Vanessa Grigoriadis ’95 had her piece published in the New York Times on the sex discourse at Wesleyan this summer, exploring changes in consent culture from then and now, mostly focused on the modern politics of consent. The article, adapted from Grigoriadis’ book, “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power & Consent on Campus” that came out on September 5, takes an ethnographic approach to the hot-button topic of the de jure and de facto protocols relating to sexual relationships on college campuses.
In the middle of the article, Grigoriadis addresses “politically correct” culture in the United States in general: “What few older people see in today’s ‘P.C.’ students is their overwhelming urge to be kind to each other. They may have spent their middle and high school years being bullied, or bullying others; for kids in their low-to-mid-teens, the internet is a bullying machine. But by college, their sense of morality has blossomed. And many adolescents want to sort the world categorically into good and bad, at once eager to draw boundaries and empathize with whatever others might possibly feel.”
She suggests a pseudo-scientific reason for University students’ focus on affirmative consent: As children, we were all bullies or bullied and therefore feel an “overwhelming urge to be kind to each other.” However, as a 2016 CDC fact sheet on bullying shows, bullies are more likely to be violent later in life, so Grigoriadis’ theorized origin of our sense of morality from our experience as a group of bullies is fundamentally false. It also states that victimized youth are more likely to have “anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, and poor school adjustment.” She suggests that our generation’s experiences with bullying, whether as a bully or as a victim, have led to a gentler, more positive outlook, whereas the effects of bullying seem to be purely negative.
Furthermore, by oversimplifying consent and approaching “political correctness” as merely kindness rather than a necessity for respect, equality, and healthy relationships, she undermines its importance. By saying that we all seek to “sort the world categorically into good and bad,” Grigoriadis patronizingly suggests that we are unable to cope with the real world and its complexities.
However, having spoken to a classmate who responded more positively to the article, its benefits are obvious. His older family friends had discussed it with him and revealed that the ideas of affirmative consent had never “clicked” for them before this piece. If it successfully communicates the importance of consent and how the definition of consent has evolved over the past couple of decades, it has done its job, although it may be unsuccessful in its accuracy of portraying Wesleyan. And, to her credit, it seems that Grigoriadis was a progressive activist when she was a student at the University. She worked to start up “Take Back the Night,” an event that still occurs every year to raise awareness of sexual assault.
In focusing on generational differences, Grigoriadis’ piece becomes less of a review of campus sexual assault, and instead, adds to a growing pile of kvetches about everything millennials have ruined. Her grumblings on today’s college youth (“Let’s chalk up these kids’ snarky, furiously penned essays for campus newspapers and mean-spirited social media posts to the internet’s mob mentality”), interwoven with blatant attempts to appeal to the very demographic she chides (“It’s not that different from sending an emoji to clarify one’s meaning at the end of a text message”), serves to place her in an cultural purgatory rendering both her as an author and the article as a commentary unrelatable and vaguely condescending.
What gets lost in her framing of the issue through oversimplified generational stereotypes is the core of the campus sexual assault paradox: Sexual assault was discussed less frequently and openly during her time at Wesleyan not because it happened less, but because it wasn’t understood in as nuanced a way. Talking about sex—good or bad—was much more taboo, and scientifically-backed information about the effects of traumatic sexual experience on students in a competitive collegiate environment was lacking, if existent at all.
However, she seems to see the increased standards for communication before and during sexual activity as primarily a result of our generation’s need to put our thoughts and preferences on constant display. In talking about explicit consent, she claims that “The need to communicate constantly — very millennial — may also be a naïve belief in explicitness. Nothing should be beyond words, no liminal realms of discomfort can be allowed to exist.” Here, she seems to suggest that discussions of verbal consent cater to a need for comfort presumably bred into our generation through doting helicopter parents and childhoods filled with participation trophies. To the contrary, these conversations represent communication that is laughably uncomfortable at best and impedingly cringe-worthy at worst. A desire for explicitly negotiating pre-coital understandings reflects a loss of innocence and ignorance, not, as she claims, naivete. Indeed, these conversations are happening between us kids precisely because we have become more aware than ever of the consequences for both perpetrator and victim when communication around consent is unclear. For a generation known for our supposed laziness and slacktivism, this impulse to lean into hard conversations surrounding sex is something that should be commended rather than ridiculed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that the 2016 CDC fact sheet stated that victims of bullying were more likely to exhibit violent behaviors later in life, but instead it stated that bullies themselves were “at an increased risk for…violence later in adolescence and adulthood.”
Emma Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Hannah Reale can be reached at email@example.com.