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

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. 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. 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. We can’t think of them as sexual predators who need to be cast out of society. Yup. Here, victims are embraced for their bravery. Definitely. If they use faulty rhetoric sometimes, okay. It is actually a pretty big threat. 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. Most universities need to attract students, not turn them away. The Greek system is up by 50 percent over the past decade while radicalism on campus is also growing. And then when notice and comment is done, DeVos wouldn’t have only “guidance” around sexual assault. Let’s fault them for that. Or many hours of education about ethics, sexual assault, and prevention. 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. BJS director Lawrence Greenfield was removed by the Bush administration over his refusal to alter results of a report on racial profiling of drivers. Years of writing have made me realize that if you don’t believe what you’re saying, no one else will either. Now I have two kids and I don’t have as much time to obsess over tiny issues. And the problem is unsupervised drinking in frats and the way those nights end up with sloppy sex, violating sex, or predatory sex. 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. I thought they were overentitled and underdeveloped. ¤
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. ¤
Eric Nelson is a fiction writer and cultural critic living in Queens, New York. I thought that they were probably snowflakes and grabbing the victim mantle too quickly. I’m not sure about that. (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? It’s part of what 18-year-olds want in college. 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. Sokolow and Peter F. I do drive everyone around me crazy, that much is true. You agree with university sexual-misconduct advisor Brett A. Most of this kind of forward-thinking stuff starts in California, and it has this time too. 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. 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. It’s a pretty stunning turn of events. I don’t think it will even take that long. She would have regulations. Part of my book runs through the wacky events that led to the closure of Wesleyan’s fraternities. But most colleges aren’t in as plum a position. VANESSA GRIGORIADIS: The activists are mobilizing on campus. I liked them. 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. Can you foresee any further mobilizing of campus activists as a result of these rollbacks and the resulting diminishment of what Peter F. What would that reeducation entail? Social media has had a profound effect on all types of socializing. 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? 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. “Interim guidance” doesn’t seem to give much clarity as to how long the interim will be. But it’s not great for victims who deserve justice. Definitely. Ideas about victimhood and the convention that victims should stand down and not cause too much trouble have been completely upended by social media. 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. The Trump White House has already taken down a page with campus sexual assault stats, if that’s any indication. Could we in our lifetime expect the remaining 48 states follow suit? 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. But meeting dozens of kids changed my mind. It’s not only changed the way college kids hook up. 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. Yes. Could we see similar interference from the Trump administration? And Harvard is likely to continue taking a stand against single-sex frats and finals clubs. That’s the way I am in real life and on the page. Suspension instead of expulsion. I don’t mind changing my mind when I am wrong. Whether they will generate a ton of media attention for their mobilization remains to be seen. It reminded me that kids are much more idealistic than adults, and that this is a good thing. Lake describes as “the narrative pressures” regarding sexual assault and unwanted sexual touch? This is going to be a battle and it’s only starting now. I cared about these kids. But we don’t need to erase them; we need to understand them. 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. I’m not talking about book reports or stupid stuff they’ve been “punished” with in the past. 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. This is good for some boys who are innocent; we know there have been problems with Obama’s system. 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? In terms of “narrative pressures,” those are considerable. The one-in-five stats are a bit problematic, it’s true. It’s also encouraged all kinds of socially responsible activism. NOVEMBER 17, 2017

“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. But their instinct to protect each other and to raise the bar on the definition of sexual assault is a good one. Young millennials like to be in constant contact with each other. 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? But most experts I’ve talked to think there will be substantial litigation against these new rules anyway. 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? In the book you discuss the negative effects of social media on students. Yeah, what does it mean exactly? Well, the notion is that a “notice and comment” period would follow that interim guidance. I haven’t thought about that for a long time. At the same time, we know that the cemented gender norms of the Greek system have a ton to do with sexual assault. Before I started embedding on campuses, I thought about college kids the way a lot of Gen X-ers do. 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? 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. I wanted them to succeed. I think that’s where the self-confidence comes from. And a Greek party scene is attractive to potential students. But I didn’t have kids then. The popularity doesn’t seem to be abating. I don’t have much else to say on that because it’s not clear what will happen yet. All the signs point to consent education in middle or high school as an important part of solving the sexual assault conundrum. Ha! 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. One student’s activism can now spread and metastasize to not only students at her own university, but also other campuses. I’m pretty obsessive, not always in a good way.