The media love a scandal, and a scandal is what we got this September when Michelle Goldberg wrote a review of Vanessa Grigoriadis’s book Blurred Lines: Power and Consent on Campus that contained glaring inaccuracies. Joe Pompeo has rounded the whole thing up for Vanity Fair. The New York Times ran a lengthy correction beneath her article, which explains that she “refers incorrectly to [Grigoriadis’s] reporting on the issues.” The issues were around the subject of her book, which tries to figure out whether or not there is a new sexual violence crisis on college campuses—and if so, what to do about it.
Much of the difficulty has to do with statistics: who is assaulted, and where, and how often? Goldberg’s piece was off the mark for the very reason that makes this subject difficult to report. The data around campus sexual violence is contested. Is it one in five young women who experience sexual violence in college? One in three? And who is doing the raping, anyway? Is it a handful of serial predators, or a generous sprinkling diffused throughout the fraternities, growing there like fungus on a wall?
In her book, Grigoriadis pursues these questions with admirable doggedness. But there is research reporting, and then there is atmospheric reporting. And on the latter Grigoriadis is a bit wobblier. An important early section of the book is filled in with her time spent on the Wesleyan campus, meeting with and characterizing the student activists there. She also spends time with the mothers of men who have been accused of sexual crimes while at university. She analyzes “millennial culture” according to the way that she sees young people’s clothes, their music, and their language. It was this element of the book that blurred my judgment with respect to the rest of Grigoriadis’s analysis. Or, rather, it didn’t blur my vision so much as it colored it: it made me stop trusting her.
For example, she refers to the idea that American culture has been “fully pornified.” In illustrating this concept, Grigoriadis describes how “subtle flirtations”—presumably in the realm of sexual advance—have been replaced by “enhanced body parts, skimpy clothing, and overt come-ons.” The pornification of our culture is connected for Grigoriadis to the notion that “women’s bodies are presented for consumption more today than ever before, and it’s easy for boys to skip over the feminist justifications for it.” This struck me as more moralistic than empathetic. It had the air of generational antagonism, like an octogenarian shaking his head and muttering, “kids these days.”
Likwise, there are some descriptions of millennial culture that just felt, well, weird. Grigoriadis mentions The Chainsmokers four times in Blurred Lines, which feels excessive—they are just not a particularly important band. Similarly, she writes that today’s “college guy grew up with EDM culture, which is supposed to be a free-love culture.” As a statement about music, this is just confusing. Dance music has always been around and festival culture has always been around. The popularity of a certain type of music (the cheesy “EDM” chart version of electro house spun by bad DJs like David Guetta, for instance) really and truly isn’t a culture, and there is nothing about it than one can extrapolate for meaningful insights into the intimate lives of an entire generation. This is the kind of extrapolation that Grigoriadis attempts with eerie frequency.
I had other neck-cricking moments. Grigoriadis describes of Tumblr as “a hotbed of feminist, and emo, radical thought.” What is emo radical thought? Elsewhere, she calls intersectionality “multiculturalism on speed.” These statements show a disconnect with college-aged people that makes Grigoriadis’s suspicion of campus activists feel, well, biased. Social media has made millennials into “a certain kind of narcissist,” she writes.
That bias feeds into too-certain statements about rape. Grigoriadis spends time expressing skepticism and distrust of some campus rape survivors who have gone public. She continually points out her own feelings (“Five years ago, I wouldn’t have necessary called some of this assault.”). After spending a long evening with a group of mothers of men accused of rape, she closes one chapter by writing that she doesn’t agree with their views on pop culture or gender relations generally. But she does agree with them that “we, as a society, are terrified to look at boys as boys rather than men and give them a break as such. And we’re equally scared to tell girls to bear responsibility for their sexual behavior and safety.”
This last observation is given much credence in the book; towards the end, Grigoriadis discusses how effective self defense programs can be, but says they are underfunded in colleges due to a fear of implying that rape and, avoiding it, is somehow a woman’s responsibility. But that other observation: what does it mean to look at boys as boys and give them a break “as such”? There’s really no discussion of what that break might mean, of what looking at an 18-22-year old as a “boy” might entail. In the end, it’s unclear whether Grigoriadis sympathizes with these accused rapists.
Blurred Lines is a meticulously researched book. Ultimately, she treats her subjects who have experienced sexual assault with the respect that real journalistic standards confer: the stories come in their own words. Blurred Lines is probably intended as a book for worried parents and others—like administrative professionals—who are worried by the changing stakes of in loco parentis caretaking of young people today. For this purpose, the book is certainly fit. But for Grigoriadis seems faintly suspicious of anti-rape efforts throughout Blurred Lines—suspicious of the young radicals at Wesleyan, suspicious of some of the cases brought against campus abusers. For this reason, I remained faintly suspicious of her throughout.