Vanessa Grigoriadis on the 'Blurred Lines' of Consensual Sex and Assault on Campus

Is rape culture out of control, or have we entered a new era of "sexual McCarthyism?"


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"Young women are really putting their foot down and saying, 'These are our bodies,'" says Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of the new book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus. "'We don't care what you, 55-year-old college president, think is consent.'"

From the conviction of Vanderbilt University football players for raping an unconscious student to the he-said-she-said story behind Columbia University's "mattress girl" to the discredited Rolling Stone account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia, few topics generate more emotion and outrage than sexual assault on college campuses.

Grigoriadis's book is a deeply researched and nuanced take on campus relationships and the often-fuzzy boundary separating consensual sex from assault. Over the past three years, she interviewed over 100 students and 80 administrators on 20 different campuses, and her findings further complicate an already complicated story.

Millennial college students are actually having less sex than their baby boomer and Gen X counterparts did, writes Grigoriadis, but today's encounters take place in a hyper-sexualized and "pornified" social media context that has rewritten the rules of consent and privacy.

The result is confusion and recriminations from all sides when it comes to sex and assault on campuses. Are assault rates and rape culture out of control, or have we entered what left-wing Northwestern Professor Laura Kipnis has called a new era of "sexual McCarthyism?"

In a wide-ranging interview, Reason's Nick Gillespie and Grigoriadis, a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who writes for Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine, grapple with this question, the proper role of campus tribunals in administering justice, what constitutes due process for alleged offenders as well as victims, and whether a "yes means yes" affirmative-consent standard should be the norm.

Edited by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Andrew Heaton. Music by Silent Partner.

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This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Gillespie: Your book is not only richly reported, it's filled with interviews with dozens, if not hundreds of students, administrators, researchers … It's a deeply nuanced look as a subject that typically evokes really sharply polarized positions. But you write, 'It's tempting to chant "believe woman" and simply leave it at that, but there's a mushy middle here or a blurry middle.' Describe what you mean by that mushy middle or blurry middle.

Grigoriadis: I went to 20 campuses. I talked to students themselves, tried to interact as a peer, not as an adult coming, asking weird intrusive questions, right? I'm kind of a gonzo journalist out of the Rolling Stone mold. I put on a backpack, I look relatively young, not like a gen X mother of two, which is what I actually am. And went to campus food courts, went to frat parties … I took my babysitter's ID, she's 24-years-old. So I would take that with me to campuses so I could show that to bouncers at college bars, and at frat parties to get in, so that the person wouldn't think that I was using the worst fake ID in the world of my actual age in the 1970s.

So, I spoke with these students and what I learned is, yes, of course, there is rape on campus. And I'm talking about physically violent rape, where a woman's will is overridden, and also, rape of women and men who are passed out from drinking, right? Almost like a necrophilia kind of thing. It's really repulsive. But much more often, what I was finding is people, kids, talking to me about cases that were blurry. And they weren't blurry in terms of the way we might have once thought about sexual assault, where a woman just kind of protests and says, 'No, no, no,' but the guy knows that this is just a faux thing.

Gillespie: Right. I mean, it's not the Hollywood fantasy of the '40s or even the '60s of where, 'No, no, no,' and then the kiss and it dissolves into a marriage scene or something.

Grigoriadis: Right, exactly.

Gillespie: I mean, these are genuinely cases of … Apart from the clear cases of assault, there are things-

Grigoriadis: There are cases-

Gillespie: … where everybody is unclear about what exactly transpired.

Grigoriadis: Sure. These are cases about misconstrued consent, right? Nobody watching this, you and I probably do not have the same definition of consent. There is no nationwide definition. There's not even a cusp millennial definition. But right now, young women are really putting their foot down and saying, "These are our bodies, and we want a new definition, and we're driving this train. So we don't really care what you, 45-year-old mom in the suburbs, think is consent. And we don't care what you, 55-year-old college president, think is consent. These are our bodies, and this is what we say is fair."

Gillespie: What is driving that sense of what you found? A real sense of empowerment, and there's an assistance there. There's not always a radical coherence, but what is driving that sense of, look, these are our bodies, and we're going to do with them … We control them, nobody else does.

Grigoriadis: Sure. I mean, I think it's part of the radicalism that spread on campus, right? Starting in … a couple of years ago, but actually, even a bit further back, and even further back than that. When Obama was elected, there was an immediate rise of these female pop stars like Beyonce and Rihanna and Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, and all of these non-manufactured stars whose message is one message, and it's 'girl power.' And it's 'girls are in control.' And it's I may stand here in a bikini, singing my song, but I'm objectifying myself and I will always be in control sexually and professionally and in the home. This is the time for girls to rule. And there's a whole edifice of female-centric media from Jezebel to Bustle to even Cosmo today, that are purveyors of the most radical feminist thought that I have heard outside of 1977.

Gillespie: But in that, it's also … It contravenes a lot of more traditional feminism, in terms of it's highly sexualized in a lot of ways that at various points, going back to … You know, whether it's Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, or Betty Friedan. This is a highly sexualized, highly public perspective that even a lot of older feminists are uncomfortable with.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: But is that one of the sources of confusion? Because men or boys see that … I mean, even some women see it one day. Even men and boys see it another way.

Grigoriadis: Yes. Right. It's absolutely-

Gillespie: And I guess the question that, I'm sorry, the question that I'm asking is what has happened concurrently with millennial boys? Because they're growing up in the same world. They're growing up in a world of public privacy, almost, where the body is much more displayed in all forms. Why aren't they getting the message that the girls are sending?

Grigoriadis: Well, look, this is a very confusing moment. Okay? We have kids today who are just … They're searching for likes. That's all they're doing all day. They're putting pictures up. I mean, it's completely visually-based culture now. It's Instagram and Snapchat all the time, and those pictures, they want attention for them, and the best way to get attention if you're a girl is to put up a provocative photo. If you show some flesh, you're going to get a lot of likes. If you're a college freshman girl, you know that.

This is happening at the same time when almost a pornofied look is what we see among our reality stars, it's what we see … TV anchors who are female, outside of Candy Crowley, can't even be on TV unless they're in a tank top. So there's no question that the standard for the sexualization of the female in the public eye, and everybody's in the public eye now, has just risen astronomically. And, I'm not going to sit here and say that boys who are growing up in a time in American culture that has taught them that girls who look slutty may also be slutty, that when girls look a certain way, it means that they may be offering something sexually, are not going to be confused by this intensely sexualized and sex-positive moment. Because these girls, in addition to sexualizing themselves, are trying to also foster within themselves a female sexual empowerment. A feeling that, 'This is my body. Boys, stay away until I tell you what you can do.'

Gillespie: Obviously the book is partly about both women talking about that, and they're confused by it as well as boys or men on campus. Your book begins and ends with a discussion of what's probably the most publicized story of the past several years about sex and assault on campus; the 2013 case involving Columbia students Emma Sulkowicz and Paul Nungesser. Sulkowicz accused Nungesser of rape during an encounter that they both agreed began as consensual. He was cleared of wrongdoing by a campus hearing.

Grigoriadis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gillespie: She protested that by carrying a mattress as part of an art project around for her entire senior year, including to graduation. Just a few weeks ago, Nungesser received a confidential settlement from Columbia University, which he brought under Title IX, the gender equity statement saying that they had failed to provide a welcoming environment for him. They subjected him to harassment based on gender terms.

Grigoriadis: I'm not sure if that was the settlement. That was the law settlement.

Gillespie: Well, that was the lawsuit, but-

Grigoriadis: Was that the lawsuit that they settled?

Gillespie: Yes. Yeah, it was the-

Grigoriadis: Was that-

Gillespie: … upended hearing.

Grigoriadis: 'Cause I thought there were two.

Gillespie: Yeah, it was the second-

Grigoriadis: Okay. All right, okay.

Gillespie: But in any case, why is … You begin and end the book with that. Why is that case emblematic of the blurred lines of your title?

Grigoriadis: Okay. Well, you know, first of all, what happened between Emma and Paul, what she alleges is that they had had oral sex, they had had vaginal sex, and it escalated to anal sex, which they had perhaps had before, and at that point, it became rape. Not everybody in America agrees that once you're in the bed and you've done some intercourse, that anything else that happens there is not fair game. Right? I don't agree with that. But the fact is, is that many Americans would feel that way. That was the first thing that was complicated about her story.

The second thing is, is that on an evidence tip, like many of these cases, there's really no evidence to be had here. We don't have the photos that demonstrate exactly what he did. We don't really know, in the end. And what you think about that case probably has a lot to do with your own feeling about what should constitute sexual assault, what is a fair standard of evidence. Right? If we know she doesn't have much, then what did Columbia really do wrong, right?

Gillespie: Well, one thing that Nungesser alleged was that at the initial hearings, he was not allowed to provide exculpatory evidence; emails, text messages, Facebook messages, things like that.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: What I'm getting at is there's her side, and that raises both in terms of her narrative, which he either challenges or not, but then is it also a case not simply about sexual assault, but also about due process, and whether or not these things should be adjudicated on campus or … Nobody would say if there was a murder on campus, that you would say, okay, well, we'll get a bunch of faculty members, a student representative, and an administrator to try that case. There are multiple ways in which this is a blurry issue.

Grigoriadis: Right. When Emma got attacked for not taking her case to the cops, which a lot of New York media said, 'Well, why didn't you do that?' She went to the cops.

Gillespie: Right. She did file a police report.

Grigoriadis: And they didn't take her case. So why are we so sure that the police, who have historically had a terrible record with rape, and let's remember, we are talking about date rape here, for the most part, right? We are not talking about blood and bruises and physical evidence. The vagina is built to have a baby come out of it. There has to be a hell of a lot of force going on, right?

Gillespie: Right.

Grigoriadis: And even when there is a hell of a lot of force, there's not always physical evidence. That's why the cops don't want anything to do with this. The prosecutors know that some weird college case that's about consent is one real hot political potato, and they don't want a hot potato. They don't want anything to do with that. So, to me, this is really just a red herring in this whole conversation, because we know they're not going to take care of it, at least in the short term. Maybe down the line, the police will better, et cetera. But right now, what we're talking about is new sexual standards, new standards of sexual ethics, and the universities can be involved.

Secondly, the case with Emma and Paul took place at Columbia. I want to say that was 2013. That was four years ago. There has been a vast change on campuses with the amount of money that they've put into these kind of departments, the training that they've given to their officers. Columbia now supplies attorneys on both sides, okay? DeVos said all of this mumbo jumbo about how these cases, nobody even knows that the charges are against them, and blah blah blah blah blah blah. I don't think that's the case, not at our prestigious universities anymore. Universities would have to have a death wish to not be upholding due process in campus sexual assault cases at this point.

Gillespie: Right.

Grigoriadis: They know the press is coming after them. They know they're going to get litigated.

Gillespie: Is that-

Grigoriadis: They know they're getting an OCR investigation.

Gillespie: Is that a bad … And that's Office of Civil Rights. Is that a bad outcome in terms of process? Because it does seem … There are many cases that get reported, where due process is pretty sloppy, including people like Laura Kipnis, who's a professor at Northwestern, who had a case where a hostile workplace case under Title IX was brought against her because of an article she had written in The Chronicle of Higher Education by grad students. She, in her book, her recent book, she was not allowed to have any kind of representation. And I agree, it's shifting constantly. But it seems you're kind of skeptical about due process claims.

Grigoriadis: I'm not skeptical that due process has not been abrogated in some of these cases, but what I think people should understand is, universities are getting better all the time at handling these cases. They also need to understand that universities are bound by the federal privacy regulations that do not allow them to comment on any individual case. Thereby, when you read something about there being an investigation from OCR or what we see much more often now are the complaints from the accused boys being posted by their lawyers, being posted on DocumentCloud. That is just the accused boy's story. I didn't hear the girl's part. It didn't get that far in the court yet. Right?

And the article that says OCR is investigating Wesleyan University or whatever, that, one, never has the comeback from the university. The university will never be able to speak on what they actually think happened with Emma and Paul. They'll never speak on what happened in any of these cases.

Gillespie: We do know, though, that they found him innocent of the charges. So there is that, which seems to be not a small thing.

Grigoriadis: My point to that would also be, so he got a settlement? What was that settlement? They already found him innocent. That just seems to me to be more media manipulation of the story. You know?

Gillespie: Yeah.

Grigoriadis: I'm not saying that what happened at Columbia in 2013 with Emma and Paul's case was good, because I don't think it was. Okay? I think Columbia was acting very sloppily back then, but I think they've changed.

Gillespie: Okay.

Grigoriadis: And I think a lot of universities have changed, and they're not getting their due here.

Gillespie: Well, I guess the press is always lagging in that sense, or people pick up on stories. But let's talk a little bit about the reality of sex on campus. One of the things … First, in terms of the actual activity, or sexual activity, and then in terms of assault. 'Cause one of the things … Your book, which is fascinating and is … I don't want to say even handed, because that seems like it's on the one hand, on the other. But you look at what's going on. What sexual activity … and this is something every older generation or the minute that you graduate from college, you assume that the freshman are having tons more sex and better sex, or more weird sex.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: And all of that. But also then, as you get older, you're like, oh my god, it's beyond Animal House. It's like Animal House and Thunderdome. What's going on in terms of rates of sex among today's college students, as well as rates of assault?

Grigoriadis: Okay, so rates of sex and rates of sexual assault don't seem to really be up. The average student has eight hookups over the course of college, and that can be any sort of sexual activity.

Gillespie: That's from a make out session to …

Grigoriadis: Right, to intercourse.

Gillespie: Yeah.

Grigoriadis: Exactly. 20% of college students graduate as virgins.

Gillespie: Right.

Grigoriadis: So there's certainly not as much sex.

Gillespie: And it's interesting because only 8% showed up at college as virgins, so that's very complex.

Grigoriadis: Right, exactly. The fact is that what's really going on is early sexual experiences, and these are early sexual experiences, right? The average age I think is 17 of losing your virginity in the country.

Gillespie: And this is something that has radically changed from the baby boom through now, higher rates of people graduate high school without having sexual experience, et cetera.

Grigoriadis: Sure. And we know that the more that kids are on their phones, the less actual, in-real-life sex is happening.

Gillespie: Curse you, Alexander Graham Bell.

Grigoriadis: Yeah. I mean, the relationship-

Gillespie: Steve Jobs.

Grigoriadis: … with the hand is now the central relationship in college.

Gillespie: You know, back in my day, the relationship with the hand was also central, but there was no phone in it, sadly.

Grigoriadis: We're going full circle.

Gillespie: Yeah.

Grigoriadis: The issue is that these early sexual experiences are including assault, and that's what we need to talk about, right?

Gillespie: Right.

Grigoriadis: We need to understand that there are guys who are …

Gillespie: Obviously.

Grigoriadis: I'm particularly going to talk about guys pushing both men and women into sex that those people do not want to have, and whether they're holding a hand behind that victim's back or they're taking advantage of a student who's barely speaking English-

Gillespie: And by that, you mean because they're drunk.

Grigoriadis: 'Cause they're drunk. They're so drunk. That's not cool. That's where I think the change is coming, is that students are saying, 'Look, that girl, she was wearing beer goggles.' You took her home, you're not getting a high five in the morning, and other girls are going to call that guy creepy. They may even call him a rapist, right? And they're going to spread that all over campus, and make sure that that guy has a bad name, and now other guys are watching what happened to that first guy, and damn straight, they don't want that to happen to them. You know? That is truly happening on campus.

Gillespie: Now, what happens, though, when those … If the definitions … Or how do you kind of moderate the, or go from the definitions of what one person's creepy is another person's completely anodyne compliment or something like that. I mean …

Grigoriadis: Well, sure. Out on the street, if some guy says, 'Hey, baby,' to me, I may say, 'Screw you, get away from me.' And somebody else may say, 'Thank you.' You know? 'That made my day.' Low-level acts of … That's not even really harassment, right? That's a street compliment, whatever. But it's not like a hiss is so great, or somebody yelling, 'Bitch,' at you on the street is so great. Those kinds of low-level acts that happen at college all the time, like somebody squeezing a girl's ass in a frat house, or just feeling up a girl on the couch who you happen to be sitting next to in the common room because she's wearing a parka and you know you could slip your hand under there, and she's probably not going to say or do something. I would call that stuff creepy, right? I would call guys out for it. But young girls are calling that sexual assault.

Gillespie: Right. One of the great virtues of the book is the number of students you talk to, particularly women on campus, and that incident you're talking about with a woman who was wearing a parka and a guy essentially assaulted her, he groped her vagina. What is going through the mind of a woman where she's not going to get up, or she's not going to say something, especially because this is where, I think for a lot of men, it gets confusing… Well, clearly, I think most men would say, 'That's fucked up.'

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: That is just not allowable. So then, if a woman, and I realize this puts the onus on women, but if she doesn't respond in that way, then … And conversations with girls on campus, in many cases, they're girls.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: They're teenagers. They're young. They're inexperienced. What are they thinking?

Grigoriadis: Okay. First, I would say also in this country, we tend not to say, 'No,' and try to confront people. Right? So a guy, if the situation was reversed, he may be into it. If he's not into it, he may not say much either. Or he may say, 'I have a girlfriend.' He may not stand up and say, 'No!' Right?

Gillespie: Right.

Grigoriadis: In that case, there were other people present in the room, so she was embarrassed, because she didn't know how to get out of the situation without embarrassing herself. Let's remember that a lot of women, despite everything I've said, carry a lot of shame around sex. So they have a problem expressing themselves sexually. This is just simply a fact. You know? Women are socialized also to be polite, particularly in a sexual situation. She then has a bunch of different things working against her, saying something.

One woman that I interviewed at Syracuse University talked to me about why she was very open about how she was promiscuous, she had had a lot of sex with different people, she didn't feel that she had been raped, but she felt she had been really pressured by a bunch of different guys who had maybe pushed her head down to give a blowjob, or pushed her into sex where she just really kind of wanted to go to sleep. And what she said is really why we need a yes means yes standard. She said, 'It's not that I didn't … I didn't really want to say no. I wasn't totally opposed, but I was really, really drunk and I didn't want to have sex, but I wanted him to be satisfied and happy, and he said he had blue balls, and I felt bad about it. But I never would have said yes if he had said to me, "Are you sure you want to do this?" I never would have said yes.'

Gillespie: When it comes to available statistics about on-campus assault rapes, these are always heavily debated and argued.

Grigoriadis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gillespie: In the media, as well as even among the people who actually collect them. Also, you have a great discussion of the wide variety of people, all of whom are interested … It isn't like there are any pro-rapists in the demography world who are like, "Let's do this," but you find-

Grigoriadis: That's for sure, yeah.

Gillespie: You find numbers, or you produce numbers about unwanted sexual activity that range from about 20%, that one in five students by the time they graduate college will have had some kind of unwelcome sexual advance, or about to maybe 7% where the definition is much more specific and explicit about sexual penetration or other acts of violence against the body. What is your best estimate, or how do we talk about that? Because the one in five, sometimes one in four number, gets bandied about, and it seems that that may confuse as much as it clarifies.

Grigoriadis: Right. There's nobody who works in the field of demography who thinks that this is not a total mess.

Gillespie: Right.

Grigoriadis: This is a huge mess. We don't have a good grasp of how many college students are sexually assaulted. We only know, by the way, what's happened at a specific school, and then we're extrapolating, oh, that's a nationwide number.

Gillespie: And a number of the studies early on that produced pretty large numbers, they were …

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: You talk about this. A couple were just at two schools, people like David Lisak, who created the serial predator model that's very influential.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: It's all based on very non-representative cases.

Grigoriadis: Yes. Yes. But there's also a question of, should attempted assaults be included? Just because a girl went home with a guy and she felt he was creepy and weird and threw him out, she's not sure that she was almost assaulted there, right? I think that probably shouldn't be included. And of course, there's not a lot of nuance there about something like a groping versus a violent penetrative rape, where somebody locks a door from the inside after you've done a bunch of lines of cocaine with that guy. Okay? Those things need to be separated out.

I don't believe that we should separate out penetration from non-penetration, but I do think we need to separate out violence from non-violence. Some guy coming up behind you on a dance floor and grinding on you is not necessarily an act of violence. Right? I think putting all of these things in some big pot and stirring it around the way a lot of activists have is just really created one of the most intense backlashes of misogyny that I have seen in my lifetime. So we need to be very clear about our definitions.

Gillespie: Let's talk about the role of the media in hyping and distorting this discussion, and it is a society-wide discussion that every generation has, but particularly about sex and assault on campus. Many of the highest profile cases, going back a few years to the Duke lacrosse team which was charged with gang raping, and that fell apart. And there was an outcry by the faculty of Duke to say even before any kind of legal investigation had been launched, we got to get rid of these people. They shut down the lacrosse program, et cetera. It turned out that the reality was very, very different than that.

There was the Rolling Stone's story about a gang rape at University of Virginia. I mean, essentially ended … It was a complete retraction of that story, and the events of that. Those are completely discredited. Other less clear-cut ones are one of the main stories in The Hunting Ground, the documentary about sexual assault on campus, which involved a black male law student at Harvard who was accused of sexual misconduct. Something like 19 law professors said that The Hunting Ground misrepresented the case and the facts of the case in a pernicious way. The Sulkowicz Nungesser case is more of a mirror by which we can see what we feel, rather than knowing what's going on.

Talk about the media's role. Obviously the media loves to talk about this stuff, because it's young kids, it's sex, it's booze.

Grigoriadis: Sure.

Gillespie: It is violence.

Grigoriadis: Yeah.

Gillespie: Great classic literature is all about sex, murder, assault, violence.

Grigoriadis: Absolutely.

Gillespie: Is the … Grade the media in the discussion of this topic.

Grigoriadis: Yeah. I mean, the media has been the worst actor in all of this, because they're only interested in cases that are unbelievable. They're interested in Duke lacrosse, a bunch of Duke lacrosse players at this fantastic university rape two prostitutes. Right?

Gillespie: Right. White guys raping prostitute, yeah.

Grigoriadis: A black prostitute was raped by these white, over-privileged, Southern males. Or, UVA story wasn't that different. Right? A helpless, defenseless young girl went on a date to this fraternity, and in a pledge ritual, seven boys pushed her down on a glass table which shattered beneath her, and they raped her. One of them had a beer bottle, guy from her anthropology seminar was there. Okay, these are unbelievable stories 'cause they're unbelievable. Because that's not what's really happening. There is not gang rape going on as a pledge ritual at UVA upstairs while a party is going on downstairs.

I'm not saying that never in the history of fraternities in America there hasn't been a pledge ritual which has involved a rape, but these are certainly not the kinds of things that are going on on campus. What's going on on campus are questions about consent, but that becomes an abstract story, and the media doesn't know how to deal with that. They just want their 'it bleeds, it leads, it's 5:00 local news and we're talking about girls, you need to be scared 'cause there's scary, scary, scary predators coming after you on campus while you walk to the library.'

Gillespie: In a sense, reading your book, what is both fascinating to me about it is that it's about this larger question of sexual mores, which do change. Just as we grew up in a totally different sexual world than our parents, or we like to think that, anyway. Our children grow up in a totally different world. So it's about that larger conversation, but then how can the media represent … They don't like to, because they want to talk about cases that are clear cut or that stir deep, primordial fears and anxieties and titillation. What is a way of representing that conversation about consent?

Grigoriadis: Well, I think like Stanford and Columbia, both of whom were hit real hard on this sexual assault issue from PR's perspective, have both been promoting this idea of healthy sexuality. Let's talk about sexual mores. Let's talk about ethics. Let's begin to bring this to a conversation that everyone can contribute to. Let's get away from who's lying and who's telling the truth. Let's get away from the unbelievable story of rape and then, of course, in America, we love to debunk that story. We love to say, 'Women lie, that's wrong.'

Gillespie: Or we love … This is another thing that's fascinating in the book, and you talk a little bit about intersectionality and the way that it's infusing campus feminism. There is a really kind of ugly, usually unspoken, unremarked upon race issue here. The Vanderbilt story, where I guess it was three or four Vanderbilt football players, black, were found guilty of raping a woman how had passed out and they took pictures, but it's blacks on white. That also, particularly at a school like Vanderbilt, which is in Nashville, it's part of the South. How does that play out in this? The racial issues or racial dynamics?

Grigoriadis: Well, you know, there certainly are attorneys and The Atlantic magazine has recently published a story about this, who anecdotally think that there are more black boys who are being accused of assault on campus, particularly by white women. Jeannie Suk has had this idea of, well, maybe the white woman wakes up the next day and says, 'Well, did I just sleep with a black man? Well, that wouldn't be part of how I see myself as a sexual being. I feel that something went wrong there.' You know? I'm not sure I would really go that far. I will say that in football, the gang rape that is happening there is largely happening with black players, and it is largely … Football players are celebrities on campus. They have groupies. They have girls who want to have sex with them. The real problem is that they will have sex with one girl, and maybe the girl will have sex with a football player and a recruit, right? 'Cause they got to get the recruit laid when he comes to college, 'cause otherwise he's not going to come there to play for them.

Gillespie: Which is, by the way, I mean …

Grigoriadis: It's sick.

Gillespie: Let's not gloss over that, it …

Grigoriadis: It's sick. It's sick, and it's happening everywhere.

Gillespie: And Rick Pitino, legendary basketball coach, just got fired from University of Louisville for his role in allowing that type of behavior to happen.

Grigoriadis: Sure. I mean, that is essentially the origin of the Vanderbilt rape case. That's what happened with the Golden Gophers and the University of Minnesota.

Gillespie: Right.

Grigoriadis: That big case last year. Over and over, we see these cases where there are girls who want to have sex with one football player, but they don't want to have sex with the other ones. Jameis Winston case, I don't know what really happened there, but that could be a similar case. Remember, there was something going on with the girl with Jameis Winston, and his friends were able to open the door and come in with cell phone cameras. What happened? What was she thinking right then and there? You know? So these girls, then, are faced with these really pretty menacing figures, right? That's something we really need to deal with. That is a reality.

Gillespie: What is the … and it might be that it's more … In the book, you talk a lot about sports, and it's football players, basketball players in particular. I mean, it's not just in college that they're celebrities. They're accorded a kind of privilege that very few people do, and they don't … And this may be stereotyping, but they live in a world where nobody says no to them. Or if they say no, they don't hear no. Also, fraternities are the site of a lot of this activity, or of the most provocative and probably emblematic cases. Are these things that need to be curtailed?

Grigoriadis: Yeah. The fraternities obviously should not be on campus. I have no idea why there's a Title IX exemption for single sex social groups. It just makes absolutely no sense.

Gillespie: It's because they're not really on campus, right? They're in a gray area.

Grigoriadis: Well, some of them are on campus, and some of them are off campus, and the universities are doing this big dance with the fraternities and the legal liability, right? But what's going on is universities don't want the legal liability from drinking, from their students. They pushed the drinking completely off campus. You get caught with a keg in your dorm, you are in some serious trouble today, right? We in the '90s, we kind of did it, maybe somebody got in trouble once along the way.

Gillespie: I got to tell you, in the '80s, you could actually legally have those on campus, so it changes.

Grigoriadis: Right. Of course, yeah. My problem with the frats is not obviously all frats are bad, but we know what's going on here is about these gender norms and gender norms are reinforced by frats, obviously, because one is there's no women in there. It seems to me like all of this discussion of due process for these tiny, tiny numbers of cases that happen across the country, with something like 6,000 cases in 2014. 6,000 campus tribunals across the entire country for sexual assault, and yet we're not talking about the fact that the Greek system is up by half over the last decade. That there's more binge drinking going on. Binge drinking is directly connected to sexual assault.

Gillespie: Yeah, let's talk about … on both sides, right?

Grigoriadis: On both sides.

Gillespie: And it's not to impute responsibility to a woman, but … Well, let's talk about that in the context of your recommendations for how to reduce sexual assault, and also how to have a healthier conversation about sexual mores on campus. One of the main things that you say is, lower the drinking age to 18. How does that address this issue?

Grigoriadis: Well, the issue is, is that you have young people coming to college … A lot of these sexual assaults are happening right during September, right?

Gillespie: Right.

Grigoriadis: Right when the kids get there, and they don't have a lot of experience with drinking.

Gillespie: And particularly among freshman.

Grigoriadis: Freshman, yeah. Something like 88% of gang rape victims, according to one insurer, are freshmen. Right? They don't have a lot of experience with drinking, they're getting blasted out of their minds, they may be in a blackout, and they're agreeing to sexual activity that they wouldn't normally. Now, you might say, 'Well, that's your individual responsibility to deal with that.' And an activist may say, 'Well, according to the patriarchy, the girl who gets really drunk will think she needs to service a guy if she gets into a sexual experience with him.' I'm not saying either of those things, right?

Gillespie: Well, you would agree, I mean, Emily Yoffe, a writer at that point at Slate, when she in an article said, 'Women, if you want to avoid really horrible situations, it's a good idea not to get shitfaced.'

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: She was called a rape denialist by people at websites like Jezebel and Hustle.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: I mean, clearly, that's fucked up, right? I mean, to say-

Grigoriadis: I agree. Yes, no, I agree. I don't agree with a lot of what Emily Yoffe is saying, but I do agree with her there, that alcohol is a problem here. That young women, binge drinking is up for women, has been for a while, and what the issue is, is that you can drink in moderation, girls. That is no problem. But there's research showing that over nine drinks, you are at a higher risk for sexual assault. Now, over nine drinks is an obscene amount of alcohol for a 19-year-old girl. Right? So there's nothing about being in a blackout or passing out at a house, an off-campus house, even maybe in your dorm, with a bunch of guys that you don't know, that is safe. There's nothing about that that's safe.

Gillespie: But it's also then, what is … Do you think the attitudes are changing that if you're one of the guys in that house, and there's an unconscious body-

Grigoriadis: Oh, absolutely.

Gillespie: Is it changing that … And obviously this happens. I struggle to understand it, where anyone would be like, that's an invitation. Even to take a horrifying photo, much less actually acting on that.

Grigoriadis: Sure. Right, right, right.

Gillespie: Is there reason to believe that boys are getting better at that?

Grigoriadis: Yeah. We don't have any hard data on if the assaults are going down, and everything's being muddied by this broadening definition of assault, so now you have girls counting themselves as victims that maybe wouldn't have five years ago. As I said before, it is a total mess. So we're not going to get hard data on that. But in my conversations with guys, anecdotally, there is no question that to be a cool guy, and I'm talking about Brown University, and I'm talking about cool campuses, I mean, like the University of Michigan. Corners of that campus, places like that. That to be a cool guy, and a guy that girls want to date, you must at least give lip service to these ideas. You must at least, in your words, be pro-survivor. And if you're going to do something like mess with a drunk girl, you better make sure that there aren't other guys there who are going to go around the next day and tell girls that you did that. Because the girls will ostracize you.

Gillespie: Now, you also … In one of your recommendations towards the end of the book, you say for people who are accused, call a lawyer.

Grigoriadis: Oh, absolutely.

Gillespie: Yeah, and why is that?

Grigoriadis: Look, being accused of sexual assault at college is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you at college, right? You pulled a short straw. It happened to you. There's no good outcome. Either you're going to go through a horrible tribunal and you're going to come out relatively unscathed, but everybody on campus is going to think you're a rapist, or you're going to get kicked out of school and you're going to be humiliated in front of your family, and you may not be able to get into a school of comparable value, blah blah blah blah blah blah. You know, it's kind of like a divorce. There's only losers here, right?

So, you must call a lawyer. You must call your parents right away. I cannot tell you how many boys I talk to who didn't call their parents 'cause they were embarrassed, they thought, 'I'm an adult. I can handle this. Oh, the school that I wanted so badly to get into this school, I love this school, I have a bumper sticker of this school. They'd never do anything to hurt me. Right?' No, no, no. That is not the case. You are in a serious situation. Yeah.

Gillespie: Going back to the Title IX guidance, and the Office of Civil Rights, the 'Dear Colleague letter.' What that reduced the standard of evidence in campus tribunals, or administrative hearings, and you've talked about how they've changed, but it went from using a traditional clear and convincing standard, which was a higher burden of proof that something bad happened, to what was called a preponderance of evidence standard that holds that it's more likely than not that sexual harassment occurred. In your book, you talk about how that's kind of like it's 50-50, and the feather gets put on the guilty side.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: Is it a good thing to get rid of that? Because that does seem odd.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: Particularly in a hearing that mimics legal due process. Where does that fit in? Because you're actually in favor of, in the book, you're in favor of the lower level.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: How do you justify that?

Grigoriadis: Well, first of all, 80% of campuses were already using the preponderance of evidence before Obama got involved here, so it is a bit of a myth that 'clear and convincing' was true all over the place. The fact is that as I said before, sexual assault is incredibly hard to prove. Coming up with that 1% to push it to 51% is a lot harder than you think. And if we raise the burden of proof, what I believe will happen is you will have a lot of middle-aged administrators that are already carrying their own biases that will say, 'Wait a second. So this girl sexted a picture to this guy five hours before this alleged assault? She sent him a picture of her boobs? Why do we even care what happened after that?'

The next day, very often, girls will text the guy the next day and say, 'Listen, I had a good time last night, but some stuff happened that I feel weird about. Can you give me a call? Can we meet up?' Oh, yeah, emoji heart heart heart. These are young girls, you know? They're trying to get the guy to talk to them to try to understand what happened last night. I feel violated by that, can we talk about this? Right? Under a clear and convincing standard, are those boys going to be punished? I just am finding that very hard to believe. Just from a pragmatic point of view-

Gillespie: But what if that means, though … It's one thing to say after something, 'I'm not comfortable with something, let's talk about that.' As opposed to often times, the text message is … And this is even in the Sulkowicz case, where there was communications after the alleged assault where it was not … She wasn't saying, 'Hey, something weird happened.'

Grigoriadis: No, she did say, 'Hey, something weird's happened.'

Gillespie: Well, in some, yeah.

Grigoriadis: She did say that in some. Look, I'm not going to say that the text messages between the two of them aren't damning, because they are.

Gillespie: Yeah, no, what I'm-

Grigoriadis: But, she did say, 'I want to talk to you,' and remember, I'm not sure they ever got together to talk about it.

Gillespie: Right.

Grigoriadis: They both knew that something happened that night. He wasn't totally blindsided. He knew something had happened and she didn't like it, you know?

Gillespie: I guess in terms of the preponderance of evidence, though, what if … I mean, 51% isn't the right marker of guilt, or that something happened.

Grigoriadis: Well, we're going to see. 'Cause certainly, universities are going to go back to clear and convincing. Some place like Harvard is. All of the religious institutions are going to do this.

Gillespie: And this raises a related question, which is, and talking with Camille Pauley about this, she said, and she, obviously, she's a baby boomer sexual empowerment feminist. When you talk about people like Madonna or Katy Perry or Kesha or whatnot, they're all kind of standing in the shadow-

Grigoriadis: Sure.

Gillespie: … that Camille Pauley has thrown, on a certain level. She says one of the biggest problems, and this fits in a way with your book, part of the problem is why are colleges doing things about students … Why do they have dorms? Why are they in the personal lives of students? And one of the things, one of the themes in your book is that most of this stuff … We call it campus rape, but virtually none of it actually happens on the campus. It's almost always off campus.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: Partly because you have to drink off campus, so people live off campus so they can drink.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: You go to parties off campus. How does that play into this larger conversation?

Grigoriadis: Not allowed out with her heels on.

Gillespie: Yeah.

Grigoriadis: So the conversation we need to have, and that parents and students and people are starting to have, is what the hell is college for, anyway? Right? Here we are, all of these kids, on a campus for four years, no responsibility, really, no genuine academic interests, a hell of a lot of leisure time, a lot of time to be on your phone, hang out with your pals, hang out with your girls. Is this an etiquette factory? Is it a career-making factory?

Gillespie: Yeah, it's a finishing school or a holding tank.

Grigoriadis: It's a finishing school. Right, it's a holding tank. And now that adulthood continues to 30, do we really need this four-year period where parents are going broke trying to send their kids to do what, exactly? I think that anybody involved in universities today knows that we're in a bubble, it's going to pop, and my children may not be going to anything that resembles a Vanderbilt University. Right?

Gillespie: Well, and that's to drive home the point of your book, which is that this conversation is happening, and that we can have a better, more open or less open, more conscious or less conscious, conversation. Part of it is to have a conversation. If you're going away to college, to actually talk with your parents. You stress, and one of your recommendations is, 'Don't hurry over the actual sexual consent policy in everybody's student handbook.'

Grigoriadis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gillespie: What will we find if we actually read that?

Grigoriadis: Yeah. I mean, look. In New York, Connecticut, California, Illinois, all of these states have, for all public and private colleges, a 'yes means yes' standard. So, 'no means no' is not enough. Silence is not consent. You must get some sort of feedback from the partner. Now, for gen x'rs and even maybe boomers, the question was, 'Should I get a condom?' Right? And that was really a question about protection and permission. It was a question where, you know, the guy would usually ask it and the girl or the guy could say, 'No, because we're not having sex, actually.' You know?

Now, there's protection being used sometimes, but also, there seems to be … a need to be this additional question of "Are we ready?" Which is a question that high schoolers ask their first girlfriends or boyfriends, right? Are we ready to do this? But yet, two years later, it's all cool and not a word needs to be uttered in the bedroom. Right?

I think that parents will find that they don't even need to have a conversation about sex with their college student. All they need to do is flip through their college handbook. The Ivy Leagues have this, many state universities have this. And just say, 'Wow. This is a "yes means yes" standard. This says it's exceptional misconduct.'

Gillespie: And it's clear that that's not … Because people aren't recording this, although you've mentioned in passing that there are apps and things like that now.

Grigoriadis: Right.

Gillespie: This gets to a kind of almost Kurt Vonnegut-level satire of, okay, at this point, and then maybe you can punish people if the orgasm isn't good enough.

Grigoriadis: Right, right, right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Gillespie: Et cetera. So it's not going to clear up the confusion, or it's not going to completely de-blur the lines, but it will … Your argument is that it will provide a better context, a social context.

Grigoriadis: Right. I mean, the people who understand why sexual assault happens best, the people who teach this, the older women who have really studied this from a social psychological perspective really want girls to know that what they need to do is remove themselves from the situation first. Don't go home with a random guy after the frat party who's like, 'Hey, we should go back to my apartment 'cause I got some beer there. Just come with me, come on!' You know?

Don't do it, because once you get there, you're going to have a hard time getting out of it for the reasons I explained before, in terms of that you're not going to say no, or you're not going to realize it's happening, you're slow on the uptake. Well, maybe I'll just do it because I might as well just do it and get it over with, or I'm afraid he might hurt me. He seems a lot bigger. All of those questions could be placed aside if a question was asked, and I am comfortable with saying once that question is asked and a woman says yes, I'm comfortable with then calling some of that stuff consensual sex. Right? Because then it's her responsibility. She said yes.

Gillespie: You know, Reason is a libertarian organization, and one of the things that is a bedrock touchstone in libertarianism is the idea of autonomy, and I think one of the things I find really appealing about your book is this discussion of consent, and of self-ownership. Do your best to spin why, for a specifically libertarian audience, why consent is the central issue of the millennial generation.

Grigoriadis: Right, sure. If I want your wallet, I have to say, "Hey, can I have your wallet," right? And then you give it to me. I can't take it. I can't take really anything in this world without asking for permission first. But in sex, for some reason, everything's cool. Our legal philosophy is, everybody in America is agreeing to have sex with everybody else until somebody says no. Right? Does that really make a lot of sense? Certainly there should be sexual autonomy and bodily autonomy for young girls, whose bodies really are pretty manhandled in this world, and who deal with a lot of guys who want to touch them, right? They have something valuable. So they're demanding that they get a question first and then give consent. I think that's super simple. You know?

Gillespie: All right, well, we will leave it there.

Grigoriadis: Thank you.

Gillespie: Thank you. We've been talking with Vanessa Grigoriadis. She is the author of the new book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus. Vanessa, thanks so much.

Grigoriadis: Thank you so much.

Gillespie: For Reason, I'm Nick Gillespie.