just came in here. I think she wants to sleep with me.” But the girl doesn’t want to sleep with him, and the guy doesn’t want to let her go. I think you see that scenario quite a bit.

The group that you’re studying, the late Millennials, have a different attitude towards sex than previous generations. Can you talk about some of the factors that have contributed to this shift?

This book is really for parents. How do you protect your daughters from being assaulted and your sons from being accused of assault? A lot of that starts with understanding what the culture around sex is on campus. Hook-up culture began in the 1990s and has been on campus for quite a while. But I posit that there is a pervasive hook-up culture at almost every American campus, including some Christian ones—meaning dating doesn’t start with flowers, dinner, and a movie, it starts with something that’s a lot more ill-defined as a date. It might just be two people going to a party and then they leave together.

Sexual assault happens between acquaintances most often, not a stranger in the bushes. Social media, which is basically the main social life for kids on campus today, is very much an acquaintance culture. On a college campus you socialize with more people than you ever would in regular adult life. Students are interacting with all sorts of people people they don’t know all the time. But then you also have your social medial part laying over that, which is exponentially more acquaintances as well.

So in terms of using social media with acquaintances, does that put them at a higher risk?

Sexual assault between acquaintances happens a lot on college campuses in part because college campuses inherently include socializing with a lot of social acquaintances, often with alcohol involved. Think about a Gen Xer. Who did a Gen Xer know? The people in their phone books. Those were their friends. They had maybe thirty people in their phone books. Millennials have 700 people in their social media feeds. All of these people are essentially acquaintances. They’re not people they know very well, but they feel like they do.

Sexual assault happens on college campuses because a lot of girls think, “Oh that guy he’s from my chem class, I guess he’s safe to go home with.” “Oh that guy, he liked my picture on Instagram, I guess he’s safe to go home with.” These girls, if they went to a bar, and some guy hit on them, they’d never go home with him. But on a college campus there’s a false sense of security.

From reading your book, it sounds like you essentially embedded yourself on college campuses. What was your research process like?

I basically went to various campuses, particularly Syracuse, Wesleyan, and Columbia. I just wore my normal kind of dowdy outfit of jeans and sneakers and I carried a backpack. I just sidled up to people and started to talk to them. I’m a big believer in shoe-leather reporting versus phone reporting. I certainly look a lot older, but I come off as a fairly young person, so some students thought that I was enrolled in the school. Or they were like, “Are you a graduate student?”  I told everybody who I was so people were aware, but I definitely didn’t share my age unless someone asked me point blank. Because seriously they’d ask, “When did you graduate?”, and I’d say 1995 and they’d be like, “That’s the year I was born!” And then I’d say, “Tell me about your sex life!” It was truly crazy. Not the most pleasant reporting.

Even though it wasn’t pleasant reporting, women were very vulnerable and willing to share their stories with you.

On both sides. Guys were really willing to talk, but a lot of times I would get an email address or phone number from a guy and I would talk to them later. I found that it was just too strange to be an older woman asking a nineteen-year-old guy about his non-consensual sex life in person. This is a taboo topic that people don’t want to talk about in person with an adult they don’t know.

I think girls are more verbal at that age anyway but also more open to confiding in older women, so they were really open with me. I really loved the kids that I met. They were all so cool and smart and really emotionally connected to their feelings.

In terms of this being a book for parents to prepare their kids for college, what are some of the things that parents can be doing?

For all genders, everybody’s got to get better phone etiquette. What I said before, lets understand that when you’re texting with somebody, that is still with a person that you hardly know. You’ve got to have your boundaries set in your mind for how far you want to go before you can get swept up in the moment. If you have your boundaries clear, like I’m only going to kiss this person, you’re more likely to be able to assert yourself and walk away from a situation for a girl. And for guys too. Guys are being pushed into things they don’t want to do. We have to be honest about that.

For guys, boys are joining a lot of group chats and group texting for their sports team, for their hall floor, for their fraternity pledge class, and that is just a really bad idea. Because boys egging each other on in the early mornings of the hour to get laid when they know fifty other guys are on the chat is a bad, bad thing and I don’t think that’s recognized enough.

I also think that self defense for girls is really important. I think it’s not taught enough on college campuses. There’s a lot of classes for rising high school seniors to learn a little self-defense before they get to college so they feel more empowered.

Parents don’t really want to talk to their kids about sexual assault. That’s a really hard conversation to have. A great way of doing it is to explain to your kids that the university they’re going to has a “yes means yes” standard. They may have been taught in high school that if a girl doesn’t say no, then all is cool. But now they’re in college, the college has this rule—and the parents didn’t make up this rule—that you must ask for a yes, even if you want to kiss somebody. This is the new standard of behavior and it’s nothing that’s taught down from a parent, but it’s just what you have to do in college. Hopefully that will catch on. I think that’s an easy way of talking to your kids about it without making it seem didactic and scary.

It was fascinating to read in the book about how self defense is now framed to fend off an acquaintance, and not about fending off a stranger, as has been the focus in the past.

We’re talking about coercive sex. We’re not talking about holding a gun to somebody’s head, that’s a rarity on college campuses. It’s more that you have a lot of girls who are coerced into sex and they have a very hard time asserting themselves physically. They’re not going to want to kick or punch or even maybe scream. So how do you get out of that situation?

Let’s be realistic. We need to stop saying, “It’s your responsibility. If you didn’t kick or punch or scream, then it was consensual.” Because we know enough now to know that’s not the case. So how can we come up with another way of thinking about this? That’s where the idea of trust your gut comes in. If something feels weird, get out of the apartment. Also this idea of not trusting people that much. When you’re at a frat party and some guy says there’s no more beer so come with him to his apartment, if you’re ready to have sex with him, go ahead, follow him home. But if you’re not, don’t think that’s safe. You get these really sad stories about girls who are tricked into that kind of situation where you really feel for them because they’re just having a good time and they’re so trusting.

In the book you also talk about the work of Charlene Senn, and how that plays into reducing the number of sexual assaults on campus.

Charlene Senn is this amazing researcher out of Canada who’s created a program for freshman girls. They not only learn physical self defense, but they also talk about who is a guy to stay away from. If we know that guys who make really uncomfortable misogynistic jokes or uncomfortable sexualized jokes may actually have some parity with the guys who assault, then we should stay away from those guys. That’s a pretty easy tip there. She combines that with the idea of also setting boundaries. Girls have to think to themselves before they go out at night, when they think they might see a guy they might hook up with, what would I do with this guy if I saw him? What am I willing to do? If they have that boundary clearly set in their mind, the guy doesn’t get to set the terms for the sexual encounter.

How do you see public libraries playing a role in this?

There’s a great curation of books that could go on about healthy sexuality, versus putting out Missoula, the Baylor book about violation, and Alice Sebold’s Lucky. If that’s your sexual assault program, that may raise awareness of the problem, but you’re not helping people think about how they can rise above it. I also think that books that teach kids the idea that you have some personal autonomy with your body, you don’t just have to hug anybody. When kids go to pre-school now, teachers don’t want them to hug the other kids all day because A, it creates a disturbance and B, it spreads germs. They’re trying to teach people that you can’t just grab somebody and do whatever you want. So having an awareness of what are positive modeling of gender roles and sexual dynamics. what are books that point out good relationships. Obviously books about fraught, destructive relationships are much more exciting than ones that aren’t. Yet coming up with a program that will help people think about how to model their behavior on positive relationships, I think that would be helpful.



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