‘The Question Is, Was That Sexual Assault or Not?’: A Q&A With Vanessa Grigoriadis


When your book about sexual assault on college campuses is suddenly “timely,” chances are there’s something rotten in the news cycle. This month saw the publication of Vanessa Grigoriadis’s Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, a nuanced and comprehensive report from the front lines of campuses across the country for which the author combed through dozens of case reports and interviewed hundreds of students, including both victims and those accused of sexual assault. Then, on Friday, the Trump administration’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, rescinded two Obama-era sets of guidelines regarding how universities are required to handle sexual assault cases.

The changes are inevitably controversial. Under the previous guidelines, administrators in such cases had to use the lowest standard of proof, known as “preponderance of the evidence,” or sometimes called the “50 percent and a feather” rule. Now, colleges may choose a higher standard: “clear and convincing evidence.” Students may also decide to settle sexual assault cases through mediation, which was not previously permitted, and colleges are no longer obliged to complete investigations within sixty days.

To top it off, Blurred Lines has been embroiled in a controversy of its own after the author pushed back against a review in the New York Times that accused Grigoriadis of getting her facts wrong. The Times published a correction, and the writer of the review, newly appointed opinion writer Michelle Goldberg, issued a statement on Twitter. Grigoriadis still maintains the review as it stands is factually incorrect; the Times isn’t budging. For a book about muddy waters and contested truths, it’s a ridiculously appropriate conflict.

Grigoriadis spoke to the Voice about the Trump administration’s new guidelines, ethical sex, and the shifting definitions of sexual assault.

Unfortunately, the topic of sexual assault on college campuses is in the headlines this week. What do you make of Betsy DeVos’s recent announcement?

I guess from a PR perspective, it was a good idea to do it very quickly. Why drag it out? Everybody knew she was going to do this. The thing I found surprising was that she said “no fixed time frame.” Taken to its extreme, that’s pure trickery. OK, so you’re a freshman with a sexual assault claim — can you graduate without that claim being processed? This is saying “yes.” At the same time, she’s also trying to say, “Not much is gonna change, I care about survivors.”

But in practice, taking away the sixty-day time frame makes a huge difference to people’s cases.

This is all about what schools are going to choose to do, on their own. Is Yale going to wait until that girl graduates? Of course not. Respectable state institutions probably will not. Religious institutions will take advantage of this, because remember, they don’t want to deal with sexual assault to begin with — everybody was supposed to be abstinent, right?

It seems like a lot of people are reacting in particular to the higher standard of proof: It’s no longer what you describe in the book as “50 percent and a feather,” it’s a bit closer to what criminal courts would require, is that right?

It’s not reasonable doubt, it’s “clear and convincing” — 75 percent, or something like that. Look, that’s what a lot of attorneys want it to be. I think the American Bar Association came out and said that’s what they want it to be. Because I’ve spent time looking into the details of sexual assault with the students themselves, and spoken to students and heard their perspectives — trying to interact with them as a peer and not just as an attorney who’s weighing evidence — I can see very clearly that it is very hard to figure out these cases. If we know there is a bias against a woman who sexts pictures to an assailant five hours before the rape, we know middle-aged people, particularly guys, will never find the boy guilty if there are damning text messages. Or, if the girl the next day sends a message like, “Hey, I’d love to talk to you about last night, I had a really good time but there’s some stuff I want to talk to you about,” never will that boy be punished under “clear and convincing.” That’s where I feel like there has to be an understanding that we’re not talking about serial scary predators — we’re not talking about cases that go to criminal court! We’re talking about sketchy stuff and social norms. Thereby, you need a lower standard.

Right, when is anything about the communication of college students “clear and convincing”?

Yeah, just look at the words. If we make everybody think that what’s going on on college campuses is criminal, vicious, violent rape, and thereby needs to be punished by the criminal system and the campus courts should have nothing to do with it, we have an essential lie there. Well, there are two lies. The first one is that that’s what’s going on on college campuses, because that’s the minority of the kind of assault that’s happening. And the second one is that the criminal courts want anything to do with this shit to begin with!

Was there anything in the new directive that isn’t so bad?

The mediation thing is hard for me because I do support a lower punishment for some boys. If this is about social norms and we want to have some sympathy for the people who are caught in a time of transition here, then we shouldn’t take away their education. On a practical level, we shouldn’t be throwing them into an alt-right, men’s rights movement where they’re just going to go back to their mother’s basement and post on Reddit all day about how they hate women. That doesn’t make a safer world for anybody. And in my reporting, that is exactly what happened — nobody should fool themselves that boys who are thrown out of school for sexual assault and think that they didn’t do anything wrong are not going to turn into the biggest misogynists on the block, because they will. I think the principles of restorative justice are fantastic. Mediation is a bit cloudier and we know that most people, given the choice between doing something hard and doing something easy in terms of punishing somebody, will generally take the easy road. Because most people don’t want to be a whistle-blower; most people don’t want to go up against the institution.

There are two different warring perspectives on the world right here, and one says, “Let’s change the social norms, and if you do you’ll break some eggs and I’m sorry about it, but we have to.” And the other one says, “We must uphold this American tradition of not one innocent boy being punished.” That truly is the conversation that’s going on, and it frustrates me that nobody is listening to my little social-norm dance.

I read a review by a young woman journalist in the Outline who argues your book does victims and anti-rape activists a disservice by weighing “both sides” of sexual assault. Would you have changed anything about your book had you known the atmosphere into which it would be released, in a Trump presidency?

Oh god, it would have been totally different. But I wouldn’t have changed the central thesis of the book, which is that a younger generation is calling things sexual assault that I personally wouldn’t call sexual assault. I’m not interested in “blurred lines” in terms of, a woman says “no” when she really means “yes” and it’s so hard for a guy to tell because women always protest — that’s bullshit. That’s not what I’m saying.

It sounds like intuitively, you’re on the side of the anti-rape activists, but you’re also trying to be pragmatic.

I’m on the side of the activists; I never would have been on any other side. But I think that there’s no journalist — and this is why the counterpath has been so successful, because there’s no journalist who goes to the actual legal documents and isn’t like, “Whoa, hold on a second.” Ideologically, believe women every time. What that woman says in Outline, this idea that, “Who needs an enemy when you have allies like this?” I get that on an abstract level. But once you start moving off abstraction — which is my job as a journalist, to move off the abstraction into the facts — you can’t stay there. It was a really hard book to write because I don’t want to hurt anybody. I don’t want to hurt people who are victims and make them feel like I didn’t take their cases seriously.

When you were reporting the book — talking to students, studying cases — did you often get the feeling that something probably happened but you couldn’t really prove it?

Like, did I intuitively feel that they were right but knew that I couldn’t prove it? Lots. Intuitively, I believe Emma Sulkiness. On the evidence level…it’s not there. This book was originally supposed to have a three-part structure. It was supposed to be one case that was true, one case that was kind of ambiguous and you couldn’t really figure out what it was, and another case that was fully false. Then I realized that very few cases are cut and dry like that. To set it up that way is almost a kind of gimmick. The question to me is not, where’s the proof and who’s telling the truth? The question is, was that sexual assault or not? Because in most cases, it’s not a question of fakery and not-fakery — everyone agrees on what happened. They don’t agree whether it was sexual assault.

It seems like the larger question your book is posing is simply, how should we treat each other?

I started thinking about ethical sex, and this idea of thoughtful sex, and this idea that women feel really shitty about a lot of the early sexual experiences they’ve had. I’ve kind of tried to express this and people tell me I’m old, but I think it is true that people are having a lot more anonymous sex, a lot more semi-anonymous sex, a lot more sex off of Tinder. We know that sexual assaults on college campuses [typically] happen in the first six weeks of school, between people that don’t know each other very well. A woman trusting somebody because he liked one of her pictures earlier in the day — it’s a false sense of security.

At first I was surprised to read you argue that sexual assault on campus is best handled by the universities and not the police or the courts. My initial thought was, well, if the police and courts aren’t handling it right, they should do better! That’s their job!

I just don’t think it’s realistic. I’m a pragmatist. I just want to deal with the reality of what I see and what I learned while I was doing this. The first thing I learned is that we do not know for sure that universities are doing a bad job. The real problem in the colleges is the same problem that exists in criminal justice, which is that when a trustee’s son is found to have sexually assaulted somebody, he’s not always punished. When a college athlete who’s important is found to have sexually assaulted somebody, he’s not always punished. That’s the corruption. It’s not this myth that they can’t figure out the cases because they’re all morons and they’re all paper pushers. From what I’ve read, and I’ve read dozens of these cases, that’s not really the truth.

Your book also examines how this new wave of campus activists is working alongside a different media landscape than previous generations.

The lockstep of women’s media on this is a stunning thing to watch, and it has real political ramifications. As Rebecca Traister wrote in her book All the Single Ladies, educated females are now an immense political force, and it’s just crystal clear where they stand on this issue. I am totally aware that I am to the right of where those people stand. Not far right, and actually, my conclusions in this book are all the same conclusions — pro “yes means yes,” pro campus court, shut down the frats, this is about toxic masculinity. Part of my point in this book is that a smack on the butt and penetrative rape are two different things. While “it’s all violence” is a political ideology, it’s really murky. The weirdest thing is that I get four emails a day from people who’ve read my book — it’s all dudes. Oh my god, did I write a book for dads? I’m the feminist voice on rape that dads can appreciate, which is just a mind-boggling turn of events.

Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus
By Vanessa Grigoriadis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
368 pp.