Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, And Consent On Campus
In recent years, sexual assault on college and university campuses has become an increasingly controversial issue, drawing extreme media attention and fueling highly politicized debates. Vanessa Grigoriadis expands coverage of this widely contested issue with Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus. Relying on over 200 interviews with college and university students, administrators, and experts, she deliberately presents a mystifying narrative of institutional betrayal. Grigoriadis, a journalist, is certain that campus sexual violence across the United States is a uniquely challenging social problem. Undoubtedly, this assertion matches the perspectives of many criminal justice scholars.
Grigoriadis begins the book with her interview of Emma Sulkowicz who is a college student known for carrying around a mattress on the campus of Columbia University. With this description, Grigoriadis sets the stage for what becomes evident throughout most of the remaining pages – her internal battle over and lack of resolve about how to best address sexual assault on college and university campuses. Meanwhile, she mostly focuses her attention on students’ personal accounts of sex and experiences with campus sexuality. These students overwhelmingly represent Wesleyan University, her own alma mater, as well as Syracuse University, dubbed the nation’s “Number One Party School” at the time of her writing (p. 20). The book is structured in three main parts (with additional preface, introduction, conclusion, and appendix sections), focusing on what students may deem “consensual” (chapters one through three), what students may consider “nonconsensual” (chapters 4 through 8), and what students may or may not have at their disposal to deal with sexual violence at their schools (chapters 9 through 13). The third part, “The Man,” highlights the struggles that students often endure when attempting to find appropriate remedies and resources pertinent to sexual assault on campus. Finally, the author makes a few of her own recommendations to students, parents, and postsecondary institutions in the last section of the book.
Grigoriadis describes contemporary college life as “Planet College,” which allegedly exists in a foreign realm. The first part of the book highlights that while modern college and university students appear to be having less sex than previous generations, they are doing so more “casually,” and according to Grigoriadis, with greater risk of harm. She contends, in the second chapter, that students use new euphemisms for “hooking up,” to talk openly about sex, either belonging to a small “hookup-happy” cohort, or just wanting people to think they have more sex (p. 32). She reports that the new generation is also “deeply familiar with porn” (p. 33), referring to a “pornified” popular culture (p. 49).
Grigoriadis is convinced that pornography has contributed to unrealistic sexual expectations among college men and women alike. However, in the third chapter, she is quick to point out that her opinions about pornography do not fall in line with typical feminist discussions of the subject (p. 51). Nevertheless, she waffles back and forth, emphasizing the danger of blending the complicated social scripts of hookup culture, pornography, and alcohol on campuses. But, in light of her confusion about sexual assault, what is most important about the first part of the book is that her discussion runs parallel to peer-reviewed research demonstrating that college and university students may not recognize sexual violence, even after experiencing it themselves (Bay-Cheng & Eliseo-Arras, 2008; Walker, 1997).
The second part of Blurred Lines aptly describes liberalized shifts toward understanding sexual wrongdoing. Grigoriadis discusses definitional changes in American notions of what may constitute “sexual assault” and openly states that she “shouldn’t pretend, though, that [her] ideas about assault fall entirely within the bounds of millennial feminist thought” (p. 68). She situates the evolving concept of “acquaintance rape” against the backdrop of Title IX legislation, discussing the Obama-era efforts to respond to widespread mishandling of sexual assault complaints by college and universities in the United States.
In this discussion, Grigoriadis makes note of the “up-swelling” of “all rape talk all the time” in the fifth chapter, empowering some survivors to speak their truth publicly, but exposing others’ frustration with such a public approach (p. 94). She also sheds light on some of the major legal issues with sexual assault crimes, notably that there are often no witnesses to sexual violence and that DNA evidence alone cannot prove nonconsensual sexual activities occurred. Further, the author presents an accessible and targeted depiction of mental health issues surrounding sexual assault, the secondary victimization that may follow reporting such crimes, and the overall difficulty in determining the prevalence of rape at colleges and universities.
Next, Blurred Lines features interviews with victimization scholars. One researcher, Christopher Krebs of RTI International, designed the 2007 campus sexual assault survey that the Obama administration ultimately used to show that sexual violence was a frequent reality at American colleges and universities. Strikingly, the results of this survey suggest that one-in-five women will become sexually victimized during their time at a four-year college or university. The second researcher interviewed, Callie Rennison, is the co-director of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Research Initiative at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs.
In her analysis, Grigoriadis points out that institutional surveys of sexual assault “are not only school-specific but also tend to represent only a small percentage of each university’s students because surveys aren’t typically mandatory” (p. 113). Moreover, she mentions that it is possible that students who choose to take these surveys are drawn in because they have experiences with sexual violence, which would skew a purportedly random sample. Demonstrating a balanced narrative, Grigoriadis utilizes her discussions with the researchers to present two opposing viewpoints on the Obama-era “one-in-five” statistic. Importantly, she does not shy away from acknowledging the methodological difficulties inherent in determining the prevalence of rape at institutions of higher education.
Where Grigoriadis falters is in her discussion of the affirmative consent movement on campuses, as she is somehow bent on promoting affirmative consent, despite noting major theoretical limitations with that concept. In the sixth chapter, she states that “the situation about what consent is and isn’t is chaos,” and she asserts (with evidence from a 2015 Washington Post poll) that most college and university students do not consider “yes” as part of the typical sexual script (p. 127). And yet, it is unclear why Grigoriadis believes pushing affirmative consent on college and university campuses will reduce sexual assault when she has maintained that many students are unsettled about what constitutes sexual wrongdoing in the first place.
Blurred Lines subsequently features interviews with students who are accused of sexual assault and mothers of alleged perpetrators of school sexual violence, painting a particularly dismal picture of the legal battles waged on this turf. Surprisingly, Grigoriadis ends this part of the book with an account of the infamous Vanderbilt University rape case. She writes that the four Vanderbilt Commodores football players who assaulted an unconscious student “transformed into monsters, ruining their lives and their victim’s in the process” (p. 157). Here, however, she seems unable to maintain impartiality and makes statements that run counter to her research. She names the Vanderbilt rape case as “somehow emblematic of the whole issue,” despite noting on the same page that gang rapes make up a relatively small number of sexual assault allegations on college and university campuses (p. 157). This admittedly particularly heinous act does not seem in any way representative of the other depictions of sexual wrongdoing presented in the book.
Moving on to institutional responses to sexual assault, the author describes bystander training and anti-assault programming common to college campuses in the United States. Risk reduction tactics and prevention efforts largely have been done away with, she explains, due to their inability to effectively deter perpetrators and their tendency to be construed as victim blaming. At this point, in the third major part of the book, Grigoriadis returns to a more nuanced view of sexual violence. She effectively discusses the American move away from risk reduction tactics, while presenting empirically validated benefits of certain risk reduction programs. In the tenth chapter, she states that risk reduction programs should be regarded “as a way to achieve a short-term goal,” while reasoning that bystander intervention should be thought of “as a way to achieve a long-range one” (p. 219). In addition, she makes the recommendation to eliminate or at least coeducate fraternities. She is clear that even though fraternity members do not perpetuate a majority of sexual assaults on campus, the attitudes and culture surrounding fraternity life may be considered harmful nevertheless.
In the end, the author leaves the reader with a list of recommendations to students, parents, and the institutions themselves. This appendix, providing eleven pages of concrete guidance to students, parents, and colleges and universities, seems antithetical to her research demonstrating the difficulties with adjudicating campus sexual assault. But, that being said, most of Blurred Lines reads as being even-keeled, testifying to Vanessa Grigoriadis’ commitment to meticulously telling the stories of individuals impacted by sexual violence on campus.
Bay-Cheng, L., & Eliseo-Arras, R. (2008). The making of unwanted sex: Gendered and neoliberal norms in college women’s unwanted sexual experiences. Journal of Sex Research, 45(4), 386-397. doi:10.1080/00224490802398381
Walker, S. (1997). When “no” becomes “yes”: Why girls and women consent to unwanted sex. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 6(3), 157-166. doi:10.1016/s0962-1849(97)80003-0
Andrea Giuffre, Graduate Student, Department of Criminal Justice, Seattle University
David Patrick Connor, Assistant Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, Seattle University