“Fascinating but often frustrating” and “too sloppy with the facts to succeed” and full of “baffling errors that threaten to undermine her entire book,” is how writer Michelle Goldberg describes Vanessa Grigoriadis’s new book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus, in an early September review in the New York Times. Unlike most works on the topic, Grigoriadis’s Blurred Lines (an excerpt from which we republished here) is neither an angry manifesto nor an apologist’s tome. Instead, the book is an even-handed look at rape and sexual assault on college campuses which contends seriously with nearly every side of the issue—including that of the men accused of rape. Blurred Lines is a deeply reported book, and yet the New York Times takes it to task.
In her review, Goldberg criticizes Grigoriadis for “jarring” mistakes both large and small. The review is—by the standards of book reviews—scorched earth; calling into question the trustworthiness of the book and, by extension, the reporting capabilities of Grigoriadis. But, as the Erik Wemple Blog reported late last week, Golberg’s “assessment....may well apply to the book review, too,” noting that Goldberg’s review of Blurred Lines is filled with errors that mischaracterize both Grigoriadis’s arguments as well as the content of the book itself.
On September 14, the Times added what Wemple describes as an “eye-popping correction” to Goldberg’s review:
Correction: September 14, 2017
An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to Vanessa Grigoriadis’s reporting for her book. She did in fact write about Department of Justice statistics that say college-age women are less likely than nonstudent women of the same age to be victims of sexual assault; it is not the case that Grigoriadis was unaware of the department’s findings. In addition, the review described incorrectly Grigoriadis’s presentation of statistics from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. She showed that there is disagreement over whether the data are sound; it is not the case that she gave the reader “no reason to believe” they are wrong.
The correction indicates where Goldberg had misstated Grigoriadis’s claims but left the fundamental criticism of the book—namely, the poor reporting—intact. “If you’re going to challenge people’s preconceptions, you have to have your facts straight. ‘Blurred Lines’ gives readers too many reasons not to trust it, even when perhaps they should,” the conclusion of Goldberg’s review still reads, despite the correction.
Goldberg’s review and the subsequent correction left Grigoriadis dissatisfied. “This review is factually incorrect from top to bottom. Michelle essentially threw together some ideas she gathered during her time at Slate and punched me in the face with them,” Grigoriadis told Wemple.
“Clearly, I would like the entire piece retracted,” Grigoriadis told Jezebel. “To me, it’s so egregiously wrong that such an act of journalistic malfeasance can remain online,” she added. At issue is Goldberg’s claim that Blurred Lines asserts that college women are at higher risk for rape and sexual assault than their peers. Goldberg questionably asserts that that argument is refuted by a fact sheet produced by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Goldberg writes:
Yet according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, women between 18 and 24 who are not in college are victimized at higher rates than those who are in college. Citing Department of Justice figures, the group says that college-aged women “are 20 percent less likely than nonstudents of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual assault.”
I’m not sure how anyone could write an entire book about the subject of campus rape and not reckon with this. Campus rape hasn’t become a major political issue because college students are more vulnerable than their peers, but because they are more powerful, able to demand an institutional response to their traumas.
“I’m not sure how anyone could write an entire book about the subject of campus rape and not reckon with this,” Goldberg continues. Though “reckon with” was originally “know” before the Times issued its correction, Goldberg’s assertions are still inaccurate. Blurred Lines mentions the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), from which RAINN drew its numbers, on multiple occasions. Following four experts on the NCVS, Grigoriadis characterized the survey as flawed.
Yet Goldberg treats the NCVS as gospel truth even though the omnibus survey has been heavily criticized for its handling and translation of data. For example, the survey defines “students” any woman between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled “part time or full time in a post-secondary institution (i.e., college or university, trade school, or vocational school).” Surely Goldberg is correct in her assertation that campus rape has become a major issue in large part because college students are “more powerful” than their nonstudent peers. But the college students of the NCVS study are hardly a homogeneous group, and the power that Goldberg perceives isn’t evenly distributed between a part-time vocational student and a full-time Ivy League undergraduate, even as Goldberg implies that it is.
Grigoriadis is surely aware of this: Blurred Lines includes many references to the NCVS, as well as the study’s critics. Further, Grigoriadis never claims, as Goldberg contends, that college women “have some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country.” Rather, Grigoriadis centers her claim solely on “residential” colleges, a claim that bears out. The rates of sexual assault and rape are, for a variety of reasons, indeed higher at residential colleges and universities (the “1 in 5" number that’s often repeated refers exclusively to residential colleges and universities).
If these points seem wonky, it’s because they are. The data surrounding campus rape is often confusing and contradictory, as Grigoriadis is quick to point out—indeed, Blurred Lines devotes pages to sorting it out. Golberg’s focus on the easy talking points offered up by RAINN, based on a flawed NCVS study, “telegraphs ‘don’t take [campus rape] seriously,’” Grigoriadis said. The debate about campus rape is undoubtedly fraught and emotional but in the public discourse, it lives in the weeds of data and disagreement which data to use and how to interpret it. Goldberg’s review typifies the very problem with teasing out a single study or an easily quotable line from an activist organization and treating it as definitive evidence in an easily made argument.
On Twitter, Goldberg addressed both the correction and Grigoriadis’s criticisms, reiterating similar points made in her original review, again drawn from RAINN’s fact sheet and disputed by Grigoriadis. “Two things are true here,” Goldberg wrote. “I made a serious error. And one of the book’s major claims about its subject isn’t correct.” Goldberg added that the “whole thing is turning into a round robin of fuckups.” Goldberg declined to comment.
Girgoridias disagrees, telling Jezebel that “[Goldberg] cannot correct herself without uttering inaccuracies [...] The only mistakes here are hers.”