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INTRODUCTION: ORIENTATION

Two generations into coeducation, college is a strange planet, and sex on this planet is
complicated. Its characterized at many colleges by female exploration and empowerment, the
frontline of sex-positive feminism, and its driven by a pop culture where sexual appetite is a
crucial aspect of female strength; the Kardashians, Beyonc, and Rihanna stand as heroes.
Bragging about sexual conquest over a hungover coffee at the dining hall is part of the weekly
routine for many girls, a gender reversal of the stereotypical conquistador. But Planet College is
also dotted with bastions of traditional masculinity bigtime sports, fraternities, and round-the-
clock Grand Theft Auto where sex can be a dehumanizing pursuit, and young men learn
questionable lessons about their emerging adulthood. These cultures exist around the same
quads, sometimes in the same dorm rooms.

Its a planet unlike planet Earth. Here, few are surprised if a girl gets her butt grabbed at a frat
party, but if someone grabbed my butt on the sidewalk in my neighborhood, I would be
outraged. Its a planet on which a girl who passes out in a frat basement isnt brought a glass of
water with a straw, as she would be at a mall or an airport, but has a decent chance of being
poked and prodded and jeered at by her classmates. Its a planet on which a dorm mate with
whom one has a nodding acquaintance might slither into ones bedroom and attempt a hookup
with ones sleeping body this happened to me in school, and to some of my friends too. The
response has long been not to call 911 but rather to push the other student off and go back to
sleep.

But the gravitational field on Planet College is shifting. The story of Emma Sulkowicz and Paul
Nungesser in all its complexities and ambiguities, and in all its cultural heat anticipated a
revolution. The sex act in dispute may not fit everyones standard definition of rape. The couple
was, initially, having consensual sex. But at this moment, twenty-year-old students, middle-
aged college administrators, and even the federal government are overturning preconceived
notions of what constitutes sex and sexual assault among college kids today.

The line is, indeed, blurry, but it is moving in a distinct direction. The old frat-boy syllogism no
means yes that justified countless intimate coercions is being discredited, as are the attitudes
and gender roles that underlie it. More and more sexual acts that previous generations might
have filed under Terrible College Experience are being reclassified as offenses that can earn
banishment from the Ivory Tower. And the legions of young men and women who have and will
come forward to speak on this topic are caught up in one of the greatest cultural shifts to
happen on American campuses in decades: a reframing of sexual dynamics.
Its Complicated

I was inspired by Sulkowicz and her peers, but in these womens impressive march into the
nations consciousness, theyve left questions in their wake. Many, many questions some of
which call the finer points of their ideology and tactics into doubt.

This book starts from the proven phenomenon that sexual assault is rampant on college
campuses. But it does not end there. What type of student is assaulted in college? Can we
figure that out and use this to guide our efforts to combat this problem? How many offenders are
there? Who are they? Do they do it once over the course of their college careers or many
times? By the way, what is it, exactly? Is sexual assault like pornography you know it when
you see it or does it have many definitions, some in the eye of the beholder? And what does
all of this have to do with a new national consensus among universities about consent?

These are hard questions to answer because on Planet College, paradoxes around sex and
sexual assault abound. Todays college students arent actually having more sex, or more
sexual partners, than students in previous decades sociological studies show that they arent.
But they are having it more casually, and thats the type of sex that one doesnt always feel
good about afterward or, often, at the time and during which women, particularly, have a
difficult time expressing what they want. Add to this the influence of hardcore Internet porn,
which has operated as a form of sex ed for todays college students, and its clear that some
girls are having worse sex than a generation before. The normalization of binge drinking makes
navigating all this even harder.

The biggest paradox, of course, is that universities, which sell parents the myth that their
campuses are a halfway house between childhood and adulthood, crisscrossed by SafeBuses
and with dorms protected by magnetic swipe cards, have some of the highest rates of sexual
assault in the country, with one in five female undergrads surveyed reporting that she has been
sex- ually assaulted at some time in college. The number is creeping even higher. In one study,
30 percent of female undergraduates at two of our nations top schools the University of
Michigan and the University of Southern California checked boxes for yes.

Im a bit skeptical of upward trend lines in victimization. Theres enough fire here that we dont
need to fan the flames. The words rape and assault may have surged in our culture and on
campus, but theres little clarity about their meanings. Definitions have multiplied, often
controversially, to cover a wide variety of problematic sexual behavior, from luring a classmate
into an apartment and locking the door from the inside to a time-tested dodge (Ill only put in the
tip) to even a sexist, objectifying remark (Nice ass!).

Were better off focusing on what is largely causing sexual assault: the number of times that one
comes into contact with acquaintances or, in particular, what sociologists call in-network
strangers, often at a party or at an off-campus apartment. An in-network stranger is the friend
of a friend from the next dorm over, someones brother visiting for the weekend, a guy who
strikes up a conversation with you in the library stacks. In other words, many of the individuals a
student might encounter on campus, because at college, although students perceive
themselves as being among peers, they are actually surrounded by strangers. The risk is
college itself, as defined in the popular imagination, those heavenly expanses of pretty quads,
homecoming games, and rowdy frats.

There are a few other characteristics of modern universities and modern students that are
deeply intertwined with the sexual-assault phenomenon.

The first is partying, and thats something that universities have become expert at providing for
their students, structuring higher education to push students away from professorial oversight
and toward engagement with peers. A small cohort of students used to spend their college
years in a YOLO haze; sociologists now think many undergrads do so. Given this environment,
the term acquaintance rape, which replaced date rape in colloquial language long ago date
rape sounded too romantic has been shifted to the side by some experts by another, more
specific phrase: party rape. This means the assault comes after a social, sexualized
atmosphere, even if it doesnt happen between a girl and a guy she likes. You go to college
and you have no idea who you are, and the most important thing in the world is frat boys and
sorority girls and who is popular its not that different than being in a cult, a recent University
of Southern California grad told me, a bunch of colored bangles clacking on her wrist. And the
same way if youre in the Mob you might get killed, or if you hang out in a heroin trap house you
might get HIV, if youre at a crazy college party, you might have sex thats somewhere between
consensual and rape. Everyones getting really, really drunk or on sixteen hits of Molly and
having sex, and maybe not wanting to have sex but too fucked up to say what they want.

The second factor, as cheesy as it sounds, is social media. Its created a great deal of pressure
on students to craft sexualized identities some aggressively hetero, some fluid, but all more
bawdy. Theyre certainly more public. The complex web of display, desire, and emotion that
make up post- adolescent sexuality enacted for decades in bathroom mirrors have been
turned into publicly shared global performances. Our digital ages instant, immersive space
flattens us into avatars and demands constant attention to ones attractiveness and sex appeal.

And yet, in college, these formless, endless nights and carefully crafted erotic identities are on a
collision course with the unyielding edifice of teenage morality. As they always have been,
college students are particularly prone to the third consideration: black-and-white views on
moral issues that their elders see in more grayscale terms. Though eighteen is seen as the
gateway to adulthood, girls in college are still very much adolescents, and boys are even farther
behind developmentally. Their cognitive faculties are actually as robust as any adults. The
problem is that these faculties are only sometimes in control of their socioemotional systems.
They are also developmentally driven to intensely mirror and deeply care about the opinions of
one extremely exclusive set of people on this planet: their friends. If you dont remember feeling
this way, you dont remember being nineteen.
Lets not forget, too, that many college kids consider the specific kinds of behaviors that lead to
a risk of sexual assault to be positive. After all, isnt indulging in boundless freedom, a mind-
numbing amount of alcohol (or the right amount of mind-expanding drugs), and sexual
experimentation what our society calls pleasure?

Excerpted from BLURRED LINES: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by
Vanessa Grigoriadis. Copyright 2017 by Vanessa Grigoriadis. Reprinted by permission
of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.