The “Fixer” at the Heart of the Campus Sexual Assault Debate

An excerpt from Vanessa Grigoriadis's new book about sex, power and consent on campus.

The “Fixer” at the Heart of the Campus Sexual Assault Debate

One spring morning, I traveled to Malvern, Pennsylvania, an aspirational middle-class suburb near Philadelphia’s historic Main Line. I was in the middle of a three-year reporting project about evolving sexual norms on American college campuses (and the prevalence of sexual assault), culminating in the publication of my book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus. Everyone told me I needed to meet Brett Sokolow, a man with one of the oddest jobs in America – he’s the nation’s top university sexual-misconduct adviser. He gave me the address of the type of mini-malls common in bourgeois areas today (a spin center, sushi, a boutique named Bedazzled) and told me to meet him in the cozy coffee shop.

When I arrive early, I peruse the trinkets for sale, most designed to appeal to moms: hand-painted ceramic lockets on chains, patterned skirts for little girls, paper roses made from vintage books of “the greatest love stories” (Romeo and Juliet; Pride and Prejudice). Behind me, two mothers trade gossip about college acceptances – “Alice applied to ten schools, and got in everywhere!” – and nearby, graduating high-school seniors in green plaid skirts loudly discuss how good one of the girls’ houses smells. “People keep telling me my house smells so good, but I can’t tell because I’m there all the time. I’m excited to go to college so I can come back and smell it,” she tells a friend, slightly deadpan.

Sokolow appears shortly after, wearing khaki shorts, flip-flops, and a blue polo shirt with a tuft of gray chest hair poking out the top. Forty-four years old, he has deep brown eyes fringed with heavy lashes, a Pat Buchanan–size head, and a brash confidence at odds with a voice that he may purposely keep soft and unthreatening in one-on-one conversation. A typical suburban dad taking a casual Friday he is not; he has done more than any other person to influence university protocol on sexual assault. The way that schools respond to accusations of sexual assault, in accordance with Title IX – which requires that they hold a campus court hearing about any such behavior – has been hotly debated over the last several years. Survivors and advocates, on one side, say universities are too lax with accused rapists, while a newer movement on the other side says they’re too quick to judge boys guilty. Sokolow helps administrations try to keep everyone happy.

Sokolow says he has trained 3,000 Title IX coordinators, 8,000 investigators, and 800 college-hearing boards; written a hundred campus codes of conduct; and personally led more than 1,000 college investigations. He was on the roster to testify as an expert witness for Florida State University football player Jameis Winston’s alleged victim, but his services were reportedly called on at Wesleyan, where sources shared his seminar workbooks with me; he has been the University of Virginia’s hired gun. He tells me that his employees have, on occasion, referred to him as the “Moses of Title IX,” though perhaps a better comparison is to the TV show Scandal’s Olivia Pope, the high-level fixer and presidential inamorata played by Kerry Washington who swoops in to solve thorny problems and saves countless compromised careers.

“We’re in a superheated environment right now, and if a school screws up a little bit this way or that way, someone is going to have their ass,” he tells me, after we take a seat at a small table with two oversized, gray-blue ceramic cups. “So a lot of campuses are interested in ‘What does the right bowl of porridge taste like – not too hot, not too cold? … How do you find the perfect pitch?’ Because if you don’t, somebody will write a book or an article about you, someone will file an Office for Civil Rights complaint about you, you’ll get sued by one side or both – and it’s going to be everlasting hell.”

Sokolow is the unofficial overlord of the university system. This system isn’t quite the American justice system. It’s an alternative justice system, and, yes, as some radical students would say, that’s very cool. But campus discipline is also a system of gaps, where fellow undergrads and fisheries professors may adjudicate rape cases. To hear affected families tell it, the universities’ bureaucratic schemes – no-contact orders, canceled hearings, policies that change midway through a case, a ban on cross-examining witnesses, and “picking and choosing evidence, discarding other evidence, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says one mom of an accused boy — are elaborate. “It sounds like the DMV,” I say to a student from D.C. who was suspended, as he ticks off harms. He shoots back, “Maybe a Nazi DMV.”

Though much effort is being put into making this system fairer, right now campus courts are a bit wonky. Appeals are allowed on both sides, and a host of Nazi DMV–like rules piss off everyone involved. But without these campus courts, not only would many rapists get away with their crimes, but the myriad types of sexual assault that the cops don’t want to deal with – the murky, messy, non-violent cases – would go unpunished.

Whether these courts work comes down to one question: How good are the university employees running them? They are the arbiters of justice, even though they have a stake in the matter: self-protection. They themselves admit this can be a problem. “I’m very bothered by the lack of sophistication on the part of administrators,” says Jason Laker, a San Jose State University professor of counselor education who was previously its vice president of student affairs. “The practice of avoiding saying anything of substance based on being sued or losing your job is ridiculous to me, and in my experience it’s more likely to generate a lawsuit, because you’re disrespecting [students] and making them feel like they’re talking to a wall.” Laker summarizes the psychology of administrators judging sexual-misconduct cases this way: “They prioritize the career, the university brand, the legal and reputational issues … and they get wigged out.”

Sokolow gives those who do this work, called Title IX officers, a de-wigging by giving them tools to do their work and calming them down, plus he provides something for them to aspire to: a glossy image. He is a curious type of person. He shoots from the hip, but he’s also an ace word-mincer. It’s the combination of these two characteristics, I’d imagine, that makes him appealing to college presidents meeting him on the ninth hole for straight talk about “nonconsensual sexual intercourse.”

That’s a term Sokolow is credited with introducing to colleges. School justice loves bland terms, ones that downplay the reality that they’re operating as de facto courts outside the legal system and that avoid emphasizing the particulars of various cases. University officials corrected me when I used words like judging and guilty, and even sexual assault; they prefer sexual misconduct. Adjudicating is the right word, not judging. “He’s responsible,” not “He’s guilty.” A victim is a complainant. An offender is a respondent. The disciplinary process is an educational experience.

On one occasion, I overhear Sokolow on the phone giving some advice to a university administrator about, presumably, the wording for an email about a possible drugging and assault. “I don’t think you could withhold the sexual-assault part of the warning now that you know that that’s credible… Say, ‘A student brought to our attention an allegation of drug-facilitated sexual contact’… An allegation…Originating at an off-campus…you know, whatever you want to do, in terms of identifying location… Sure, if it’s a bar, then I would say so…Then I would sort of go into ‘Students are cautioned when going out there for drinks.’ Then I would sort of say, ‘The college is making further inquiry, and we’ll provide an update if any new information arises’… Well, I’d rather not disclose any additional information now… Yeah, say you are making further inquiry. It’s true. And you can say local police have been alerted… Well, we don’t know really what it was – you can say that the student suspects that maybe the drink was drugged?… Good, I like that. All right, good luck!”

Though Sokolow has many nuanced views of the system, he insists that the rules around taking campus assault seriously – rules implemented by President Obama in 2011 – are a vast improvement over what came before. Universities react in one of three ways to reports of nonconsensual sexual intercourse, and before 2011, there was “ten percent at the bottom that were corrupt,” meaning that they’d sweep cases under the rug and not help victims, he tells me at Malvern café. “Eighty percent in the middle who were indifferent. Ten percent who were proactive and caring.” He smiles as he gives today’s improved figures: “Fifteen percent of campuses are indifferent, 60 percent are trying their asses off, and 20 percent are excellent.” Not so fast. His help is still needed: “Five percent of campuses are still corrupt, and even within campuses that are not corrupt, there are still corrupt athletic departments that throw off the whole environment.” These improved stats are not unrelated to his influence, of course. “In 2011, overnight, I became a prophet when I had been a voice in the wilderness!” he says, laughing a little. “And that’s still weird.”

Such radical shifts come with a price tag. The federal government drove the push to eradicate sexual assault on campus, but they never said they’d pay to fix it. A flurry of lower-level options on his websites – trainings, videos, and audiotapes “essentials for the busy higher education professional” – include courses like Consent and Blackouts: The Legal, Psychological, and Prevention Perspectives, and Mandated Reporter Training for Employees: Reporting Sex/Gender Discrimination, Harassment, and Campus Crime. There’s also six pages of template language to satisfy new disclosure requirements ($249); a series of Title IX training videos ($379); and four 60-minute modules on paths to “good decision-making” in sexual-misconduct cases ($599). For $299, he sells a kit called Investigation in a Box – everything from models of proof to a list of what’s protected under FERPA to a “template letter to a reluctant victim.”

In fact, when we start talking about affirmative consent, he uses cash as a metaphor. “Have you seen any of the videos where I do the wallet thing?” he asks me eagerly. Leaning forward, he extracts his wallet from his pocket to demonstrate how the common concept of money can be applied to sexual currency. “We’ve established it’s mine, I can show you my ID in it, my wife gave it to me, anniversary present – my property,” he says, turning it over in his palms like a magician performing a trick. “Do you have any right to my property?” I shake my head no. “So given that you don’t have a right to my property, how do you get it?” I say I’d, you know, ask for it. “Right, you’d have to ask for consent.”

He tugs at a hundred-dollar bill. “Occasionally, with sexual permission we do licentious things,” he says. “We leave our Benjamin hanging out, we wave it around – and it’s very tempting. But you know this is my Benjamin, right, and if you grab it, you’re engaging in a theft?” I agree. Now a twenty-dollar bill comes out, and he says, “So when sexual property comes into it, sometimes I’m offering my Jacks, I’m perfectly comfortable with you touching my Jacksons, but my Benjamin is right near it, and everybody knows that, but I was pretty clear it was only a Jackson.” People who touch Jacks think they can also grab the Benjamin, and what kind of idea is that?

He puts the wallet back in his pocket. “So [sexual consent] isn’t that radical a concept.” He chuckles. “And the thing that’s so wild about the focus groups and studies going on right now on campuses is that today’s students want this definition of consent. This is their thing!” He shakes his head. “Like they invented it.”

Sokolow knows when consent rules were invented. In the 1990s, he met Katie Koestner, a William and Mary student who one could say became America’s first date-rape poster girl, a Gen X Emma Sulkowicz. Koestner, who said a date pressured her into sex a few weeks into her first semester, made the cover of Time magazine in 1991; in the photo, she’s wearing a ribbed turtleneck and small pearl earrings, giving the camera a look equal parts vulnerable and shocked. HBO made a film of her story, No Visible Bruises.

At the time, Sokolow was planning a career in international law. “I had never given a thought to sexual violence in my life until I met Katie,” he says. “But when she didn’t get what we considered a fair shake from William and Mary, we searched around for a way to get her relief. What do we do to force the universities to deal with this problem? How do we leverage her powerless position?”

While traveling to American campuses with Koestner, who began a formidable lecture career and later founded the Take Back the Night Foundation, Sokolow tried to pique administrators’ interest in a fledgling consultancy business. “[I was] putting out articles, talking theory at conferences, and there was a hundred-percent pushback,” he explains at the Malvern café. Universities told him, “You’re full of shit, this is never going to happen. Title IX doesn’t mean what you say, although we know you want it to.” They accused him of using scare tactics to get business. “And, in fact, things turned out to be far scarier for them than I ever told them it would be,” he says.

Today, Sokolow is married to a survivor, and they have two pre-teen children. Later, they’ll head to their home at the shore and spend the weekend doing “kid things,” he says. But for now, he looks me square in the eye. The core of the campus violence problem is malignant masculinity, he implies, and as a man, he’d be included in that. “I remember being at a urinal on a campus 15 years ago, going to the bathroom with a sign above the urinal that said, ‘You hold the power to prevent rape right in your hands,’” he says. “And as crass as that message is, that’s the message we need… ‘It’s my penis, and I have to put it where it’s supposed to go, and not where it’s not.’” He later talks about his wife. “My wife is my moral compass, and my everything. She tells me how to stay victim-centered, how to address victims, because I don’t really know. She sees everything through that lens. She is my true north.”

These sound like the thoughts of the private Sokolow, but I can’t be sure. He’s actorly in the extreme and in fact tells me later he’s created a costume closet of sorts for campus visits, which makes me wonder if the casual outfit he’s wearing for our interview is planned too. When he does focus groups with students, he wears a sweater and an open-collared shirt. During a Title IX investigation with students, he puts on a jacket and slacks. “So I don’t project the power of the institution,” he says. “A large-scale training, [add] a tie; and a meeting with the president or board of trustees, a suit and tie.” He pauses. “I’m pretty intentional about it.”

To say that Sokolow is controversial, especially with faculty, is vastly understating the case. He is just the individual that they do not want in their sanctums of higher learning; to them, he is a creation of well-fed bureaucracy that is feeding off their bones – dropping their salaries, wasting time with mindless meetings, issuing endless memos. From progressive faculty, he gets grief for not being hard-nosed enough about rape complaints. Danielle Dirks, an Occidental College sociology professor, calls his companies “an acronym army,” adding that he is the reason that school response to sexual assault is “highly patterned.”

Despite the prevalence of liberal faculty on campus – up to 90 percent of humanities professors identify as Democrats – these professors have found themselves in the strange position of regarding regulations around sexual assault on campus with skepticism, and it’s because they don’t trust the university itself. They smell bureaucratic overreach into students’ private lives as well as into what professors can and can’t say about sex and violence in their classrooms; about whether the Nazi DMV can sort out which party in a student sexual-assault scenario is truly at fault, they are faithless.

To a one, professors I talked to were horrified by Obama-era rules that prohibited them from speaking in confidence with students about assault, insisting incidents were to be reported to the school’s Title IX office. “As a professor who teaches violence against women classes, it’s so common – for all of us in this area – to have students come in and tell us what happened to them,” says Callie Rennison, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver. “They aren’t looking for anything. They just want to tell their story. And now, because of Title IX, when you see it coming, you have to say ‘Stop, I must tell you, no matter where this happened, and if it happened when you were seven, I am required to report this to the university.’” She’s the professor who has devoted her life to enlightening kids; administrators are paper pushers. “Is this helping students who have been victimized? Not a bit. And I don’t like it. I’d like to give them resources. I think it’s the worst thing you could do.”

Sokolow, however, says he’s just the kind of impartial observer universities need at this moment. He tells me that in some rape cases he believes the accusers, in others the accused. He speaks of “hundreds, literally hundreds” of cases “where I thought the guy was a slime bag, he was definitely guilty, and he was definitely somebody I was never going to let my daughter near. And I still found him not responsible because the evidence wasn’t there to find a violation. As much as I knew deep down that he was scum, it didn’t matter. It mattered what I could show.”

He also has an understanding of one of the deepest, most paradoxical problems with college rape, proof that he understands quite a bit more about the scene as it exists than his critics imagine: he acknowledges the possibility of true-but-also-not-quite-true accusations at universities. He connects these to what he calls “hypersensitive millennialville.”

Affirmative consent “reflects the values of who they are, because they actually want to talk about sex – they want to communicate in those situations,” he says. But these traits, the communicating and wanting to talk about sex in particular, are double-edged when it comes to assigning victimhood and blame. Sokolow thinks that compulsive sharing combined with millennials’ sheltered lives before college is producing a lack of resilience, an absence of coping skills, and susceptibility to mental-health crises. “And that plays into our cases, because what you have now is a number of women, empowered by … [survivor] groups who are going around claiming victimization for something they absolutely believe happened, for which they are experiencing trauma, [and yet] did not occur – because they don’t have contact with reality the way the rest of us do.” He takes a sip from his ceramic mug. “And I wish I could figure out why that’s happening, but it is happening a ton.”

Interestingly, Sokolow stops short of calling such complaints baseless. A woman who feels violated still needs to be taken seriously, at least at first. “They’re not false complaints,” he says. “It’s not false to them.”

Sokolow is a complex character, and emblematic of the highs and lows of prosecuting sexual assault on campus. And yet, after spending many months studying the campus justice system, I am convinced that universities and Sokolow are equipped to handle assaults among students, and they’re getting better at it all the time. Criminal justice doesn’t work for the reasons we explored in the Gophers’ case, and it also doesn’t work because the law part of law and order doesn’t want anything to do with it. “People pick up the newspaper and they read that Baylor’s getting sued because they were bringing young women in as sex objects to the football team; your average American sits there and thinks, ‘What the bejeez is happening on college campuses, better get law enforcement involved,’” says Peter Lake, director of the Center for Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law and a thought leader on campus safety issues. But law enforcement isn’t desperate to be involved, says Lake: “Prosecutors tend to shy away from these cases because they don’t get the conviction, and that hurts them, politically.” And a criminal case can take years, which isn’t fair to the victim, who may graduate from college by then.

This story is an excerpt from Vanessa Grigoriadis’s book “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus,” available on Amazon.com and elsewhere.