Let’s talk about sex in higher education

A new book looks at a problem with no easy answer

If there’s one thing clear from Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus (2017 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), it is that what you think you know about sex on campus is probably wrong.

Vanessa Grigoriadis embedded herself in the campus environment, speaking candidly with students and administrators to find that the definition of sexual assault itself is anything but clear-cut. And therein lies the problem.

She says there is no consensus about what constitutes sexual assault on campus, how common it is or how it should be prevented. The book is a sometimes brutally frank examination of the world of campus sexual activity and how the idea of consent has changed and continues to change.

Grigoriadis, a contributing editor at The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, profiles not only victims of assault but also those whose lives have been turned upside down by false accusations.

You wrote, “Society has morphed and sex is different than it used to be.” How so?

Hooking up on college campuses has been around in a real way since the 1990s. The way that sex happens now is divorced from not only dinner-and-a-date, but sometimes also from real emotional yearning.

This is also the situation for a lot of Gen Xers and Boomers—it’s coming from the precepts of online dating, of social media that requires that you broadcast your sexual availability if you’re single.

Our 18-year-olds may not be prepared for college, but they’re pretty good at flirting over text message. They know what they’re doing.

You say we’re redefining what sexual assault is. There are many things—a comment, a perceived inappropriate touch—that can now be considered sexual assault.

One of the key takeaways from my research was that a physically violent rape that leaves bruises and blood and evidence is not the exception on college campuses, but it’s definitely not the rule.

On the other hand, a story like Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia story, which was proven to be false, is also an exception to the rule.

What I learned in my research is that most of the time the two partners agree on what happened in the bedroom—the kind of distinct actions and sexual behaviors that occurred. What they don’t agree on is whether that was sexual assault or not.

The other thing I should definitely mention is that residential college campuses certainly have a problem with rapes that happen when one partner is blackout drunk or passed out or maybe very drunk.

Colleges are interested in reducing liability, so they have broadened the definition of “incapacitation”—which is supposed to mean you’re totally passed out or unable to consent—to include very drunk students.

I don’t want that to be lost in my description of moral relativity.

The research shows this is a serious problem at residential colleges. There are a lot of guys who go out at night with the intent of having sex, and not really caring if the girl can’t speak English as long as he can get her to follow him out of the frat house.

There are a variety of anti-sexual assault campaigns on campus, but you say most of these programs don’t work. What does work?

Well, physical self-defense on its own hasn’t been proven to stem assault. It has to be part of this complex buffet of offerings called “empowerment self-defense,” and this is teaching girls in particular—but boys also—how to physically resist an assaulter, but also how to remove themselves from a situation before an assault occurs.

Identify the dangerous situation and don’t put yourself in it, because we know that girls have a very hard time saying no, and sometimes they’ll just give in.

But putting a bunch of posters on a campus that say, “Consent. Please get it,” and telling your kids to click boxes on a webinar to say, “Okay, I understand. I won’t have sex without consent”—it’s just not really going to do it.

We’ve heard, at least anecdotally, that some schools underreport sexual assault incidents.

Right. That’s partly because we can’t even agree on terms. The topic of sexual assault on campus is complicated and there’s so much misinformation out there, and each of us brings our own biases about what sexual assault is.

If we can’t agree on what sexual assault is then how can we agree on how to stop it? How can we agree on how to prevent it? How can we agree on how to punish it?

To me, the question of what the universities are doing and how well they’re doing it is unanswerable, partly because of FERPA.

No university is allowed to talk about individual cases publicly, so when a normal consumer reads an article about a university abrogating its Title IX responsibilities in a specific case, the university is never going to be able to defend itself publicly over that.

But when you’re dealing with a prestigious private or state university that has had a ton of bad PR around this issue, you know they’re going to be trying their best right now. A university would have to have a death wish not to at least be trying.

Secretary DeVos recently reversed the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter. I get the sense from your writing that schools are looking at that with wary eyes.

Sexual assault is one of the top 10 issues as we move further into the Trump era. As long as we have that progressive platform of kids on campus who are interested in the anti-Trump movement and Black Lives Matter and combating xenophobia and combating sexual assault, it will continue to be.

They will continue to talk about sexual assault openly, not be ashamed if it happens to them, share it with their friends, and try to change the social norms around it. And, to your point, of course we know that most universities just spent millions of dollars and a lot of manpower to rewrite their rules to be in line with Obama’s directives.

They may be looking at this, again, partially from an ethics and safety standpoint, but also from a pragmatic standpoint thinking, “Okay, well, we’ve got three more years of this Trump administration, and we don’t know what is going to happen after that. The ball could bounce right back to where it was under Obama. Are we really going to undo what we’ve just done?”

There definitely will be a legal challenge to DeVos, too, so we don’t even know where this is going to end up. I haven’t spoken to anyone who has said, “Great. We love what she said. Can’t wait to change everything tomorrow.”

You suggest some proactive strategies that schools can take to minimize sexual assault. For example, you said you would like to see an end to the current Greek society.

Yes. I think we’re well past the time where a single-sex-oriented Greek system that cements gender norms should have a Title IX exemption on campus.

I want to be really clear here that I’m not saying that most fraternity members are assaulters. But the universities, in their haste to get drinking off campus, have pushed it into unsupervised basements of fraternity houses. These houses are run by men, the drinks are poured by men, and how stiff they are is determined by men.

There are a lot of unsavory characters hanging out at those parties.

The most typical scenario that I heard from freshman girls—and the majority are freshmen—who were sexually assaulted at a frat party is, they meet a guy at the party who says, “Oh, the beer’s all out. Come to my apartment. I live just a few blocks away in an off-campus apartment.”

And the girl, who is drunk or maybe has little experience being drunk, thinks the guy is somebody to be trusted, even though if such a person approached her in a Starbucks and said, “Come to my house,” she would never follow him. But here, she thinks, “Oh, this is a fellow classmate. This is safe.”

The risk is not on campus in the dark, the risk is the indoor lit places, like an off-campus apartment, and alcohol is connected to sexual assault. We need clarity on that. Universities are going to have to address the fundamental structure of the campus and the way that drinking happens on a campus.  

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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