Sexual Assault on Campus and the Lessons of a Botched Book Review – The New Yorker
In 2012, as a considerable portion of the American reading public now knows, the Columbia undergraduates Emma Sulkowicz and Paul Nungesser had a disputed sexual encounter in her dorm room. It began consensually. Sulkowicz claims that Nungesser then anally raped her while she said no; he disputes this. In 2013, Sulkowicz filed a complaint with Columbia; Nungesser was found, in the terms of the university disciplinary panel, “not responsible.” In 2014, the journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote about the incident’s aftermath in a cover story for New York. Sulkowicz had begun an activist art project in which she carried a mattress around campus. In 2015, Nungesser filed a Title IX lawsuit against Columbia, saying that he had experienced gender discrimination as a result of Sulkowicz’s project. The university settled an amended version of the suit earlier this year.
“The gravitational field on Planet College is shifting,” Grigoriadis observes in her new book “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus,” which expands on this previous reporting to look at Syracuse and Wesleyan and other four-year residential schools. Acts that previously would have been written off as bad experiences are “being reclassified as offenses that can earn banishment from the Ivory Tower,” she writes. The overheated sexual dynamic that’s particular to college—one in which freedom, drugs, alcohol, and near-compulsory mating rituals are suddenly thrust upon young people in an environment that has always traditionally prioritized men—is now being transformed by feminism, Grigoriadis writes, in what amounts to “one of the greatest cultural shifts to happen on American campuses in decades.” “Blurred Lines” is a meticulous and complex analysis of sexual assault in this new context. It is also the subject of what might be the most contested book review of the year.
In September, Michelle Goldberg reviewed “Blurred Lines” for the Times. Goldberg was recently hired by the paper as an Op-Ed columnist; Grigoriadis is now a contributing writer for the Times Magazine. In the review, Goldberg credits Grigoriadis for her skill in documenting complex, nuanced characters and cultures. But “when Grigoriadis moves away from individual dramas to broad cultural pronouncements,” Goldberg writes, “the book falters.” She goes on, “In this confusing climate, a cleareyed elucidation of the murky campus rape phenomenon would be enormously welcome. ‘Blurred Lines’ aims to be that book, but is too sloppy with the facts to succeed.”
I read “Blurred Lines” shortly before Goldberg’s review was published, and the review confused me—first because it seemed so unusually piqued. One paragraph, for instance, calls out “jarring” inaccuracies, then cites, by way of example, a tentative hypothesis that Grigoriadis submits concerning gender dynamics and a couple of anecdotal sentences about when people do and do not use the word “bitch.” (These are not focal points of the book, which comes in at nearly three hundred densely detailed pages.) I also simply didn’t recognize the sloppiness that Goldberg lamented. Having gone from the Greek system at the University of Virginia to a job in women’s media at the moment that Rolling Stone published a false story about an alleged rape at a U.V.A. fraternity, I consider myself, if anything, overly sensitive to careless portrayals of college sexual dynamics. “Blurred Lines” struck me as one of the most intensive and challenging books I’ve read on the subject. It is, admittedly, a hard book to sum up succinctly: a few weeks ago, after telling my editor I’d e-mail him my quick reaction to it, I ended up typing a memo of roughly a thousand words.
Ten days after it published Goldberg’s review, the Times appended a hundred-and-nineteen-word correction, which Erik Wemple, of the Washington Post, described as “eye-popping.” The review “refers incorrectly to her reporting on the issues,” the correction acknowledged. Goldberg had cited figures from a Department of Justice survey that the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reproduced on its Web site: college women are twenty per cent less likely than their non-student peers to be victimized, the survey determined. “I’m not sure how anyone could write an entire book about the subject of campus rape and not know this,” Goldberg wrote. Though Grigoriadis never specifically mentions the twenty-per-cent statistic, one chapter of her book begins with a six-page section that examines the National Crime Victimization Survey, which produced it. The N.C.V.S. is administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, under the Department of Justice; there are a lot of acronyms involved, and, reading the review, I wondered if Goldberg had overlooked the precise name of the study and failed to register its appearance in the book. (Goldberg declined to comment for this piece.) A sentence was deleted from the review, which, in its updated version, states that Grigoriadis did not “reckon” with the survey. According to Wemple, an editor at the Times told Grigoriadis that “reckon” is a matter of opinion.
Notably, the section of “Blurred Lines” that, by any reasonable definition of the word, reckons with the numbers in question, is itself about how difficult it is to obtain generalizable data on the topic of sexual assault. Survey methodology dramatically influences responses; half of women who will check a box saying they’ve experienced behavior that meets the definition of sexual assault will decline to check a box saying they’ve actually been sexually assaulted. Grigoriadis quotes Christopher Krebs and Callie Rennison, two experts who disagree about the prevalence of sexual assault at colleges, but who agree that there are “few, if any, representative national numbers.” Krebs designed the survey from 2007 that led to the frequently cited statistic that one in five college women is sexually assaulted before graduation. Rennison is a former researcher at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, though “Blurred Lines” doesn’t introduce her this way; she disagrees with Krebs’s idea that unwanted sexual contact is the same as sexual assault, and believes that “we should not be calling the problem a campus crime.”
“According to Rennison’s research, those who are not in college (again, when college includes two-year-colleges as well as online schools) actually face more risk than those in college,” Grigoriadis writes, citing the N.C.V.S. She notes that Rennison agreed with her that the N.C.V.S. numbers seemed low, and quotes another expert who calls the N.C.V.S. measurements “disastrously wrong.” As Stassa Edwards pointed out, at Jezebel, after Goldberg’s review was published, N.C.V.S. methodology has elsewhere been disputed at length. Grigoriadis could have spent more time on the survey, but she does address explicitly some of the concerns that people have raised about its results: for instance, the N.C.V.S. sometimes gathers information in person, with students’ parents present; its questions are worded in a way that is likely inhibitory; and the survey does not ask about “incapacitated rape.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics itself acknowledges that other studies on college sexual assaults have produced higher incidence rates.
After the correction to Goldberg’s review was added, Joe Pompeo, at Vanity Fair, described internal contention and embarrassment at the Times surrounding the piece. On Twitter, Goldberg responded to the criticism, acknowledging that she had made a “serious, mortifying mistake” in her original phrasing and adding, “This whole thing is turning into a round robin of fuckups.” Grigoriadis tweeted back: “Could you correct yourself or are you busy ruining my career?” Goldberg reiterated to the Post that she believes the twenty-per-cent-less statistic handicaps Grigoriadis’s entire project, and that “one of the book’s central contentions about its subject is wrong.”
That central contention is stated plainly in the book’s introduction, where Grigoriadis declares that, when it comes to campus sexual assault, “the risk is college itself.” If, indeed, college students are significantly less likely to be assaulted than non-college students, that’s a fair point on Goldberg’s part. But, in addition to the methodological concerns people have raised about the N.C.V.S., the survey defines “college women” to include any woman between eighteen and twenty-four who is enrolled, full or part time, in any post-secondary institution. “Blurred Lines” explicitly examines only four-year residential colleges—where, as it happens, self-reported sexual assaults have been increasing. (Grigoriadis writes that she is “skeptical of upward trend lines in victimization,” but also notes that, in one recent study, thirty per cent of female undergrads at Michigan and the University of Southern California reported having been assaulted.) At residential colleges, rape occurs within a discrete institutional context, and it’s within this context (“Planet College”) that the media-savvy feminists exemplified by Sulkowicz have sparked a wave of activism that continues to generate administrative and social consternation. This specific situation, more than anything, is the subject of Grigoriadis’s book. (It’s also worth noting that the phrase “the risk is college itself” appears in a paragraph where “college” refers to the illusory undergraduate social dynamic that makes young people think of strangers as something close to friends.)
The mistakes in the Times review, then, are tangled up in debates that go beyond simple error. To what extent should college sexual assault be regarded as a distinct phenomenon? Does that phenomenon have a social importance that goes beyond its relative frequency? Can administrative structures protect students against a phenomenon that the social dynamics of college itself facilitate?
To me, it seems eminently reasonable to think of campus rape as a distinct and pressing problem, and it seems uncontroversial to say that the sexual risk for young people who enter a distinct and semi-isolated environment is determined by the particulars of that environment. But there is ambiguity here, and argument to be had—the lack of clarity that Goldberg blames on “Blurred Lines” is inherent in the book’s subject matter. Grigoriadis’s project is to show that conclusions about campus rape only exist within a complicated mosaic. She offers a few bold facts and prescriptions: freshman year is the danger zone; there is only one rape-prevention program that really works, and it’s in Canada; the Greek system and the drinking age insure that, on a lot of campuses, fraternity boys have a morally alarming amount of social control. Grigoriadis makes limited arguments when she can, but there is almost always contradictory or complicating information—which she also provides. Goldberg’s review ultimately seems to prove that, if you isolate any single hypothesis or argument or statistic about the problem of college sexual assault, there will be some way to make it seem wrong, even specious. Throughout the review, she picks out sentence-long observations as if they define the thesis of the book, when Grigoriadis’s most essential point, and the overwhelming truth about college rape and sexual assault generally, is that there are very few sentence-long theses to be had.