What's Driving Sexual Assault On Campus — & Why Betsy DeVos Has Less Power Than You Think

Update: On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education rescinded Obama-era guidance on how schools must investigate and resolve reports of sexual violence. The new rules require higher standards of evidence, which women's rights groups say will be "devastating." Keep reading below for our interview with auhor Vanessa Grigoriadis about the cultural forces on campus that place surprising limits on Education Secretary Betsy Devos' power.
This story was originally published September 8, 2017.
Whether or not Betsy DeVos completely overhauls the rules on campus sexual assault the war, in some ways, has already been won.
In the span of just five years, campus activists across the country have fought a hard battle to completely re-write not just the rules of the campus adjudication process or Title IX enforcement, but the rules of sexual engagement itself. This is according to journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis, whose new book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, just hit the shelves. Gone are the days when a college could get away with brushing a survivor off. These days an inappropriate touch on campus, like the ass grab experienced by Taylor Swift, is now punishable with possible suspension or expulsion. But even more than that, students are more aware than ever of sexual assault as an issue, and are well-versed in the language of consent. That alone is incredible progress, Grigoriadis says.
Sweeping changes like these always bring backlash, as evidenced by DeVos’ announcement that changes are coming to the Obama-era rules of enforcement. But you can’t put an awakening like this back in the box. “She can make it much easier to get away with rape and much harder to kick someone out of school for it,” Grigoriadis says. “But these changes that she can make to the system are largely on the margins. There will still be posters all over campus saying you need to get consent. There’s not a lot she can do in terms of changing the amount of prevention efforts and education, some of which has been legislated.” After all, affirmative consent standards have been written into law in four states and are on the docket in many more.
Grigoriadis spent the past three years interviewing hundreds of students, student-activists, researchers, and administrators to go beyond the salacious headlines (though there are plenty of those covered in her book) and instead focus on the underlying cultural forces that not only drive sexual assault on campus but have also catapulted it into the spotlight in recent years. I spoke with her by phone this week about Betsy DeVos’ power, why the lines of assault remain blurry, and most importantly, the incredible successes of the anti-rape movement on campus in recent years.
In the book you argue that the cultural shift around sexual assault is bigger than any single policy shift. After what Betsy DeVos signaled is coming, do you still think that?
"Yes, the cultural change is already in progress. DeVos doesn’t run the Hollywood studios that are putting out Wonder Woman. She doesn’t run the million millennial women blogs that take this issue really, really seriously. She’s not in the mind of girls who really want gender equality and see total sexual equality that is a prioritization of their boundaries and their desires as part of that plan. So I do think, whatever she decides to do, it’s more a symbolic shift than a practical one. She specifically wants to change the campus court system, which is an important part of this. But it’s only one part if it.
"That’s not to say punishment doesn’t matter, though. If girls feel that they can’t ever win a case against somebody who’s wronged them, that will lead to some changes in people coming forward. My prediction is we’ll see a lot more girls coming straight to the media with their stories in that case."
Why the title Blurred Lines? A lot of people argue that the rules about consent are crystal clear, so what do you think is still “blurry”?
"It’s an ironic title. I set out to write a national book about sex and sexual assault on American campuses. This is really a macro, sweeping book. I cover everything from what happened at Vanderbilt when three football players were put away for 15 and 17 years with no parole, to what happened with Rolling Stone’s now-questionable reporting at University of Virginia to the "mattress girl" at Columbia. I also cover various women on campus, like the anonymous blogger at Syracuse University who calls herself Blackout Blonde. She’s a really slick girl who is sexually empowered and says 'I would never call myself a victim,' even though she’s had experiences that, when described, sound like sexual assault. I covered everybody from her to women who have broadened the definition of sexual assault to the point where a lot of heterosexual sex starts to become somewhat suspect. This movement really is about re-defining consent, re-defining sexual assault, and trying to make the lines clear and uniform — when they’re not yet.
"The fact is, there are a lot of paradoxes here. We’re talking about sexual assault, yet 20% of college students are virgins when they graduate. We’re talking a lot about hooking up, yet there’s a lot less hooking up than anybody would think. There’s complexity here. So the book tries to look at it from various people’s ideological positions and asks, 'How do we solve this? Who are the players? Where do we go from here?'"
Sexual assault and rape are not new on campus. It doesn’t appear that there’s necessarily more of it today than 10 or 20 years ago, so what is it about the past five years that have made this such a huge movement?
"When I went back to Wesleyan I did interview a lot of people who made me feel I’m talking to myself at 22. There are a lot of ways in which college is the same and kids at 22 really haven’t changed that much.
"But to focus on the things that are actually different: First of all, there’s the domination of the Greek system. That’s pretty different. That’s ramped up a lot in the past 20 years. On top of that, football culture is the weekend event for half the year for probably half the schools in the country. College football in the last 20 years has grown exponentially. It was like a hobby and now it’s a big business. They take in more money than the NHL.
"There’s a lot of research to support that there’s just a lot more partying of a certain kind going on. It’s partying in one specific way, which is the Animal House-way. You know when Animal House came out, it was the exception to the rule. It was like, can you believe this? And now it’s what people expect to get from their college experience. They think they’re not doing it right if they don’t take molly and hookup with a random person in the first semester.
"When I was reporting at Syracuse, it had just been called the number one party school in America by Princeton Review. The sorority I was talking to had the biggest pledge class in their history. And at the same time, they had an 18-day sit-in with dozens of students, sitting in, for what’s basically the intersectional activist platform, everything from xenophobia to grad student wages to Black Lives Matter. Syracuse is not known for sit-ins let alone 18-day sit-ins. So there are more activists than there have been since 1990, or definitely since 1969."
You write that false reports are indeed extraordinarily rare but that some women on campus may “exaggerate” their experiences of assault. Why do you think that women on college campuses may be exaggerating?
"A real false report on campus is a vastly, vastly unique situation. If you think you’re going to find a bunch of women who are lying about being assaulted you’re going to come up empty-handed.
"That said, the reality is that everybody has a different definition of consent. And I did find cases where the woman’s interpretation of the slight was much larger than the actual slight. There’s a lot of power in calling things rape. I’m not going to deny that. That’s a powerful thing to scream through the megaphone in the middle of campus. But it has also created an intense backlash. The way I see it is that pretending that there are not some situations that are murky where we may have exaggerated impressions of what’s happened is just not doing anybody any favors. We need to get into the nuance.
"And to me, there are two ways of looking at this issue. The first is asking what would a reasonable person say if you said that something coercive happened to you? In that case, not everyone is going to see and weigh all the myriad violations the same. The other way of looking at it is, if I feel violated by that slight, it doesn’t matter objectively how minor that slight was. And these are two incredibly different ways of looking at the same issue. There are people who are arguing both sides of this. Yet, you don’t hear that argument because it’s really theoretical, right? But that’s the real argument that’s going on. The people on the boys’ side are saying, 'No reasonable person would call this rape.' And the girls’ side is saying, 'I have PTSD so how can you tell me I wasn’t raped? I feel raped. Don’t tell me I wasn’t.'
"And the truth is, for me in this book, I really do vacillate between them. Because I really do think if somebody feels violated, then they’re violated. But at the same time, I have as hard of a time as any journalist reading some of these cases and not saying, I really don’t think this guy should be kicked out of school. Real shit is at stake.
So how do you think we fix that? How do you bring together these two competing senses of what’s fair?
"They have been talking about this in law school for a long time. They haven’t come up with the solution, so I don’t know if I can either. It’s an incredibly hard situation but what you want to do is have guys (because it is largely guys who are doing this) think to themselves: I need to be an ethical actor on my college campus. There’s a way that people treat each other on campus.
'There’s an interesting trend right now where the universities are starting to say okay, let’s get away from this assault conversation and move toward positive sexuality. They’re asking: What does ethical sex look like?
"The advice is starting to shift from 'here’s what you need to do to avoid sexual assault' to 'here’s what you need to do to have a positive healthy relationship' and 'here are positive sex things are that you can do.' They’re trying to shift it, to stop putting the emphasis on the punitive part of it, like the campus courts."

Because I really do think if somebody feels violated, then they’re violated. But at the same time, I have as hard of a time as any journalist reading some of these cases and not saying, I really don’t think this guy should be kicked out of school. Real shit is at stake.

Vanessa Grigoriadis
You are in favor of the punitive part of it, though.
"Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there’s a low level of assault on campus. I’m also not saying the punitive measures haven’t proven difficult here, as all punitive measure are. But again, thinking about this in terms of 'what is ethical sex?' is a really useful way of thinking about why campus courts need to stay. Plagiarism, which is in every campus’ code of conduct and can be punishable by expulsion is a good comparison: It’s about ethics. This is about ethics, too: You must have sexual respect. You must respect your fellow student. You must get a yes. All of those things are part of our student code of conduct, and if you violate them you go to a campus court. This is completely logical.
"On top of that, the courts are not as bad as people say they are. I don’t want to be too sympathetic to the universities. Clearly, they’ve done some things wrong. And before 2011, when Obama got involved in this whole issue, they really were trying to push victims out of school. They were not punishing boys like they should have. But the university can’t speak on individual cases because of privacy regulations. So we have a skewed understanding of what they’re actually doing on the whole. On the individual level, this is a lose-lose situation, always. No one walks away from one of these cases happy.
"But the fact is, schools are doing better today than they ever have before on sexual assault. We already know that the cops don’t do a good job. I’m curious to see what Betsy DeVos is going to come up with, but I don’t see how she can make a better system by blowing up the current one. I think we should stay the course, fix some of the due process issues, and call it a day."
I haven’t stopped thinking about the part in your book when you talk about how as empowered as women are on campus, men hold still hold all the social power. How does that relate to sexual assault?
"Michael Kimmel, the author of Guyland is the one who told me, 'There is no more gender equal institution in the United States today than the American college campus, and yet it is also marked by dramatic gender inequality.' What this boils down to is: Guys get the kegs, guys have the drugs, guys play the sports on the weekend that students are going to see. The National Panhellenic Council [the governing body of many sororities on campus] says that all national sororities can’t have alcohol in the chapters, can’t have parties in the chapter house. You also can’t have the party in the dorm because you’ll immediately get busted. So where’s the party?
"For freshmen girls, especially, the party is at the frat house. They’re not going to some upperclassmen party at an apartment. They’re getting invited to a dirty frat basement with vomit on the floor. And the guys get to control that party environment. You hear activists on campus talk about this all the time, 'the male-controlled space.' And that’s exactly what it is! It’s not only the music, and the atmosphere, but what people drink. Here comes the upperclassmen with a bottle of rum pouring you another rum and coke when you’re just finishing your first one. That’s in itself not a safe environment. I understand there’s a way of talking about this that’s really victim-blame-y. And I’m trying not to do that. I don’t think walking into dangerous situations is 'asking for it.'
"But I think everybody who studies this agrees that frats are a negative influence on campus. This is accepted wisdom. But then people want to sit around and talk about due process! They don’t want to talk about the really enormous glaring problem that you have on campus that could so easily be eradicated. Toxic gender norms are what leads to a lot of sexual assault. It’s not about dyed in wool predators. These are guys who just don’t respect women and just don’t really care how they get laid.
"And so here again is another paradox: I don’t have my head in the sand, I know that there is still a lot of assault that goes on, but the activists have been able to make it so 'Yes Means Yes' is now the rule at the vast majority of four year colleges. I haven’t seen a study about how many of them are asking for consent. But you’d be a moron to not ask at this point. There is a shifting ethical standard. There is a threat of punishment.
"Its fairly clear at this point that some pretty major changes are coming out of the DeVos Education Department. But there is a genuine rise of girls who want to be asked, who take this situation very, very seriously, and who are more interested in guys who are willing to be more ethical in the bedroom. They’re more accepting of those guys. And they are more willing to call out those guys who don’t care about consent. Even if it’s just talking shit about a guy like that to their friends, word gets around. Lots of guys, that is why they’re scared. They’re experiencing their friends being called out like that. Nobody wants that to happen to them. And that’s amazing. It really shows the change."
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
America is at war with itself — and schools across the country are ground zero for some of the most intense battles of our generation. Over the next month we will deep dive right into the controversies, meet the students and dig into WTF is really going on at institutions of higher learning, and what that means for the rest of us.

More from Culture

R29 Original Series