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'Blurred Lines': How Sexual Culture is Changing on College Campuses

Monkey Business

For the most part, college students are back on campus and in class. For freshmen, it’s often their first real taste of freedom, a time when they’re becoming adults and breaking free of limitations they’ve had at home.

It’s also a time of experimentation for many - with alcohol, street drugs and with sex. Sex and how it fits into university life is a complex one, with hook-ups co-existing with greater awareness of sexual assault and the importance of consent.

"Girls in college have a really different sexual playing field than guys do, and only by having guys as allies as we going to be able to fix the problem," explains writer Vanessa Grigoriadis. Her new book,  Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, tries to navigate college's complex sexual culture. 

When revisiting colleges 20 years after graduating, Grigoriadis was most surprised by the dominance of hook-up culture. The "no strings attached" and "friends with benefits" attitude students have today can be traced to the '90s, she explains.

"Of course dating still happens, of course people still have long term boyfriends and girlfriends," she says. "But at the beginning there's very little of like, 'Hey, can I bring you flowers and take you out to a movie tonight?' It's more like the 'Netflix and chill' - that's a short hand for what's going on."

Credit Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Grigoriadis says that the sexual grey area students navigate in is quite contradictory to their normal habits when it comes to daily life and planning.

"(The sexual culture) is all really very vague, and that was something that I found really striking because when you look at millennials, they're super planners...So there's a lot of kind of unresolved feelings I think around sex particularly in this generation in college," she notes.

While millennials in college are functioning as adults in the academic landscape, their emotional development still has a lot of catching up to do, Grigoriadis says. This is a factor in why many campuses are shifting from the "no means no" to "yes means yes."

"Now colleges want kids to think of it in a slightly different way. They want them to ask, 'Do you want to have sex?' That is the way they want an encounter to proceed, so that the onus is not really on the girls to say 'no,'" she explains.

While researching for this book, Grigoriadis spoke with a number of college-age men who have been accused of sexual assault. She says that those who take their stories to the media are not typically physically violent rapists, "it's really tough because you do feel for these boys, at the same you don't know for sure if they've done it or haven't."

Grigoriadis says that while feminist views do not want to reduce sexual assault to a "he said, she said" argument, some cases do boil down to that. "If you're looking at it like a police detective, it looks a lot like a 'he said, she said.' There's very little physical evidence, usually no injuries, maybe even a string of text messages before the encounter that involve flirtation."

"We're also in a vast transition in terms of the way that sexual dynamics are happening in the bedroom, and there are boys who are kind of caught in this time of transition and we need to be fair to them," she says. "We need to say well there are some cases where the boy will say I truly didn't assault her and the girl will truly feel assaulted and they could both actually be right."

In addition to a sexual transition, Grigoriadis says a societal transition is moving in tandem. Women are being perceived differently professionally and socially in the greater world outside of college. From taking on roles outside of the home to being more educated than men, this is having an impact on the way some college men view fellow female students. "What we do know is that the social norm about taking that (drunk) girl home has really changed in terms of college guys not high fiving the guy the next day....that's not cool anymore. I think that's a big deal," she notes.

Grigoriadis also says that colleges cannot address the issue of sexual politics without getting into the issues of alcohol and casual drug use. Late August and September is when most of the assaults happen between two people who don't know each other very well and have just arrived at school, she explains. And, she adds, 88% of all gang rape victims on college campuses are freshman and over three quarters of them are drunk.

"Consent is golden and don't drink your consent away (is key)." She says that students should enjoy their time at college and socializing, but knowing your limit and being safe and responsible is also important.

However, Grigoriadis says "good changes are happening and I think we need to give (students) a bit of applause for that." After three years of reporting and researching "an incredibly complicated problem based on long standing norms of how women and men should interact," she nevertheless had a positive experience.

"What I really felt optimistic about were the actual kids I met," says Grigoriadis. "The kid's are alright! They're smart, they're articulate on the subject, they're thinking this issue through, they're not these iPhone addicted droid that we think of...This generation is going to be fine. They just need to set clear boundaries, think about what they want to do each night and not just leave a lot up to chance and then find themselves in risky situations they can't get out of."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.