Blurred Lines, sexual assault
Photo credit: Thomas Hawk / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Weinstein sexual harassment story is just an example of behavioral patterns that have long been playing out on college campuses.

Harvey Weinstein may be just the tip of the iceberg in Hollywood, but he’s also emblematic of a debate that has been raging for over a decade on US campuses. “Yes Means Yes” “We Believe You” “It’s Never Her Fault” — these are just a few bywords of a new sexual revolution playing out now in colleges and universities across America. The changes may be redefining what constitutes consent, assault and rape. Additionally, they may force us to look anew at how we think about gender and power.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to Vanessa Grigoriadis, a National Magazine Award winner and the author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus.

Grigoriadis talks about how civil rights laws are being used to combat rape on campus, the far-reaching campus anti-rape policies that took hold during the Obama presidency, and how President Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reversing all of that.

She talks about the men who say their lives were destroyed by false accusations, the timidity of college administrators in dealing with this issue, and how some on campus believe that the increase in sexual assaults may be part of a backlash against women’s increasing power. What’s clear in this conversation is that neither side in the debate is really listening to the other.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. The debate about how we deal with sexual assault is nothing new. It’s been, in fact, playing out on college campuses for well over a decade. It is, among other things, redefining a new sexual revolution in America. The danger is that if nothing is done about what’s going on on our campuses, we may be raising a whole new generation of Harvey Weinsteins.
By redefining the meaning of consent on campus, assault and rape, we are, whether we like it or not, rethinking issues of gender and power and basic civil rights. The problem is that the debate about these sensitive social, human, and almost primal issues has become conflated with our politics and with our higher education system. We are finding out once again that it’s really difficult to fine tune human interactions in the cacophony of a boiler factory.
This is our focus this week as we talk with my guest Vanessa Grigoriadisadis. She’s a contributing editor at The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair. She’s written extensively about pop culture and youth movements. She’s the author of the recent book ‘Blurred Lines’ and it is my pleasure to welcome her here to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Vanessa, thanks so much for joining us.
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Thank you for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Your interest in this subject, particularly what’s going on on campuses today, began long before the current discussion of Harvey Weinstein. It began actually with an incident that took place a number of years ago that people may remember at Columbia University. Tell us a little bit about that first.
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Many people may recall that a student named Emma Sulkowicz began carrying a mattress around the Columbia campus in 2014. She said she was going to carry that mattress until the university expels the boy who she said attacked her or until graduation. They had formerly said they would not punish him.
Jeff Schechtman: What was the attitude of Columbia at the time and what was the general tenor of the university with respect to these kinds of situations?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Columbia at the time, I would say that they were taking allegations of sexual assault fairly seriously, but not as seriously as they needed to. They were definitely being very slow in processing cases. They were probably not looking at all of the evidence that they needed to. It’s also very important to remember that sexual assault is really hard to prove, particularly if there’s no physical injuries, and thereby, they were caught a bit in this conundrum.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about this whole business of trying to define what constitutes sexual assault and in particularly on campuses and with respect to cases like this one.
Vanessa Grigoriadis: The definition of sexual assault is really a hard one, right? Not everybody agrees on what sexual assault is. You could argue that if we all agreed, Donald Trump wouldn’t be President because some people … yeah. It’s true. Some people saw what he did after the Access Hollywood tape came out, a bunch of women came out and said, “He touched me inappropriately in a nightclub. He grabbed me and kissed me and wouldn’t let me go.” Those things are sexual assault, but many Americans think those are just boys will be boys. That’s just groping. Groping’s … it’s not great, but it’s no big deal.
Jeff Schechtman: Why has it been a different debate seemingly on college campuses? Certainly there is a pretty high incident of assaults and rapes that take place outside of campuses. What has caused this particular focus on what’s going on on college campuses?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Obama really made a significant push to fix this problem on college campuses. He insisted that Title IX, which is the statute that protects women from gender discrimination on college campuses, was needed to come into play here. Universities needed to understand that they had an obligation to keep their students safe, to make sure that they didn’t suffer sexual assault.
If you suffer sexual assault, there’s a fairly high likelihood you’re also going to become depressed, you’re also going to be very anxious. You may have a really hard time studying and you can’t concentrate because you’re so upset, your grades are going to suffer. That is a form of inequality in college that women should … that needs to be addressed by the government and universities.
Jeff Schechtman: Has a mistake been made by focusing so much on Title IX as a way to redress this? Might it have been approached differently?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: I don’t think so. The only other option we have currently in this country is for victims to go to the police. We have many, many stories of victims going to the police and feeling that the police don’t take their cases seriously. Certainly you have to remember these aren’t cases of a man holding a gun to a woman’s head or a man holding a knife to her throat or even physical violence that creates physical evidence like blood and bruises. These are cases … we call this date rape, right? These are cases of boys not letting the night end even when a woman says, “I want to leave. I don’t want to do this” largely because they’re taught by our culture that a real man has sex at any cost.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about what has changed in terms of the way universities have begun to deal with this over the past 10 years or so.
Vanessa Grigoriadis: It’s really the change has really happened since 2011, which is when Obama got involved here and his Office for Civil Rights decided to take a significant stand on the issue. What’s changed is that you can’t get away with it anymore. This is of course if the woman chooses to report to the university, which is very, very, very rare.
We have a sense to just being regular consumers of media stories about all of these cases on college campuses about sexual assault and how universities aren’t doing a good job. That boys are just being brought up on charges to the administration of Cal every day. Across the entire country, there were only 6,000 cases reported in 2014 and we have 22,000,000 college students. 6,000 cases. That’s what’s giving us the impression that this is going on all over the place.
Jeff Schechtman: As the Obama Administration put these rules in place, as there was more focus and attention on this, did it set up a procedure, a system, an attitude that has made it easier going forward or do you feel that we’re sliding back now?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: There’s a big question about what Betsy DeVos will do. She certainly has come out to say that she is going to change Obama’s system and there’s simply no question that she will. How severe the changes will be, we don’t really know yet. She wants to most likely take the cases out of the hands of the universities, put them in some unknown centralized reporting system she described.
The jury’s still out on that. We’ll have to see. The important thing to remember is that the cases, the adjudication system, the 6,000 cases across the entire country are not the real problem. The real problem is reeducating our kids so they understand how to protect themselves from sexual assault and how to not be a victim of an accusation of sexual assault. That’s really what my book describes.
Jeff Schechtman: Right. Talk about efforts that have been successful both in this country and even in Canada. Efforts that have been successful in trying to mitigate some of this.
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Sure. At the moment in the U.S., our colleges are doing an extremely bad job of trying to reeducate college students in how to understand how to behave in a respectful and ethical manner towards other students. That’s what they’re trying to do. It’s really hard to do because by the time an 18-year-old arrives at college, he’s already been socialized in all the pop music and the media that is very kind of crass about sex and makes women into sex objects. This education in California is going to start earlier.
In middle and high school, kids are not going to only learn about put a condom on a banana and this is how you do it and see some pictures of STDs that scare them, but they’re also going to learn “This is what consent is. This is how you respect your partner.” California’s a big leader in this. In terms of Canada, Canada has been a leader in the college reeducation. What they have come up with … and they just gave $1,000,000 to the researcher who came up with this idea and are going to have her expand it for universities across the country.
What they are promoting is something called Empowerment Self-Defense, which means that not only do girls learn how to defend themselves physically against an attack, because if you are ever assaulted, the best thing to know is not to beg or plead or cry, it’s to yell and scream and push and act assertively. That is your better chance of thwarting an assault. That goes for strangers, too. They’re teaching girls not only that physical aspect, but they’re also teaching them how to have sexual self-confidence.
Jeff Schechtman: Do we need to also be moving simultaneously to try and achieve a greater consensus about what constitutes sexual assault and the degree to which that might help in dealing with these cases?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Oh, we absolutely need to move towards that. We need to move towards an understanding of what constitutes sexual assault. There’s no question that there is not a national agreement on that, that a 50-year-old does not have the same definition as a UC Santa Cruz student who is 20 years old.
We have to remember that while I just spoke a bit about dignified sex and ethical sex and thoughtful sex and how we must teach our children how to have it, that children who are 20 years old can sometimes overdetermine things. They can overanalyze and they are calling something sexual assault when they may just kind of be bad sex. They don’t have enough experience to really see the difference and know where the line is.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a difference in what we’re seeing in public universities versus private universities?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: I don’t really think there’s a big difference. The big difference is that if it’s a residential university, that’s where the risk is. Because the kids live together, they live unsupervised. The drinking has been pushed off of campuses by universities because the university doesn’t want the legal risk, right? They are largely dealing … they have a lot of leisure time.
They’re hanging out with other kids of their age all the time. This is where the risk lies. 18 to 24-year-old young women in America are the most at-risk group for sexual assault. It’s not because they’re just young and it’s partially because they are naïve, but it’s also because they spend a lot of time hanging out with guys that they just don’t know very well.
There’s just a lot of socializing that goes on when you don’t have work responsibilities, you may not have family responsibilities, etc. That’s really where the problem is happening. We really need, universities really need to recognize that the structure of college is part of the problem here.
Jeff Schechtman: Does that need to be addressed in this whole … looking at the whole scope of this?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: 100%. It’s, to me on the face of it, it is preposterous that we are sitting around talking about the adjudication system and whether it is a good one or not. Some infinitesimal percentage of students will ever have a sexual assault case that rises to the point of actually being in that adjudication system. How can we talk about sexual assault on campus and not talk about not all fraternities, but the bad fraternity. Every campus has the bad fraternity, right? The one where guys take advantage of girls and everybody knows it.
How do we root out that fraternity? How do we root out the gang rape problem that exists among football teams? Very well-documented. Nobody wants to talk about that stuff because fraternities are really important to alums who give a lot of money to the school. Football teams, my God, college football brings in more money for colleges than anything else. College football teams now create more revenue than the NHL. Those are the real issues. That’s what we need to talk about.
Jeff Schechtman: What about the legal liability that these universities face and has that not been a driver of having them address some of these issues?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Yeah. Look, it’s true that colleges are very frightened of their legal liabilities here, right? They’re frightened of lawsuits from the girls, they’re frightened of lawsuits from the boys, they’re frightened of lawsuits from really anybody on a college campus. I guess we just don’t really know, again because this is happening behind a shroud of secrecy, how much of these challenges really hold weight.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the attitudes of the guys on these college campuses and the degree to which they’re aware that this has become such a critical issue and whether their attitudes have started to change at all.
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Oh, guys, there’s been a wild shift in the way the guys think about sexual assault, how seriously they take it. They are becoming woke. To be cool now, particularly on a California campus, is to be woke even though we’re in a moment of backlash where the alt right is becoming also a cool counterculture on college campuses. There’s many students who come in at 19 and say, “Oh, come on. This university is just telling me to be so PC. Any sex I have now is considered sexual assault. Look at all these snowflakes.”
19-year-olds like to be anti-authoritarian. They like to be contrarian, so we may be entering a moment where a lot of this diminishes. For now, there’s no question that guys are much more aware that sexual assault is real, that they bear responsibility in stopping it. There’s a new norm among men and their friends to make sure if a girl has beer goggles on and you take her home, that doesn’t mean you get a high five in the morning. That just means that other guys look at you and think you’re kind of creepy, dude.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of that comes out of what’s been the consequences and the price that some young men have paid in these situations?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: That’s really hard to know because people who study this say deterrence doesn’t work. You can’t just scare somebody into something. In this case, deterrence may work because any guy who sees the effect of being accused of sexual assault on one of their friends is going to be real sure that he never wants that to happen to him.
Jeff Schechtman: You’ve mentioned a couple of times the alcohol component. That’s certainly a huge part of this and a huge part of what’s going on on campuses. Talk a little bit about what your reporting tells you about the degree to which that’s such an integral part of this whole discussion.
Vanessa Grigoriadis: I think that alcohol is the most integral part because we know that a passed-out girl is the number one most at-risk person on a campus. It just doesn’t happen that often in the real world. You don’t have people in bars drinking to excess, maybe even passing out in the bar, passing out when they go home with a guy they don’t know. I had a sorority sister say to me: “You have a lot of sex on college campuses with guys that you just met that night”, but I don’t think you would do that in the real world.
In the real world, if I went to a bar and I met a guy, I wouldn’t go home with him because he’s a stranger. Well, wait a second. What’s the difference between that guy who’s a stranger in a bar “in the real world” and a guy that you met at a college bar who just so happens to be on the soccer team with a friend of a friend of yours? That guy’s a stranger, too.
Jeff Schechtman: What’s the answer to that when you ask young women that? What answer do you get?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: I just think the answer is just that everybody needs to be a little more conscious. Women need to understand that person is a stranger. I should have my guard up. He can take my number, I can take his number. We can even make out in the back of the bar, but I need to go home with my girlfriends tonight and I need to decide whether I want to have sex with this person when I have my wits about me.
Again, I’m not talking about regulating sex among adults, which I would feel really uncomfortable with saying everybody needs to make sure that they’re not drunk when they decide to have sex with somebody they don’t know. That’s ridiculous, okay? These are children. These are 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds. They may be virgins. They may have had one partner or two partners, three partners. Just think of it in terms of what we think is decent sexual behavior among adults. This is just apples and oranges.
Jeff Schechtman: Finally, do you think that the focus will stay on this issue for a while? That obviously as you mentioned before, depending on what the Betsy DeVos and others do, but do you think this is an issue that’s here to stay right now?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: I think it’s here to stay, yes, because the people who are in college now are taking it seriously. It’s the students themselves who are the change agents. The students themselves are talking about this. Look, this is pretty interesting stuff, right? What’s consent? What’s ethical in sex? What does it mean to have permission to have sex with somebody else? These are almost philosophical questions and they don’t have black and white answers. Undergraduates, that’s why they’re in college. To think about issues just like this.
Jeff Schechtman: Vanessa Grigoriadisadis. Vanessa, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from young man (Joey Yee / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0) and Blurred Lines (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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