NOVEMBER 17, 2017
FEW PEOPLE would disagree that rape and sexual assault are ills that need to be eradicated. But the issue remains contentious because there’s little consensus over how “sexual assault” should be defined. Not to mention the thorny matters of who’s responsible for this violence, who’s victimized by it, and what should be done.
Vanessa Grigoriadis offers vigorously researched and persuasive answers to these questions in Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus. Writing a book on this subject that satisfies everyone would seem impossible, and Grigoriadis does not attempt the impossible. In short, this book is not for everyone.
I myself was sexually assaulted in school, so I have some experience with the subject matter of this book. But because I’m a 31-year-old, millennial feminist, I also understand myself to be far from its intended audience. Blurred Lines is clearly written for the author’s fellow Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, readers who are perhaps intrigued, annoyed, or alarmed by changing sexual and cultural mores on American college campuses.
These middle-aged readers are likely to stand, from my perspective, on the opposite side of a mutually exasperating generational divide. In catering to a more skeptical audience, Grigoriadis occasionally entertains and perpetuates some harmful stereotypes, such as the idea that young women are prone to exaggerate their experiences of sexual harm, that the way some girls dress is incompatible with their desire to be respected, or that the means by which women share information that concerns their safety should be trivialized as a dangerously overworked “gossip mill.” This tendency, along with her disproportionate criticism of young feminist activists, limits the appeal of the book, but it otherwise offers a thoughtful, nuanced analysis.
Blurred Lines explores what Grigoriadis refers to as the reframing of sexual dynamics on college campuses — specifically, a redefinition of rape that signals what she believes is a massive cultural shift wrought by a new generation of feminists. This shift has moved far beyond college campuses: this October, tens of thousands of women shared stories of sexual harassment and assault under the hashtag #MeToo on social media, following the recent exposure and downfall of Harvey Weinstein, the powerful film producer whose habit of pressuring women into sexual acts and refusing to take “no” for an answer had been an open secret in Hollywood for decades. The cultural conversation around sex and power has changed not just on college campuses, but everywhere.
College women categorize as sexual assault some behavior that Grigoriadis says no one blinked an eye at in her day: a girl waking up to find herself being groped by a guy who slipped into her bed in the middle of the night, or a guy who ends up getting what he wants because the object of his attention gets tired of saying “no.” By “rewriting the rules of consensual and nonconsensual sex, overcoming deeply ingrained attitudes and making young men respect women and their bodies,” radical young women have set out to instill new power dynamics in the bedroom, and have established a new etiquette.
The “new etiquette” on campus is the “yes means yes” consent standard, known as affirmative consent, which Grigoriadis unequivocally supports. She rationalizes the shift in superbly simple terms:
“Yes means yes” merely extends to sex the same rights assumed for other acts of volition. No one can take your purse without your consent. No one can trespass on your property. In exchanges like these, you’re not obliged to say no. Looked at in this light, it’s odd that “no means no” is our nation’s law.
While she’s a bit skeptical of whether affirmative consent is catching on — are kids really becoming masters of sexual communication, checking in verbally at every step of the way? — she notes that students themselves seem enthusiastic about the clarity provided by the new standard, and this makes her hopeful.
But she regards other tenets of millennial feminism with more ambivalence. Grigoriadis dismisses young feminists’ commitment to “intersectionality” — the notion that people aren’t one-dimensionally privileged or oppressed, but are subject to intersecting or overlapping systems of power and oppression that often need to be addressed simultaneously. For her, this is “multiculturalism on speed,” a kind of “visionary utopianism” that “carries a tinge of implausibility.” As a Black woman whose experiences have been characterized equally by racial and sexual power dynamics, I was disappointed that Grigoriadis didn’t engage more seriously with the concept of intersectionality. While she could easily have omitted the two pages dedicated to vaguely describing and then brushing off the concept, the section seems to have been included in order to highlight what she sees as an example of some millennials’ unrealistic, aspirational ideology.
Reassuringly self-aware, Grigoriadis frequently acknowledges the generational gap in her assessments of campus cultures: “To many of these students, my middle-aged, middle-class point of view is considered hopelessly retro, insufficiently woke.” She discloses that some of her young feminist interviewees ended up writing her off as too narrow-minded, one even making a comment about her “internalized misogyny.” Although these judgments may have been hurled out of frustration, they raise questions worth investigating for anyone who thinks and writes critically about these issues, regardless of gender or political stance. True objectivity can be a blurry concept, considering that we are all socialized to invest in the cultural norms of our times, even those rooted in stereotypes and inequality.
This generational divide is apparent when Grigoriadis shares her thoughts on the differences between the feminists of today and those of prior generations. In contrast to the radical feminists of yesteryear, with their shaved heads and Dr. Marten boots, today’s feminists sport a “pornified look,” with “more piercings and tattoos than boys.” She remarks that “they see no reason to align their self-presentation with their politics.” Such descriptions feel like they’re offered as opportunities for older readers to indulge in tongue-clicking at what they may already have judged as whimsical principles and mixed messages from young women. She later demonstrates a better understanding of millennial sex positivity than this, though, recognizing that sovereignty over one’s own body includes sovereignty over sexualization — and thus self-presentation and politics are indeed aligned.
Blurred Lines features a variety of interviews with young men, including those she describes as “woke” — she explains to her readers that this is “a slang word that means ‘highly attuned to injustices and inequalities, racial, sexual, or otherwise’” and “a desirable adjective.” These “woke” college men are inquisitive and reflective about new standards of consent and how their behavior, pre-enlightenment, may have been selfish, if not harmful toward their sexual partners.
Grigoriadis also interviews another contingent of men, perhaps more representative, who are warier of the new sexual politics and fear they’re being set up — men for whom “the terror of being falsely accused was intense and primal.” Grigoriadis calculates that the odds of being accused are somewhere around one in 1,000, far smaller than their own odds of being sexually assaulted. She offers this awkward admission: “[W]hile few women lie, some do exaggerate, and this probably happens more often among students than in the larger culture.”
This is a bold statement, validating boys’ fears of false accusations with the hypothesis that their female peers are, in fact, more likely to lie and exaggerate than men or women outside their age group. I had hoped it would be backed up by compelling anecdotes, research, or statistics. It is not. And yet Grigoriadis repeats this sentiment several times, needlessly pandering to age- and gender-biased stereotypes about young women.
Similar moments serve as reminders of the subjectivity of the author and the biases of her intended audience. Concessions like this from Grigoriadis, who identifies herself as a feminist, offer a nod of validation to the wary middle-aged reader who suspects that the “campus rape epidemic” is really an epidemic of false accusations, who has a hunch that every high-profile rape allegation is a UVA/Rolling Stone debacle waiting to unfold.
To her credit, Grigoriadis gently teases out concerns over the prevalence of false accusations and fairly represents her belief that “situations do exist in which accused and accuser feel they are telling the truth.” While she has her evident hang-ups, Grigoriadis approaches most of her subjects, from young radical feminists who identify as survivors of sexual assault to boys who say they’re falsely accused and the mothers who fiercely advocate for them, with such curiosity and compassion that it’s hard not to be drawn in by the narratives she shares. Blurred Lines thoughtfully explores the many factors that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault at residential colleges: casual sex, drinking, gender roles and cultural norms influenced by porn. In doing so, Grigoriadis draws readers away from the temptation to blame any single factor.
Grigoriadis agrees with mothers of men accused of campus sexual misconduct “that we, as a society, are terrified to look at boys as boys rather than men and give them a break as such.” Like these mothers, who are genuinely wounded regardless of their sons’ guilt or innocence, Grigoriadis wants to differentiate between 18- to 22-year-olds’ crimes of “immaturity” and those more pathological crimes involving an “intent to harm.” Some of these guys, she suggests, may be confused about consent and what they perceive as mixed signals, and may not entirely understand what’s okay and what’s not in a shifting sexual landscape.
As a prototype of these crimes of “immaturity,” Grigoriadis cites the notorious Steubenville rape case, in which two high-school boys brought home an unconscious girl, stripped her naked, sexually assaulted her, and shared images of her body on social media. It’s possible that boys like these don’t intend to harm anyone, that they just don’t regard their victims’ will or dignity to be relevant to their actions — but is that really a maturity issue? While Grigoriadis acknowledges research tracing other factors such as a lack of empathy, perceived peer approval or pressure, and hostile attitudes to women, she is persistent in her sympathy for young men who sexually assault their peers, determined, as she says, to “give the boys a break.”
Few people are painted as the “bad guy” in Blurred Lines, which is impressive for a book about rape. That is, few people except for some of the most prominent survivor-activists profiled in the book. These are young women, barely in their 20s, whom Grigoriadis characterizes as master media manipulators ready to crush anyone standing between them and their mission of empowering sexual assault victims. She describes the Los Angeles headquarters of Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, founders of the advocacy organization that would become End Rape on Campus, as “an anti-assault Death Star.” Clark and Pino first lived and worked out of a car, then a tent, now a tiny apartment, rented off of Craigslist, where they used a cardboard box as a desk. They and other media-savvy activists like Know Your IX’s Alexandra Brodsky are portrayed as unnervingly militant, expertly exploiting “the raging fire of American fear” by sharing survivors’ stories with journalists, turning the tables such that universities were now “the silenced party,” and “unleashing humiliation” on journalists and pundits who attempted to discredit victims of sexual assault who spoke out.
No one else in Grigoriadis’s book gets the same level of interrogation or maligning treatment as the young radical leaders of the campus anti-rape movement: not the Vanderbilt rapists, not the young man who identified as a “victim of a false accusation” and sourly expressed that he wished he had raped someone, not the mothers who took a break from their conversation lamenting the treachery of young women to praise that same young man for having the courage to express his misogyny, not even the bro who, drunkenly engaging in rape-promoting banter with his friends, threatened to violently assault Grigoriadis herself when she objected to what he was saying. I was struck by the sudden departure from the deliberately measured compassion with which Grigoriadis addressed most of her subjects, but I understand it: for a certain audience, there is a definitive group of bad guys on every college campus — those “crybullies” who have supposedly weaponized their own victimization in order to attack free speech, academic freedom, and reason itself.
Some think that feminism, especially younger women’s feminism, has gone too far, and that the frenzy over campus sexual assault is a paradigmatic result of the radical social indulgence of millennials. Liberal college students’ vocal, influential, and often impassioned commitments to inclusivity and social justice has made them a popular target for derision from middle-aged, white intellectuals, who characterize them as coddled, hypersensitive, aggressively whiny “PC Police.” The visibility and success of the campus anti-rape movement, and the persistence of old-fashioned sex stereotypes, makes millennial feminist activists an especially popular target for generational hostilities. Blurred Lines moderates some of these hostilities, but affirms and reinforces them at the same time.
Despite Grigoriadis’s care and compassion, her sometimes bemused, other times suspicious, and occasionally derogatory treatment of some of her millennial female subjects and their politics is perplexing, and it distracts from her overarching argument in support of the progress wrought by millennial sex equality movements. She supports the way sexual dynamics have been reframed around principles of consent and equality, and agrees with young feminists that sexual violence needs to be seriously dealt with on campus rather than punted to criminal courts. However, her skepticism of their methods and her willingness to pander to stereotypes undermines her support for these successes.
For its intended audience, Blurred Lines may succeed as an illuminating, even conciliatory account of an important cultural shift that has been mired in ideological warfare. The book would be an excellent addition to the personal libraries of people who follow the libertarian magazine Reason’s coverage of campus sexual assault and assume that millennial feminists are likely to be hysterical, liars, or both.
Grigoriadis speaks to these readers, and seems to understand their hostility toward young women’s sex equality movements. With subtle affirmations, she invites readers to see stakeholders on all sides of the issue in the way she does: from a place of curiosity, measured compassion, and heightened perspective. But other readers, those “highly attuned to injustices and inequalities, racial, sexual, or otherwise,” may be distracted by the faint but frequent whiffs of old-school gender stereotyping and generational agitation. Which is a shame, because Blurred Lines offers some valuable context and insights into the conversations about sex, power, and consent that have been brewing on college campuses. Some readers will detect biases that feel problematic, while others may perceive a type of “objectivity” that makes the author’s more progressive, feminist insights palatable. If that’s what it takes to bring into focus the newly recognized lines between consensual sex and violence, then this book makes noteworthy strides in the right direction.