Our Victim-Blaming Culture

Cover image: Hachette.

When I first picked up Vanessa Grigoriadis’s book, Blurred Lines, in late September, Harvey Weinstein hadn’t yet been outed as a serial predator who used his power to silence aspiring young women. Nor had Leon Wieseltier, or Knight Landesman, or Mark Halperin, or Kevin Spacey, or Michael Oreskes, or Louis CK, or any of the many other men exposed by the long-overdue wellspring of people—mostly women, all very brave—coming forward.

Now, in the toxic stew of rage, frustration, and confession that the current news cycle seems stuck on, the contents of Grigoriadis’s book—though still limited to the scope of campus sexual violence, its survivors, and those accused of assault—refracts a different kind of light. What’s happening on our university campuses may be indicative of the larger structures at play in our workplaces, public spaces, and personal lives.

Blurred Lines is not an easy read. Its title seems designed to provoke attention—of any kind. (When I mentioned the title of the book I was reading to two coworkers, both of whom are sexual violence specialists, they immediately recoiled.) Grigoriadis interviews both survivors and students accused of assault—the latter a choice for which she’s received criticism—as well as a bevy of other sources, including campus sexual violence consultants, families of accused boys, fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, and student activists from Syracuse to Wesleyan.

Grigoriadis has a keen eye as a journalist, and her tone can be unflinching and unsparing. It can also feel, at times, out of touch: her audience is the parents of college-aged students as much as it is millennials themselves. One of the recurring cast of characters in Blurred Lines is a sorority sister at Syracuse who calls herself the “Blackout Blonde” and blames sexual misadventures on tequila and not a misunderstanding of consent; another is noted activist-artist Emma Sulkowicz, Columbia University’s “mattress girl,” whose story frames the book.

A self-proclaimed feminist, Grigoriadis’s politics inflect her writing with a second-wave, anti-porn bent. Blurred Lines struggles with a generational divide, portraying and confronting a generation of young feminists much more inclined than Grigoriadis is to call certain acts, which historically might have just been classified as bothersome, sexual assault. And indeed, it is this generational divide over what exactly constitutes sexual violence—and what should be done about it—that is one of the central questions of the book. Yet for those seeking prescriptivism, Grigoriadis is careful, giving all arguments a degree of nuance so level-headed as to be frustrating.

I found myself alternately engaged and annoyed by Grigoriadis’s text, as rigorously researched and nuanced as it is. It seems that in this era, we crave strong calls to action and a vision of the future as we wish it to be, not studious depictions of the messy reality in which we currently live. Yet it’s only by understanding our own reality—and the complexities within it—that we might begin to conceive of an effective way forward. Though both-sides journalism can feel morally corrupt, especially in this political climate, in the case of Blurred Lines it is both painful and crucial: How can we address campus sexual assault without considering its causes?

Ultimately, Grigoriadis brings up questions around the nature of truth, the failures of communication, and the duty and our collective responsibility to believe each other and to right what has been wronged. Grigoriadis and I corresponded in October about Title IX, believing women, the importance of early consent education, and the distinction between personal and political choice.

Larissa Pham for Guernica

Guernica: How are you feeling about the current debate around Title IX? What was it like to write this book, as decisions around campus rape and Title IX escalated so abruptly (Donald Trump’s election, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s appointment) right before its publication? Did you have to make any changes or last-minute decisions?

Vanessa Grigoriadis: I don’t feel great about America’s debate about Title IX right now. Much of the quibbling centers on whether Obama’s 2011 federal guidance about campus courts was fair, or whether it robbed accused students of their “due process.” To me, this relentless focus on courts is wrong for two reasons. First, only a teeny-tiny fraction of students are accused each year of sexual assault and interact with a campus court. Second, focusing on the punishment piece of this issue (though, as Americans, we do love punishment) means we aren’t concentrating on exactly what we want to make out of this moment of social progress. Because even though Betsy DeVos has decided to blow up the current campus courts in favor of protecting accused boys—making sure they receive “due process”—it is, culturally, a moment of progress (Weinstein’s unmasking, the Shitty Media Men list, #metoo).

I think the better question is: How do we want sexual mores to shift, and what will that do for the American experience of both consensual and nonconsensual sex?

To take up your second question, yes, producing a book on a dramatically shifting topic was very stressful! Like many of us, I assumed Hillary’s victory was certain. I planned my book to end on the high note of overturning the patriarchy with the election of the first female president. On election night, when it became clear she might lose, I was in the middle of turning a first draft into a proper manuscript. This turn of events is bad for the country, but this is also really bad for my book. Yes. I thought that.

After a week or two, I finally stopped fretting and tried to think of Trump’s election as an opportunity. I didn’t shift my thesis but I added some lines, in the book’s introduction, to my description of the progressive awakening that has happened in this country over the last five years (“Trump’s presidency is a macroaggression”). I wanted Trump to be a specter from the book’s outset.

I also reported and wrote an entirely new chapter about the war over college sexual assault in DC for the end of the book. Once Trump announced that Betsy DeVos was going to be his Education Secretary—a few months before I finished the manuscript—I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen. He was going to overturn as much of what Obama did, and the attendant social progress, as he could.

In that chapter, I tell the story of the way that a conservative-leaning coalition banded together to fight Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill’s codification of Obama’s 2011 rules. The spark was Rolling Stone’s discredited 2014 story on UVA. The fraternities in that story banded together with some other frats shortly after the piece was debunked, and hired Trent Lott as their lobbyist. They formed a united front on this issue with conservatives, moms of accused boys, and libertarian attorneys and tried to get legislation that would change Obama’s rules through Congress a year or so later. They couldn’t do it. But of course with Trump’s election, these fortunes were reversed. This is the coalition now in charge of the sexual assault issue.

Guernica: I was impressed by the breadth of your references to pop culture narratives about college. How do you see pop culture influencing campus behavior and campus politics today? Do you think it’s truly affecting the way students practice activism, too?

Vanessa Grigoriadis: Thanks! I’m a staunch believer in the effect of pop culture—including advertising and the internet—on the young. Pop culture in its narrowest sense (mass-produced film, TV, and music) either truly reflects what’s up in youth culture, or it reflects what youth-filled focus groups have told marketing companies that they want to consume. This type of media puts forth a set of morals, standards, and rules that consumers then consciously or unconsciously enact in their own lives.

I don’t think we get the degree to which technological mediums like Snapchat and Instagram are also changing our relationships. I think we will learn down the line that they have created profound changes in our social and sexual lives.

In terms of activism, the Trump-era transformation of news into entertainment has had a deep effect on the way that collegiate politics are perceived. Campuses are a main flashpoint of the post-2016 culture wars about free speech, racism, and elite privilege. That’s undeniable.

In my book, I also chronicle the way a collegiate activist network, radiating from Yale around 2012, formed a shockingly effective organization to combat sexual assault. The ability of these activists to network and organize online is part of what allowed their ideas to spread far and wide. Namely, a refusal of shame about sexual assault and the prioritization of speaking your mind while using your real name—instead of a pseudonym given to you by a journalist. Those ideas were soon taken up by Lena Dunham, Lady Gaga, and Kesha. And now, with Harvey Weinstein’s unmasking, they’ve spread to the top of Hollywood.

An interesting reversal is happening right now. The college women who kicked all this off have been superseded in the mainstream media by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. And now a new group of college women—the ones in college now—are looking at Paltrow and Jolie as models for the appropriate way of dealing with sexual predators.

Guernica: You refer to your own politics throughout the book, noting how times have changed and observing how today’s generation of campus feminists operate under different ideologies than your own. To write about something is itself a political act, and some might argue that “neutrality” is also a conservative position. How did you navigate both a sense of journalistic objectivity—which is a remarked-upon characteristic of this book—and the politics inherent to writing about such a complicated subject?

Vanessa Grigoriadis: As a journalist, I try to be as fact-based and objective as possible, though I’m also aware that objectivity is an illusion. This way of moving through the world is what separates journalists from activists. But I also had a hard time squaring what I wanted to say narratively in the book with what I wanted to say politically. I would rather have told a simple narrative of victims’ fortitude. But I could not discount some of the stories I heard from accused boys. Some of the evidence that they showed me was persuasive. They were innocent, if not by the letter of the campus rules then by their spirit. The reason that these boys have gotten so much mainstream support—I’m referring to the many newspaper editorial boards who have taken their sides—is because journalists are reading the documents from their campus court cases and agreeing that something has gone terribly wrong.

These boys’ evidence made me think some bad actors may exist on campus. Some students may be accusing boys when the boys shouldn’t be accused. The other explanation for the evidence is that students may genuinely feel violated by a sexual act when a violation may not actually have occurred. I became very interested in this idea.

Guernica: Yes, this is a key part of the debate around how universities can handle sexual assault, and it’s certainly an arena where DeVos has been focusing a lot of attention in her efforts to roll back Title IX protections. But as you note, it seems that there’s clearly a population of students who have felt violated by a sexual act when a violation may not have occurred. That’s a problem for universities, who are arbitrating the outcomes of these complaints.

But how can we consider the fact that these students do feel violated, and they do feel wronged, and they do seek support? What options might they have? Where do you see this dynamic—not necessarily violations, even under a lighter burden of proof—fitting into the conversation about sexual assault on campus? How can we address this really sizable portion of students and their needs?

Vanessa Grigoriadis: If I had the answer to this question, I would have a bajillion dollars. That’s approximately how much universities are paying the administrators and educational specialists and consultants and lawyers advising them on exactly this point. I don’t have an answer beyond a) we need deeper sex ed and sex re-education in our K-12 schools; b) as tempting as it is to agree that if someone feels there was a violation, there was a violation, we should keep in mind that utopian ideas like that—and it is somewhat utopian—can lead to a vast backlash. On an individual level, I don’t have a problem with an individual feeling, and saying, that someone else has violated them. Have at it. The complication arises when punishment becomes involved.

Regarding punishment, we’ve learned from the downfall of Weinstein and other famous men not only that times have changed, but also that ostracism is an efficient tool. It reminds me of the tradition of bathroom lists of sexual assaulters at Brown beginning in 1990. Back then the administrators called the students who wrote them “magic marker terrorists” and threatened them with expulsion if caught. Now a Shitty Media Men list can dominate the news for days as HR departments across the coasts hastily assess their employees and their liability.

A year or so ago, a prominent reporter on the sexual assault beat and I had a conversation about punishment. We agreed that the campus courts are sort of fucked up, and also that victims don’t like going through them. And they rarely feel that punishments are severe enough, even when punishments include expulsion. So if justice isn’t served, why even go that way? The reporter and I agreed that social ostracism seemed like the best choice for many of the victims we’d met, particularly those without physical evidence (and thus likely to be badly served by courts). Name and shame.

Guernica: What do you think of these evolving ideas and definitions around what constitutes assault or violence, as well as what constitutes consent, within the larger context of this issue? At times, it feels as though you think some of the survivors are “going too far” with their accusations. But what if that’s really how they feel? Does it matter? Or what else should we expect from young people?

Vanessa Grigoriadis: Well, let’s start off by accepting that colleges are a unique space in our culture. They’re a temporary constellation of humans, like a workplace. And the rules about sexual assault and harassment in a workplace are narrow rules. They’re stricter than what’s considered criminal on a city street. By this logic, the same rules should exist at universities too.

At the same time, students at residential universities often live together and spend time on activities that aren’t connected with the university. Then, should the university’s rules about sexual consent extend to students’ private lives?

In my book, I argue that these narrow rules should extend to students’ private lives no matter what or where they happen to be conducting those lives. The logic is that sexual assault is a form of discrimination and denies the victim an equal education. The point of university life is to get that diploma and nothing should stand in the way.

I’m not sure Betsy DeVos agrees with this. It’s possible that down the line American universities will only be responsible for monitoring the sexual violence that happens in libraries and food courts and forget dorms, apartments, and parties. (DeVos isn’t saying this now, but her compatriots—presidents of Christian universities—have made this argument).

But if we agree that universities need to monitor sexual violence in various locations, and that they will require students to hew to a narrower set of rules than the wider world, how do we deal with putting these ideas into the brains of teenagers who have been schooled in the disgusting gender norms of our American culture for the previous eighteen years? This is the essential conundrum. Can we teach these relatively young dogs new tricks?

I believe that we can. But I also believe that upending ingrained ideas about what assault is (a gun to the head, a stranger, a parking lot) and what consent looks like (a woman who gives a no really means yes) is very messy. And part of the messiness is some students—and yes, usually these are liberal students—over-determining the definition of assault. Why have Harvey Weinstein’s victims won, and campus victims, in the post-DeVos era, essentially lost, in both the court of public opinion and on a policy level? Weinstein is a monster. And what campus victims are talking about has a lot more gray in it—many more complexities.

Guernica: It feels painful—and familiar—to read about students getting too drunk, in the hopes of lowering others’ inhibitions but also their own. To me, it reminds me of incidents where I’ve numbed myself with alcohol to avoid feeling the shame around doing something I wanted but didn’t want to ask for—that Syracuse good girl phenomenon. You’re also a supporter of enthusiastic consent. Do you think it’s possible that we could also work on eradicating rape culture by teaching about healthier narratives around sex?

Vanessa Grigoriadis: Yes! I agree with this one hundred percent. We need new cultural scripts. Women don’t say what we want, and we don’t say what we don’t want. Unless we’re reacting to a stranger, we generally aren’t great at turning down someone’s advance. And there are great guys out there who are confused about how to act and numb themselves with alcohol because of their own insecurities. I truly believe that. These are early, formative experiences, and thus important ones that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s clear from the number of college students who are loudly telling us that they are unhappy or violated by their sexual experiences that new rules are required.

Guernica: One of the central questions of this book is about communication—where it fails and how that affects young people.

Vanessa Grigoriadis: I make a strong case for poor sexual communication as the root cause of some assaults. I say some assaults because we know, as well, that there are dyed-in-wool, compulsive predators like Weinstein on campuses too. But there are guys we can reach here. Once again, I’d like to be optimistic in the way that we look at this problem. Let’s reach the students who will abide by a “yes means yes” standard and reeducate them to use it. And as more and more of them use it, others will adopt it too. We’re on our way to a new social norm and that’s a beautiful thing.

Guernica: I keep returning to a line in your concluding chapter: “My heart wanted to believe almost everyone.” If more than one truth can be true—which is how it feels sometimes, and maybe that’s the most important word, “feels”—what is our duty to each other? How do you think we ought to navigate this territory of truth-telling or truth-finding?

Vanessa Grigoriadis: After studying dozens of sexual assault cases, it is clear to me that the “he said/she said” aspect is a big part of what makes them fraught. Many experts agree with this. But that same fraught nature is reflected in both legal standards of consent and philosophical theories of consent.

Here are two ways of thinking of consent. First, consent may be what a reasonable person would define as consent. The definition of consent is held in the eye of some idealized beholder.

Often, in my reading of these cases, I believe that accused boys argue that by the “reasonable person” standard they didn’t do anything wrong. Yet these victims’ argument—that even if there is no evidence that they were violated, their word should be believed—is also persuasive.

These victims are often using a different theory of consent—the feminist theory of consent. This says that even if a victim behaves in a way from which a reasonable person could construe her as having consented, she didn’t consent unless she consented in her head. She didn’t have to express that lack of consent.

You have interests on both sides that are extraordinarily important and pressing (the boys don’t want to be kicked out of school; the victims need justice). How do you balance these interests? Everybody wants a standard of consent and a theory of consent that balances them. But the conceptual categories are hard to mix.

Guernica: In the conclusion, you also write: “I recognize believing [Sulkowicz] is a personal choice, and a political one too.” This statement surprised me somewhat, given how carefully you’ve handled the question of believing anyone. What does it mean that it’s a political choice? How does that affect the way you’ve brought up questions surrounding the utility of unerringly believing survivors?

Vanessa Grigoriadis: OK, this is a tough question.

I’m clear in this book that I come from a progressive background. My mom founded the first all women’s gallery in Soho in 1972. My dad was a progressive and a professor. I went to Wesleyan. But I tried to write this book with the perspective of a Gen-Xer—one who has not been exposed to all of those progressive ideas about sexual assault—in mind. The book is panoptic and tries to be as non-judgmental about the characters who have been swept up into this mess as possible. And it’s true that a dangerous combination of certainty and ignorance often shows up around sex and consent on campus. People on all sides of the issue have such strong feelings about it that they’re blinded to the facts.

The book is supposed to hold readers’ hands as they make the transition from a mainstream perspective on this subject—I believe most women, because I’d be an asshole not to, but at the same time I kind of think if the guys aren’t using guns women shouldn’t be calling it rape—to a progressive position. Thereby, although I note that I cannot as a journalist say that many of these cases are without flaws, I want to end up in a specific place. Believe women first. I think this is very important. We must believe women first, and if the evidence truly stacks against them—in a significant way, not just a minor way—then revise our position. I did not want readers to go away from the book thinking that I did not extend this courtesy to Emma herself, since her story forms the frame for the book. Emma’s story is not without flaws, but it does not have major flaws. And thus I chose to believe her. Politically, also, if we do not believe women we are not going to get anywhere on this subject. This is my greatest fear at the moment: that what happened with Rolling Stone’s UVA story could happen again. That story undermined the movement. In our victim-blaming culture, the progress made by the victims of Weinstein and Toback and O’Reilly will be undone in a flash if one of those victims is revealed as a liar. America loves a good story about rape. But it loves a story about fake rape and lying women much, much more.