Blurred Lines, the journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis’s new book about rape on college campus that shares a name with a controversial Robin Thicke song, couldn’t have been released at a more opportune time. Two days after the book dropped last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that she would be rolling back Obama-era Title IX guidelines on sexual assault. The old guidelines, DeVos said, had “failed too many students” — i.e., the accused — by limiting their due process rights. Campus anti-rape activists, like those interviewed in Grigoriadis’s book, are now dealing with a presidential administration that doesn’t seem interested in helping them — and with allies like Grigoriadis, whose insistence on finding a middle ground ultimately proves to be a disservice to their movement.
As the old saying goes, rape is about power, not sex. Debates about rape on college campuses are therefore inherently political. It may sound crass, but these discussions are as much a part of the modern culture wars as debates about cultural appropriation and safe spaces. In classic “both sides” fashion, Grigoriadis, who spent three years interviewing hundreds of college students and administrators, claims the truth lies somewhere in between.
Though she never reaches Trump-after-Charlottesville levels of blaming “many sides,” Grigoriadis makes it clear she wants to challenge both the right-wing narrative that collegiate women who accuse their peers of sexual assault are bitter, lying feminazis, as well as the activist idea that all victims of sexual assault are “survivors” of sexual violence. Unlike DeVos and her proteges, Grigoriadis isn’t caping for men’s rights activists. She largely agrees with the current Title IX guidelines, including the “50 percent and a feather” rule, under which investigators must determine that the likelihood that an alleged assault happened is at least 51 percent. She champions the “yes means yes” policy of affirmative consent and says frat parties — and campus Greek culture in general — foster dangerous environments where women are more susceptible to assault. She warns young women to stay away from men who “exhibit toxic masculinity.” But she also characterizes young activists as immature and blinded by their ideology, often to their detriment. “It’s tempting to chant ‘believe women’ and simply leave it at that,” Grigoriadis writes. “But there’s a mushy middle here — or a blurry middle.”
As the old saying goes, rape is about power, not sex.
It’s true that young people aren’t exactly known for presenting nuanced arguments, but despite her experience and efforts, Grigoriadis fails to lend much insight to the anecdotes in her narrative, often contradicting herself in the elusive search for nuance. Often, Grigoriadis comes off as myopic as the young feminists she interviews. She is skeptical of intersectionality — it “carries a tinge of implausibility” — yet acknowledges that black men “are much more likely to be prosecuted” in sexual assault cases than white men. Notably, a shameful part of Title IX’s history, that it was tacked on to a statute postponing desegregation busing, is only mentioned as an aside.
Though Grigoriadis spent three years shadowing college students, she comes off as painfully out of touch with them, and her descriptions of students often verge on condescending. It’s often unclear who this book is for — my guess is that it’s for parents who want to understand the world their college-aged kids inhabit. The generational gap is obvious, and Grigoriadis often faults young women for sexualizing themselves. Sorority girls at Syracuse have “hair as long and sleek as Afghan hounds and waists smaller than possible without extreme calorie restriction (the new euphemism for anorexia).” Wesleyan feminists have fallen into this trap, too, donning DIY necklaces that read “CUM” and “BITCH.” Millennial women in general, Grigoriadis writes, “embrace a pornified look of short-shorts and half shirts, depilated everywhere, accessorized with more piercings and tattoos than boys. One minute, they’re throwing down the most radical feminist rhetoric heard in nearly fifty years, and the next they’re posting about #waxing #goals.” Since Grigoriadis acknowledges that the way women dress doesn’t lead to sexual assault, it’s unclear why these anecdotes even matter.
Grigoriadis also strangely argues that social-media oversharing has robbed these young girls of a necessary sixth sense: stranger danger. “If you’re comfortable sharing your life online with acquaintances, then you might not have your guard up when you’re at a party and a guy whom you ‘met’ on Facebook or in bio class asks you to go back to his apartment with him to get the beer he has stored there. It might mean that you accept a ride back to campus from a student you run into at the lake and then accept his invitation to go upstairs when you get to his off-campus apartment.” And while most rapes aren’t committed by complete strangers — “There are no strangers and no ski masks in this book,” Grigoriadis writes,” — many are committed by “in-network strangers,” acquaintances girls meet at frat parties, in classes, or at the library.
Campus activists who claim all forms of sexual assault, from groping to rape, are sexual violence and refer to all victims as “survivors” are part of the problem, too, Grigoriadis claims. Oftentimes, young men don’t realize sexual encounters are nonconsensual — not because they’re predators, but because they’ve been raised in a culture that doesn’t prioritize women’s autonomy or pleasure. “[W]e, as a society, are terrified to look at boys as boys rather than men and give them a break as such. And we’re equally scared to tell girls that they too bear responsibility for their sexual behavior and safety,” Grigoriadis writes.
Sexual assault allegations, Grigoriadis writes, “can be a nuclear option in the war between the sexes.” For young men, “the terror of being falsely accused [is] intense and primal.” Yet when Grigoriadis interviews the mothers of college-aged men accused of assault, she notes how often they disparage victims as manipulative “drama queen[s].” Does she agree with these women? Not quite, but she does write that “while few women lie, some do exaggerate, and this happens more among students than in the larger culture.” Admitting this, Grigoriadis says, was “difficult” for her and felt like “a betrayal of womankind.”
The same culture that teaches men that it’s okay to grope and catcall women also teaches men that it’s acceptable to plow women with alcohol until they’re unconscious.
A man who grabs a random girl’s butt at a frat party, an example Grigoriadis uses throughout the book, may not go on to be a rapist — but he’s already showing a blatant disregard for women’s bodily autonomy. The same culture that teaches men that it’s okay to grope and catcall women also teaches men that it’s acceptable to plow women with alcohol until they’re unconscious. It’s the same culture that teaches boys that “’no’ means ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ means ‘anal,’” a chant members of a Yale fraternity yelled outside women’s dorms in 2010. We may be terrified to “look at boys as boys rather than men,” but those boys grow up to be men. Many grow up to think being investigated for rape is a violation of their own rights.
We live in a time where the Department of Education meets with men’s rights activists and claims “90 percent” of campus rape accusations are exaggerations or outright lies, as Candice Jackson, head of the DOE’s civil rights office, said in July. I understand Grigoriadis’s push for nuance. Treating a freshman who gropes a girl at a party like a serial rapist may do more harm than good. But it’s unlikely that anyone who doesn’t generally side with victims already will begin doing so after reading her book. The campus rape movement may be too militant and lacking nuance, as Grigoriadis claims, but with allies like her, who needs enemies?