How Sex is Changing on College Campuses

In this excerpt from her book, Blurred Lines, Vanessa Grigoriadis offers advice on how schools, students, and parents can make college a safer, richer experience.


It’s back-to-school time, and that means college campuses are filled again with young minds eager to learn. But, as we all know, studying is far from the only thing that happens on a college campus. In recent years, binge drinking, hazing, and sexual assaults on campus have been in the national headlines and colleges and universities have been taking steps to make college safer for its students. But even still, the topic of sex, consent and responsible drinking on campus are complex and confusing ones.

In her new book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, Vanessa Grigoriadis, a contributing editor for the New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, works to dispel that confusion. She traveled to schools large and small and embedded herself in the student body, talking to students—both victims of sexual assault and those accused of perpetrating it—as well as administrators, parents, and researchers. The result is an unprecedented investigation, in which she dispels the myths of the conflicting statistics about the prevalence of campus rape, reveals which situations are the most dangerous for women and makes the case that not all sexual assault is equivalent.

In the below excerpt from Blurred Lines, Grigoriadis offers convincing if controversial advice on how schools, students, and parents can make college a safer, richer experience.

Collegiate sexual assault is a complex problem with inputs from pop culture, the media, law, the federal government, competing philosophies about gender relations, and subjective perspectives. University-sponsored programs in rape prevention or risk reduction won’t ever be the entire answer. Each of us can take baby steps toward change, and much of this change involves having fun, just not the type of fun that involves blackout-drunk sex or the type of sex that some students may feel violated by down the line. I’ll lob a few ideas here, though you’ll likely have others.

For students and parents:

Watch out for guys who exhibit toxic masculinity. Don’t be friends with those guys if you’re a man, and stay away from them if you’re a woman. Many women may joke that this means they’d have to stay away from guys entirely, but we know there’s a spectrum of what guys say in conversation in front of us. Some sociologists say that the more overtly misogynist a man’s language is, the more likely it is he is an assaulter. It’s convenient that these two quantities line up, and young people—both men and women—would be well served if they let their knowledge about who these individuals are direct their behavior on campus. The list of recommendations below is far less valuable if the particular crowd of men who assault aren’t ostracized or otherwise made to shift their behavior.

Expand your cohort. Students need friendships beyond a tight clique. Participation in clubs raises a student’s social capital, which means that someone like Brock Turner—a guy looking to hook up with someone, anyone, over the course of an evening, consensually or not—will not perceive him or her as an easy target.

And, obviously, don’t do what Turner’s victim’s sister did. It’s hard not to leave a friend at a party when you’re ready to go home. She may be eyeing someone she’s truly interested in hooking up with later in the night. A good rule of thumb is never leave a drunk friend at a party, and never leave a sober friend at a party if you don’t know a majority of the attendees.

Beware of the in-network stranger. No, other students at school aren’t your friends—they’re strangers. But most of them won’t hurt you. Nonetheless, it’s worth being wary of an older guy who is hanging out on campus but isn’t enrolled at the school. I’m talking about the friend of an RA or a frat brother’s high-school lacrosse teammate, as in the Rape Factory case at Wesleyan. Why would an older guy want to go to a college party or even visit a college if he’s not enrolled? There’s a plethora of reasons, but one of them is definitely an attempt to hook up with younger students, consensually or not.

If you are assaulted and decide that you want to report the incident to authorities or your school, do not take a shower. An STI treatment and pregnancy test can be administered no matter what, but anything you do to clean yourself up after an assault means destroying precious evidence. Don’t wash your face, brush your teeth, comb your hair, or change your clothes (or, if you want to change your clothes, bring the original ones along in a clean paper bag). Rape kits are time-sensitive. You want to get to the hospital quickly, but try to find a hospital that has specially trained sexual assault nurse examiners on site. You can find one by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

This is a better avenue than calling 911 unless you’re in immediate danger; if you are, do that. If you decide to pursue criminal prosecution, the hospital will connect you with law enforcement. Trained advocates may also provide support if you encounter abrasive law enforcement officers.

Don’t watch your drink; watch what you drink. Choosing to model drinking habits after Syracuse’s Caroline Heres—making sure you get your own drink at the party, like a beer that you crack open yourself—is fine. But it’s unlikely to protect from much except a hangover. Roofies and Xanax may occasionally feature in assaults, but in the vast majority of cases, the drug in acquaintance rape is alcohol.

Move the drinking age to 18. Today’s universities are trying to reel in binge drinking by their “education consumers.” Hard liquor’s out at Indiana University frats, the University of Michigan’s frats are no longer allowed to have kegs, and Stanford, beginning in 2016, decreed beer and wine were the only kind of liquor that could be served at undergrad parties, and in general, any bottle in affiliated housing had to be smaller than a fifth. Dartmouth took the hardest line. Its undergrads cannot consume hard liquor in campus-affiliated spaces, including frats, period.

Some Title IX officers told me this could go further. Attorneys could devise a way to completely remove alcohol from campus culture: “Man, I need to be a plaintiff ’s attorney, because these suits could get big,” one of them tells me. “Universities get sued because of bad outcomes from the drinking and drug party culture, but it’s like a product liability lawsuit—ten lawsuits, ten people die, whatever, it costs more money to fix it. It has to cost them enough money to tip the scale.”

Personally, I wonder if half-steps won’t accomplish as much as changing America’s drinking age. Twenty-one puts it smack in the middle of most four-year residential students’ college experience. If the drinking age were lower, it not only would move drinking out of unsupervised frat basements and into public, but might have a shot at changing our youth culture of excess, moving toward the European model of wine with dinner instead of crushing empty beer cans on one’s head. Some research also shows that car accidents and deaths happen most among drinkers who have just become legal, whether they’re eighteen or twenty-one. At eighteen, Americans can vote, get married, and join the military—essentially, decide they want to risk their own lives. Lower the drinking age so that the psychological rush of trespassing, of engaging in binge-drinking culture because illegality is exciting, is deflated.

Read, don’t speed-read, the sexual-misconduct section in your university’s handbook. Prove Jonathan Kalin wrong. You’ll be surprised at how restrictive the rules around sex at your college are. And don’t forget to read the handbook every year. Universities can change regulations according to recommendations of their general counsel or the government. You are subject to each year’s rules, not the ones that were in effect when you started. This advice will likely mean updating sexual behavior to “yes means yes,” because this is probably the rule at your school.

Advocate for “yes means yes,” not “no means no.” I haven’t made secret my support for affirmative consent in my book, and in this, I’m aligned with universities today. You can think about it as a high-toned, righteous issue about sexual autonomy, or a new minor courting ritual. It’s not that different from sending an emoji to clarify one’s meaning at the end of a text message. Call it a verbal condom.

There may, however, be a cloud over this matter. “You’ve got to be careful creating a standard for discipline that’s not consistent with human behavior and the social norms of a community,” says Peter Lake of Stetson University. “A lot of people don’t behave according to affirmative consent standards. It isn’t how they’re culturalized.” Lake calls it “aspirational, not typical.”

Lake wouldn’t be surprised to see this issue hit the U.S. Supreme Court, which he predicts will weigh in on campus issues of due process, consent, privacy rights, and perhaps the interpretation of Title IX. “Affirmative consent is ripe for the picking,” he says. “Be prepared to be surprised. The issues do not line up in obvious ways, in part because the Supreme Court hasn’t touched it in a generation.” He notes that the Court has historically been concerned about turning universities into judicial systems. “The Founding Fathers were very disfavorable to the idea of federally regulated higher education. George Washington wanted a national college; they wouldn’t give it to him. So we’re actually about a hundred and eighty degrees away from where we started, and that’s not going to be lost on certain members of the Court.”

Don’t take high numbers of assaults at a particular school as a sign that it is unsafe. Instead, search for universities with the largest number of reports. High numbers of cases at Title IX offices, which will show up in public university records, means awareness around this issue has spread through a campus, and students feel they can report assaults to the school without fear of being ostracized by their friends. If you are serious about this issue, you might want to choose the most progressive campus available in your state, or a liberal-arts school, even if silly political sloganeering comes with it. Progressive campuses are beginning to incorporate a shift in social norms about assault. And that shift in norms may eventually reel in the behavior of a majority of assaulters: that 8 percent who generally don’t rape before entering college.

Explain to your kids that the risk is off campus, not on. Indoor, well-lit places like off-campus apartments are far riskier than a dark path from one’s dorm to the library. Students should not be afraid when they are crossing through campus, day or night.

If you don’t have self-defense classes on campus, learn a few self-defense tricks. If you’re confronted with physical force, the best course of action is to yell, strike back, and run away. If you are attacked by an acquaintance (or someone who doesn’t use force), you may need a different strategy. You probably won’t feel comfortable yelling or striking someone you know, even vaguely, but Jocelyn Hollander, the University of Oregon professor, says putting your hands in front of you and saying “Back off” can be effective.

Tell your children that if they’re accused of sexual assault on campus —or of any disciplinary issue, actually—they must call immediately. If you want to be proactive, locate a local attorney near the school. In some small university towns, the best attorneys will have business with the school and be unable to represent your child. This is overkill, granted. But it doesn’t cost anything, and it may make you feel more secure if you are truly afraid of what might happen if your son is accused of assault. But never lose sight of the fact that the odds of a boy getting reported (unfairly or not) to his college for assault is about one in a thousand, the same odds of a man developing breast cancer.

If your son has joined a fraternity, make doubly sure that he knows to call you if he becomes enmeshed in a scandal. When a sexual-assault or hazing incident hits the radar, representatives from Greek organizations tend to sweep in and take statements perhaps before boys call personal lawyers or their parents. This may not be in your son’s best interests.

Bring consent education to younger students. In 2015, the California legislature, in a nearly unanimous vote, required that affirmative consent —“yes means yes”—be taught in public high schools. The law, the first of its kind in the United States, states that high schools that require health courses for graduation must instruct students on preventing sexual harassment and violence and on consent.

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The law went into effect for school districts at the beginning of 2016 but it may be a few years before a standard “yes means yes” curriculum, or even guidelines for how to teach consent, are put in place, due to government red tape. At the moment, affected school districts (which include five of the state’s ten largest) are creating their own curricula, and they may contain a British viral video that uses the analogy of making a person a cup of tea to explain the concept of consent. (No one would insist that someone who was passed out had to drink tea, and no one would force someone to drink tea if she said she wanted it and then changed her mind and said she didn’t.)

Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest, has been teaching consent in seventh- and ninth-grade health classes for a while, but beginning with the 2016–2017 school year, health teachers are required to dedicate between forty-five and ninety minutes (or more, if they choose) to an activity about consent. The lesson begins with a teacher’s presentation, which students respond to with role-play scenarios, visual arts projects, or story-telling. Students may also develop the theme into a school-wide awareness campaign.

At the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Center, scholars are beginning to explore programs for other states. “We’re trying to stop kids from saying, ‘Fuck you,’” says professor Katie Edwards, meaning that they’d blow her off from the minute she walked in the room because she was an adult talking about sexual consent. “If you roll in and say, ‘We’re going to tell you not to rape,’ you’re going to get a lot of fuck-yous.”

To combat this, UNH has tailored their program to teen psychology. “Teenagers like to be subversive,” she says. “You like to say eat your broccoli and they like to say no, you say put on this shirt and they say absolutely not—being a teenager is about being rebellious.” Her solution is to talk to kids about consent in terms of how they’ve been tricked, by the media and pop culture, to think it’s not cool. “We tell them the media sends messages that it’s okay to talk about girls as hoes and bitches—now, do we think that, or are we being brainwashed? We make them feel the dominant, heteronormative, super-masculine, super-violent culture is something they’ve been brainwashed to do, and is it something they want to be doing?”

This sounds promising to me. If you live in a state other than California, organize at your high school to lobby for consent education on the curriculum. Teaching kids about healthy relationships and consent is not controversial, and churches should learn to accept it. This is not about methods of birth control. It’s about ethics.

For schools:

Protect Title IX. DeVos and her deputies could blow up some advances at universities, perhaps by raising the burden of proof. Right now it is 51 percent, which some people think is too low. I don’t agree for one simple reason: it is so hard to prove sexual assault that coming up with 1 percent to tip the scales, or the feather that Brett Sokolow spoke about, is usually enough.

There are fewer fisheries professors hearing cases today. Universities are now recruiting more sophisticated investigators, like former prosecutors and law enforcement agents. Such hires should lead to more justice. The sprawling University of Texas system has signed up the four-star military admiral who led the Bin Laden raid. And at a networking dinner, I met Amy Beckett, an eccentric redhead with four grown kids from Celine, Ohio. A former criminal prosecutor with a PhD in philosophy, Beckett wants a life change; she’s even looked into a job serving as a “modern butler” for an elderly woman outside Cleveland who she imagines could be LeBron James’s mom. “And get this: She’s only a resident in the house five months a year, so the rest of the time I can ride my tricycle inside and write red rum on the mirrors.” She laughs at her joke, and then says, “No, seriously, I’m pretty focused on the twelve new job postings I’ve seen in the Midwest for Title IX officers in the past six weeks.”

Beckett agrees with the principle behind Title IX enforcement: sexual assault and misconduct need to be addressed on campus, not by the criminal justice system. “We’re here at universities creating civic-minded people, ethical leaders,” she says. “Frankly, we’re not a democracy. We’re a republic, with an elite, and we aren’t sending this elite through our colleges so they can regurgitate textbooks. They need to learn how to act in a dignified manner.”

Shut down pre-orientation and early-fall parties at fraternities. Schools demanding that pledging wait for sophomore year are smart, but for a school like Syracuse, which relies on the Greek scene to provide social life in a depressed town, it’s not realistic. Universities can, however, ban frat parties during orientation and the red zone. Kids going to these parties, usually seventeen or eighteen years old, have just left their childhood homes. They should not be thrust into a risky party culture at the same time they’re disoriented. They’re signing up for classes, making new friends, letting their guards down—and drinking more than they probably ever have before.

Designate some faculty “confidential reporters.” Not every incident needs to become a federal case. “One thing that administrators don’t understand is that when students come to you asking to do something, frankly, it’s more important that they’re affirmed,” says Jason Laker, the San Jose State University professor of counselor education. Some campus assault victims want only to be heard by an adult in a position of authority. They don’t want an official Title IX hearing. Among the relationships that a student has on campus, even at a time when professors at research universities are encouraged to publish rather than teach, the professor-student relationship should be mentor-mentee, or even doctor-patient. Confidences should be permitted.

Consent apps are a decent idea. Yup, I know I made fun of them earlier. Activists dislike the way they emphasize covering one’s ass rather than “showing up for your partner,” as author Jaclyn Friedman put it. Legal experts say they won’t work even if they include video of a student agreeing to have sex, because a user will never be able to prove that he wasn’t holding a gun at the victim’s head outside of the frame. But there are some reasons to use them. Even if they feel corny or silly, they may clarify students’ intent. And in a country where one must consent to everything, even medical procedures for which one has already been admitted to the hospital and has obviously consented, why not?

Campuses should allow students who feel violated to time-stamp stories. Jessica Ladd, who received a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins, has a strong idea about how to solve delayed reporting of sexual assaults and the effect the lag has on a survivor’s chances of winning a future case against an assailant. Her answer is Callisto, an “information escrow” app that allows students to create a confidential, time-stamped record of an assault. If a student later decides to tell the university, she’s got backup. If she doesn’t, no one but her will know she wrote it down.

The University of San Francisco and Pomona College piloted Callisto in 2015, and a handful of other schools have partnered with Ladd to use it. She’s also developed a tool for automatically sending a survivor’s account to the school’s Title IX office if another student names the same perpetrator.

Office of Greek Life webpages must include chapter-conduct histories with all the gory details. Doug Fierberg, the profane anti-frat lawyer who represented the Wesleyan Rape Factory victim, believes that universities that promote Greek culture as an essential part of student life have a duty to tell their students (and parents) about the safety (or lack thereof) of frats. “The decision not to provide that information to the greater community absolutely flies in the face of what came out of the Virginia Tech massacre, about students being entitled to timely, accurate information about the risks they face,” says Fierberg, who represented some Virginia Tech victims.

Some universities publish this information now, but Fierberg doesn’t like the way they’re doing it. For example, on its Greek life webpage, the University of Arizona summarizes judicial incidents at frats over the past few years. But the details behind the milquetoast descriptions of what brothers have done wrong are fuzzy. What are “violations related to continued alcohol, safety, and hazing regulations,” exactly? A couple of pledges with open containers stopped by a cop on the street outside the frat? Or a rape?

“Anything you and I know about frats, it’s all anecdotal, but universities know everything,” says Fierberg. “They’re misrepresenting by omission. You’re a parent and you go on this website, and everything looks fine.”

Consider the Dartmouth model. I believe either coeducating the Greek system or shutting frats down entirely is the best way to prevent sexual assault. Not every university will be able to follow in Harvard’s and Wesleyan’s footsteps, though I expect more will try in coming years.

For a university like Dartmouth, one with a deeply entrenched Greek system, an overhaul of student housing is a good first step. In 2015, they began a radical redesign of student living. Their communications director told me that the impetus was fostering inclusion and robust student interaction, not preventing sexual assault, even though an institutional report states that “high-risk drinking, sexual assault and lack of inclusivity are interrelated problems.” It’s fair to assume she’s using a usual public relations parry, and some lessons are worth taking here.

Dartmouth’s new system assigns students to one of six houses, where they are given the option to live from sophomore year onward (the college kept its longstanding freshman-only dorms). These houses are clusters of old red-brick dormitories, with faculty advisers in residence at single-family homes nearby. Named for local streets or their geographical locations—Allen House, East Wheelock House, North Park House, School House, South House, West House—each of these clusters has a gathering space. Two houses will use preexisting common space in the dorms, while the others will rely for now on a 4,750-square-foot, tentlike building parked over a tennis court and a two-story, modular structure erected behind two dorms. These common areas, designed to look like traditional student unions, have snack bars or convenience stores, communal study areas, and large spaces to host Indian dinner night or cookies and tea for a professor’s lecture. To promote the system to students, Dartmouth designed house-branded T-shirts and offers generous funding for house-based social events.

While it’s too soon to tell whether this will work at Dartmouth, it has very successful historical precedents. This house system is based on the residential model used by Harvard and Yale for almost a century, one that includes professors living on the premises (one may recall reading news about the married faculty in residence who created a furor at Yale over the wife’s declaration that Yale was inappropriately policing students’ Halloween costumes; they ultimately resigned from that post). “This is a very complicated puzzle,” says Elizabeth Armstrong, the University of Michigan expert, “but certainly if you had a residents’ hall with a professor who has two kids and a golden retriever living there, that would probably create a safer climate for students. If they’re going to hang out, have pizza with the professor, and pet the golden retriever as opposed to get ragingly drunk, that would probably be safer.”

Although the Dartmouth system was met with some skepticism—“an unpopular, poorly orchestrated experiment in social engineering,” Sarah Perez ’17 grumbled in the student-run newspaper the Dartmouth—once students were assigned to houses, some took pride in the new arrangement. “The underclassmen are buying into it more than the upperclassmen, and eventually everyone will buy into it,” says Sarah Khatry, ’18. “It will take time, but it will take root.”

The hard-alcohol ban at Dartmouth, while hardly followed by all students—who can be stone-cold sober through a Hanover winter?—has also led to impressive changes. “It’s not like my freshman year anymore, where you were handed rum and Coke from a frat brother pretending to be a bartender behind a table in a basement, and another guy pours you another immediately,” says a Dartmouth senior. “Drinking hard liquor still happens, but it happens behind closed doors on the third floor. It’s easier to smoke weed at Dart- mouth now than drink hard alcohol.”

One year after the ban, rates of some alcohol-related incidents are down between 25 and 50 percent. But students also point out an unintended consequence of the ban. “Dartmouth’s social motto used to be open doors all the time, with very few parties that were invite-only,” says a student. “You could go to every frat on the map one night if you were ambitious, and no frat turned you away, whether you were male or female. That’s a funny thing to mourn, but now that the alcohol is private, social life is hierarchical. It’s about who gets invited to the third floor.”

In the 2016–2017 school year, Dartmouth looked into the conduct of at least ten fraternities. Six were disciplined, some for drinking violations.

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.

Featured image: Svitlana Sokolova/; Author Photo: Max Farago

VANESSA GRIGORIADIS is a contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, specializing in pop culture, youth movements, and crime reporting. She is a National Magazine Award winner and has been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Dateline, and Investigation Discovery shows. Blurred Lines is her first book.


VANESSA GRIGORIADIS is a contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, specializing in pop culture, youth movements, and crime reporting. She is a National Magazine Award winner and has been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Dateline, and Investigation Discovery shows. Blurred Lines is her first book.

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