The Instinct to Protect Each Other: An Interview with Vanessa Grigoriadis




“AH, WELL you’ll be jaded before long,” Vanessa Grigoriadis tells me when I admitted my novice status as an interviewer during our conversation over Gchat. It is evening at the beginning of October as we sit down at our respectful computers on both sides of the country to discuss her debut book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus, published recently by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The genesis of the work, which tackles the issue of sexual assault and unwanted sexual touch, came from a 2014 New York magazine cover story on Emma Sulkowicz, the rape victim who became known to many as the “Mattress Girl” after carrying a 50-pound mattress on the campus of Columbia University as a response to the administration’s gross mishandling of her sexual assault complaint, in which a consensual sexual encounter between her and fellow student Paul Nungesser turned nonconsensual, the latter, according to Sulkowicz, choking, slapping, and anally raping her. Grigoriadis, a contributing editor at The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, performs the labor-intensive task of analyzing statistics, as well as relating anecdotal evidence produced from personally embedding herself in colleges such as her alma mater Wesleyan and Syracuse University, interviewing school administrators, victims, activists, and the accused. In the questions that follow, I asked her about reeducation of men found guilty of sexual misconduct, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and confidence in writing nonfiction.

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ERIC NELSON: We assume that the rollbacks of Obama-era Title IX guidelines and policy under Betsy DeVos will discourage victims from speaking up and bringing their cases to school courts. Can you foresee any further mobilizing of campus activists as a result of these rollbacks and the resulting diminishment of what Peter F. Lake describes as “the narrative pressures” regarding sexual assault and unwanted sexual touch?

VANESSA GRIGORIADIS: The activists are mobilizing on campus. Whether they will generate a ton of media attention for their mobilization remains to be seen.

In terms of “narrative pressures,” those are considerable. Colleges are going to continue to be pressured by a nexus of activist/progressive students, parents, administrators whose paychecks are tied to Title IX, general counsels wary of litigation, communications departments wary of bad PR over sexual assault claims, and college presidents who are responsible for answering for this whole mess.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education stated that the Department of Education has formally rescinded the Dear Colleague Letter guidelines and issued “interim guidance” while the policy goes through a “notice-and-comment period.” What does this mean exactly?

Yeah, what does it mean exactly?

On the face of it, it seems that colleges should now follow DeVos’s lead and her new “interim guidance.” In reality they probably won’t, or at least most of them won’t. ED’s playbook here may be less important than that “narrative pressure.”

But what DeVos wants is for colleges to blow off the Obama-era rules about sexual assault and follow her lead, which amounts to a lower punishment for boys. This is good for some boys who are innocent; we know there have been problems with Obama’s system. But it’s not great for victims who deserve justice.

“Interim guidance” doesn’t seem to give much clarity as to how long the interim will be.

Well, the notion is that a “notice and comment” period would follow that interim guidance. And then when notice and comment is done, DeVos wouldn’t have only “guidance” around sexual assault. She would have regulations. It is actually a pretty big threat. But most experts I’ve talked to think there will be substantial litigation against these new rules anyway. This is going to be a battle and it’s only starting now.

In the past year, the governors of both California and Virginia have signed into law bills that would mandate sexual consent education as part of high school curriculum. Could we in our lifetime expect the remaining 48 states follow suit?

Definitely. I don’t think it will even take that long. All the signs point to consent education in middle or high school as an important part of solving the sexual assault conundrum. Most of this kind of forward-thinking stuff starts in California, and it has this time too.

Could this be extended to private education as well without being challenged by religious institutions in the courts, or will it be up to individual private schools themselves?

I’m not sure about that. But I don’t think religious institutions are embracing this at this time, though they should be, because these lessons are about morality, not “sex.”

For male students found culpable of what you refer to as “murky” sexual misconduct by school courts, you proposed reeducation instead of immediate expulsion, in part because many of them join the “alt-right chorus” on the internet. What would that reeducation entail?

I’m not talking about book reports or stupid stuff they’ve been “punished” with in the past. Suspension instead of expulsion. Or many hours of education about ethics, sexual assault, and prevention.

I do believe we can reeducate some of these boys, just the way most people who study the prison system believe that rehabilitation is possible. We can’t think of them as sexual predators who need to be cast out of society.

A portion of the book discusses the conducting of and analysis of surveys, such as the one-in-five statistic released from a study designed by Christopher Krebs for the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in January of last year. BJS director Lawrence Greenfield was removed by the Bush administration over his refusal to alter results of a report on racial profiling of drivers. Could we see similar interference from the Trump administration?

The Trump White House has already taken down a page with campus sexual assault stats, if that’s any indication.

The one-in-five stats are a bit problematic, it’s true. But we don’t need to erase them; we need to understand them. I don’t have much else to say on that because it’s not clear what will happen yet.

You agree with university sexual-misconduct advisor Brett A. Sokolow and Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law, that the abolition of the fraternity system on campuses “probably won’t work,” but that co-ed houses are a step in the right direction.

Definitely. Part of my book runs through the wacky events that led to the closure of Wesleyan’s fraternities. But barely any schools in the NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference) have frats today; it wasn’t a huge surprise that Wesleyan wanted to get rid of them. And Harvard is likely to continue taking a stand against single-sex frats and finals clubs. But most colleges aren’t in as plum a position. Most universities need to attract students, not turn them away. And a Greek party scene is attractive to potential students. It’s part of what 18-year-olds want in college.

The Greek system is up by 50 percent over the past decade while radicalism on campus is also growing. It’s a pretty stunning turn of events. The popularity doesn’t seem to be abating. Young millennials like to be in constant contact with each other.

At the same time, we know that the cemented gender norms of the Greek system have a ton to do with sexual assault. So to all of the college presidents worrying about what to do about the standard of proof in their campus courts now that DeVos is telling them they should follow new rules, I’d say: actually concentrate on the problem on your campuses. And the problem is unsupervised drinking in frats and the way those nights end up with sloppy sex, violating sex, or predatory sex.

I’m curious about how you understand your work as writing: do you think your self-confidence is based on knowing your subject, for instance, or is it based on your sense of having developed the necessary writing tools?

I’m pretty obsessive, not always in a good way.

Years of writing have made me realize that if you don’t believe what you’re saying, no one else will either. I think that’s where the self-confidence comes from. But I am also an arguer and an argument-maker, someone who truly enjoys unspooling a point of view and then having someone come at me with another argument. I don’t mind changing my mind when I am wrong. That’s the way I am in real life and on the page.

In The New York Times Vows section (after your wedding in 2007) you described yourself as “one of the most analytical people on the face of the planet. I overanalyze everything.” Do you still find this to be true and has it ever proven to be a hindrance in your work as a journalist?

Ha! I haven’t thought about that for a long time. I do drive everyone around me crazy, that much is true. But I didn’t have kids then. Now I have two kids and I don’t have as much time to obsess over tiny issues. Still, part of the reason this book was such a great fit for me, in terms of topic, is that this topic lends itself to over-analysis.

In the book you discuss the negative effects of social media on students. On the flip side, hasn’t social media also increased activism on campus, getting more students involved beyond simply writing a tweet or a status?

Yup. Social media has had a profound effect on all types of socializing. It’s not only changed the way college kids hook up. It’s also encouraged all kinds of socially responsible activism. One student’s activism can now spread and metastasize to not only students at her own university, but also other campuses. Ideas about victimhood and the convention that victims should stand down and not cause too much trouble have been completely upended by social media. Here, victims are embraced for their bravery. (Of course, others call them liars; the trolls are particularly vicious toward rape victims.)

Did you find your own values changed after completing the book?

Yes. Before I started embedding on campuses, I thought about college kids the way a lot of Gen X-ers do. I thought that they were probably snowflakes and grabbing the victim mantle too quickly. I thought they were overentitled and underdeveloped. But meeting dozens of kids changed my mind.

It reminded me that kids are much more idealistic than adults, and that this is a good thing. The desire for sexual parity in the bedroom is one that can only be won by kids who are interested in remaking the world as a kinder, better place. If they use faulty rhetoric sometimes, okay. Let’s fault them for that. But their instinct to protect each other and to raise the bar on the definition of sexual assault is a good one.

I cared about these kids. I liked them. I wanted them to succeed.

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Eric Nelson is a fiction writer and cultural critic living in Queens, New York.


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