A New Standard for Sexual Consent

What needs to change so that women don’t feel crappy about sex they have in college.

Vanessa Grigoriadis’ new book is meant to convey somewhat of an all-encompassing picture of college sexual life.

Ingram Publishing

Over the past several years, Vanessa Grigoriadis—a contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair—has been researching and reporting on the fraught subjects of sex and sexual violence on college campuses. The result is Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, her sure-to-be-controversial new book.

Grigoriadis talked to scores of college students and administrators, as well as experts on sexual assault. The book is meant to convey somewhat of an all-encompassing picture of college sexual life, but the primary question she keeps going back to is about the idea of consent, and how it has changed and continues to change. And although she notes in her introduction that activists trying to tackle sexual assault have “left questions in their wake … some of which call the finer points of their ideology and tactics into doubt,” she also expresses support for the “yes means yes” consent standard, and offers a full chapter of suggestions for cutting down on assault. (Examples include shutting down certain parties, especially early in the school year, affirming Title IX, and even lowering the drinking age to take alcohol “out of unsupervised frat basements and into public.”)

I spoke with Grigoriadis by phone recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why sex is so much different for college students than everyone else, whether porn and social media are making the sexual assault situation worse, and how Trump’s election might have exacerbated the toxic culture on campus.

Isaac Chotiner: In the book, you question the ideology and tactics of some of the activists you write about. What specifically are you disputing?

Vanessa Grigoriadis: One tactic of the young activists who are primarily responsible for bringing sexual assault at colleges to some mainstream media is to make all sexual assault sound extremely violent. To make them sound like they are done by a very small group of serial predators, and to frighten Americans into thinking that if we don’t change something at this exact second, people’s daughters are in extreme danger.

That was a great first step, and that got it into the limelight, but sexual assault is something that has a lot more nuance than that. And at a time when we have Betsy DeVos’ deputy, Candice Jackson, saying that 90 percent of the cases are bogus, and then we have that other side saying that sexual assault, even a butt grab, is the most horribly traumatic thing that could ever happen to a woman in her lifetime, you’re getting a lot of people who are like, “I don’t get it. One side here is not being truthful.” I really think now is the moment to have a deeper conversation about it, basically.

Even if you’re calling some tactics into question, it seems like your reporting has made you think that there are fundamental things about college and university life that are fucked up and contribute to assaults and need to change.

Oh, yeah. I mean, I’m 100 percent on the side that 1 out of 5 is not a bogus number. Even if you want to go down the road of looking at the surveys and picking out the words that make you think that a girl could say she was raped when she wasn’t, there’s no question that we’re having an upsurge in our culture of women saying, “I feel violated by the way that I had sex in college.”

The bottom line is that this sexual assault problem is happening at four-year universities that are residential, that have dorms that are like block housing. Frat and sorority membership are up by 50 percent in the last decade. What’s happening on college campuses is really a lot like what’s happening in the rest of America. It’s this weird microcosm where you have on one hand this very cemented gender norm stuff going on in these frats and sororities, and on the other hand you have this upsurge of activism like there hasn’t been since 1969. I interviewed a lot of girls at Syracuse and they had the biggest pledge class of their history in 2015, which was the same year that Syracuse was called the No. 1 party school in America, and the same year that students sat in for 18 days in like the basement of a campus center to protest against every phobia of modern life.

Are those different groups of students? Or do you think that there is a certain contradiction there between people who at one level want to protest all these forms of discrimination, but also are going along with this college culture that has these really negative consequences?

I think generally, those are two different groups of people even though there are a lot of sorority girls who are going to give lip service to progressive ideals. Still, the activists are a different crowd.

The problem really does exist not only in the fraternities, but the fact is that only fraternities can have parties when sororities can’t. Thereby, they control the space. They serve the alcohol. If they have rules about alcohol, they get to say which girls get to come up to the third floor and drink with them. Everybody goes to the football game, which kind of generates this very stereotypical kind of male aggression on the weekend. A lot of youth culture is male-dominated. Generally, straight guys don’t go with their female friends to the mall to go shop for T-shirts.

Speak for yourself.

Yeah. I know. Seriously. But girls do sit around and they smoke pot with guys while guys are playing video games and ignoring them. Youth clubs are still male-dominated even today when we have this upsurge of feminism. I made a little too much out of that. Like, “It’s college itself!” It’s definitely cultural and gender norms and they are reinforced by the structure of college.

There’s always a lot of handwringing about any new technology and what effect it’s having, but it did seem like you thought, from your reporting, that the sexualization that goes along with photos and social media was having an effect.

First of all, I never had a kid take out a phone while I was interviewing him, which I think is kind of amazing. I think they can concentrate, and everybody should stop being worried about that.

It wasn’t like I just saw all these zombies on their phones. Kids are sitting in the campus center, doing their homework. Adults look like zombies with their phones so much more than kids at college, because they’ve actually got like a full day of awesome stuff to do. I think definitely at night, there’s no question that they’re looking for likes. Trying to figure out all of these things that … all the gossip, and sexual tension, and flirting that used to be done in person. At least half of that is now done on the phone, which definitely gives you a different perception of where your relationship is with the person you’re flirting with when you see him or her, right?

There were certainly people I interviewed where they barely had a conversation with the person before, but because they had been texting so much, they felt fine with hooking up with that person that night.

You also write about porn, and although the statistics are unclear about what effect it’s having, how do you think it has changed young people’s sex lives or even the rate of sexual assault?

There’s no proven clear line between sexual assault and even slightly violent porn, but when you have researchers saying, “OK. Well, we know that hair pulling has increased. Slapping has increased,” and you’ve got a low-level meanness in porn that women are portrayed as liking or not really reacting to, I think that’s got to … I mean, we’re all obviously influenced by the images that we see around us, particularly young people who are learning about how to have sex from porn.

I know a lot of girls that are like, “It’s so fucked up that I have to give guys blowjobs. Like, all through middle school and high school. Like, what about me? Now I’m in college, and I just don’t feel that was right.” That’s not just because of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. That’s because porn has kind of normalized blow jobs and normalized anal sex to a degree, because to be honest, blow jobs and anal sex are not awesome for girls. You’re not going to find 100 percent of girls being like, “Yes. That’s what I want to do.” It goes back to this idea of girls feeling violated and pressured into having sex that they don’t want to have.

I think women feel pressured a lot. You’re a married woman, you know you’re going to have sex sometimes when you don’t want to, and if you’re in a long term relationship, you’re going to have that too, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about kids who are 19 or 20 and may have never had sex before, probably have only had sex once or twice, and they’re going into situations where they feel uncomfortable vocalizing what they want, and they’re coming out of it feeling like, “That was not a boost to my self-esteem. That actually made me feel kind of shitty.” We’re never going to stop guys from having an orgasm and then rolling over and going to sleep. It’s not like we’re going to mandate cuddling or something.

I certainly hope not.

I mean, please. [Laughs.] There is a little bit of a nanny state going on here. We have to be honest. There is a little bit like colleges are telling kids how to have sex, but again, the survey numbers indicate that too many people are saying—too many women specifically—and you know there are men as well, of course, saying that their early sexual experiences are really negative ones. We can’t just say this is all a learning experience. How can I have friends that are 40-years old that are telling me about things that happened to them in college that they still remember vividly like it happened yesterday? They still feel really shitty about that.

One of the things you advocate for is a “yes means yes” standard. Why specifically after being on these college campuses did you feel that was so important?

Again, these are 19 or 20 year olds. These are not adults who have had a ton of sex and feel like it’s not hot to have to ask somebody what they want. There’s definitely a lot of adults who feel that way, right? Like, “That just takes the fun out of everything.” If you think about a promiscuous woman who wants to have sex and be in the mile-high club, versus a 19-year-old girl who’s had sex once, these are like apples and oranges. I feel like that argument is just … you can kind of brush that aside. Let’s not compare it with what a 50-year-old might want to do it on an airplane.

OK. Once you’re there, you have to say, I feel this is manna from heaven that there’s an answer here. Amazing. You could just ask what you want! Of course there’s always going to be a certain segment of guys who don’t care, who are truly serial predators. You know, one of the Baylor victims said that when they had sex, she kept saying no, and he liked that. He liked that energy. He got off on that. OK. We’re not talking about those guys because nobody can really figure out how to reach those guys, but for this other percentage of guys that seem to begin committing assault in college, I think asking could really kind of snap them out of the idea that, “Oh, this girl wants it.” You know what I mean? “Even though she seems like she’s not into it, she’s turning her face away, but I think she really wants it. I mean, she came to this party, dressed like that and at two in the morning she came over to my house. She’s really wasted.” For Gen X, we all used this question of “should I get a condom?” Right?

That was a really interesting comparison in the book, because that’s been so normalized that we don’t think about saying, “Should I get a condom?” as a mood killer. It’s just part of the experience.

Exactly. And that was not really a question only about protection. It was really a permission question. Girls could be like, “Well, no.” Sometimes the reverse: A girl could say it and a guy could be like, “I don’t know.” I think that this is a great way of clarifying intent.

One of the ideas you raise in the book is that maybe one of the reasons that sexual assaults are happening is because men feel constricted by the rise of feminism and can’t express themselves. But sexual assaults have actually gone down over the past couple decades, at a time we’ve seen more equality in the society at large. Is there any contradiction there?

Where do I say that? I don’t think I say that feminism is making guys … I mean, I throw that out as an idea, but no, I don’t really believe that.

You write, “Guys might be asserting themselves in the bedroom because they can’t in other places.”

Yeah, I know. I know. I said that. [Laughs.] It was a weird idea. Look, I don’t know. We’re talking about these young millennials. If young girls are getting better grades than guys, if they’re playing sports really well, if they’re way more represented at prestigious universities than guys are, if they’re potentially going to be more employable than guys are, then why is it that so many of them are being violated, or at least feel violated, in the bedroom? That honestly isn’t a conversation that has gone on, and a lot of that is because America is a fucked up place and people don’t get sex ed. They don’t have any way to talk about this with their parents, because their parents are really deeply conflicted about sex and don’t want to bring it up with their kids and all that shit. That’s part of what it is. But it is true that it seems like sexual equality is kind of lagging behind this other gender equality for 20-year-olds, despite what they show on social media, that they’re all sexy all the time and feel so comfortable with it and “I tell guys what I want.”

So you’re saying that even if overall rapes are down, that sexual equality is still lagging behind other areas?

Jessie Ford, who’s like this great sociologist at NYU, said what you have now is girls saying, “I felt equal when I went to elementary school and high school. I felt equal when I applied to college. I felt equal in the classroom, but then I had sex, and I don’t feel equal anymore. Now I feel like an object. I feel a way I’ve never felt before. I feel really uncomfortable with that.” Is she right for all cases?* No. But there’s a lot of truth to what she’s saying. We should be having incredible sexual parity, right?

We know girls fake orgasms. It’s like half and half or something like that. All these girls are so empowered. We’re at this great feminist moment where we have not only pop-feminism, but incredibly radical feminist rhetoric in Cosmo. In Cosmo! If you’re a cool 20-year-old woman, you’re going to subscribe to ideas that were pretty fucking marginal five years ago. And yet what’s happening in the bedroom is not OK, so what’s going on?

This is a good segue into my next question. You reported this book between 2014 and 2017, which coincides with misogynist Donald Trump’s rise. To what degree did that filter down to the people you were reporting on?

Well first of all, on a policy level, it affects things dramatically because we’re now at a phase where I’d put my money on Betsy DeVos blowing up as many of the advances that Obama put into motion as she can. As sexual assault at college became a major mainstream issue, it got politicized as everything does, and it definitely became like a stalking horse for all these larger themes of misogyny for the alt-right, and it’s just so ironic that Trump got elected in part because of the way he went after Hillary Clinton. Candice Jackson, who is DeVos’ deputy, who’s the head of the [Department of Education’s] office for civil rights now, is the one who brought the three Bill Clinton accusers to the debate. She was like deeply involved in that, and now she’s the one they put into power to destroy all the advances that were made during Obama. It’s pretty insane.

I interviewed students, and as I started to talk to guys about Trump, some guys were like, “Yeah. Maybe I don’t even support Trump, really. Maybe I really am more like a Mitt Romney guy. But I look at Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton is a bitch, and I don’t want her to be president.” This guy at USC was like, “The bitch is dead. We won. We’re back. We’re mad. Men are back on top.” Really talking about it in this gender war way that was completely shocking to me.

Do you have one big takeaway from reporting this book, or one way your opinion changed?

I think it is just so fucking complicated. What we’re really talking about is a new standard for consensual sex. That the way that we’re talking about sexual assault now. I was always taught that rape is only about power, and not about sex. But no, not in this area. Not in the kind of sexual assaults we’re talking about. We really have to talk about sex itself, and the way that post-adolescents are having it, and get into that conversation that nobody really wants to have in order to kind of make substantial changes here, because the programs that they’re running for orientation really don’t work. The campus courses obviously have a ton of problems, even though I think they should stay open. Really kind of cultural change is what has to happen, which is exactly what Biden and Obama and even Milo Yiannopoulos understand. You can really make cultural change on college campuses. They’re almost like a Petri dish. You can fuck with them. You could actually do something. You could make like a whole new generation. A whole new set of ideas in there. Don’t ever write a book about rape. That’s my No. 1 tip.

*Correction, Sept. 5, 2017: This piece originally misidentified Jessie Ford as male. (Return.)