After the horrifying details of a gang rape committed at a University of Virginia frat house were published in a Rolling Stone article at the end of last week, the allegations have rocked the campus and led to calls for “cultural and institutional changes” to make UVA a safer place. In response to the news, the administration announced the suspension of all fraternities until the beginning of January.
That move has reopened the contentious debate over how Greek life interacts with sexual assault, and how colleges can effectively crack down on frats that are involved in cases of rape, violence, and harassment.
Some UVA students say that administrators’ decision to punish frats amounts to little more than a symbolic gesture, since the period of suspension will take place mostly over the Thanksgiving and winter breaks. The president of the university’s Inter-Fraternity Council, meanwhile, said on Monday that the temporary fraternity suspension will be a helpful opportunity for UVA’s Greek system to “take a breath” and figure out how to be “catalysts for the solution.”
And on a national level, the story that Rolling Stone revealed about Jackie, the UVA student who recounted being raped by seven men at a Phi Kapp Psi party, has reinvigorated calls to ban Greek life altogether.
“End Fraternities,” argues a piece published on Gawker on Monday. Author Jordan Sargent writes that “Phi Kappa Psi, like all fraternities, exists to teach bad values to developing young men.” A similar piece on Bustle, written by a UVA alumna, suggests that the university should make its current suspension permanent in order to confront the “terrifying frame of mind that has weeded its way into our schools and compromised the safety of everyone on campus.”
Indeed, frats across the country have become infamous for fostering a culture that allows sexual violence and misogyny to thrive. Just last month, the Texas Tech chapter of the international fraternity Phi Delta Theta was stripped of its charter after displaying a banner reading “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal” at one of its parties. There are countless other examples of colleges making national headlines for the bad behavior of their Greek members — everything from circulating emails about “how to lure your rapebait,” to printing T-shirts about “roasting” fat girls, to being accused of so many sexual assaults that their frat house gets nicknamed the “Rape Factory.”
Marybeth Seitz-Brown, the communications coordinator at Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), told ThinkProgress that her group doesn’t take a position on whether or not the Greek system needs to go. Since there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution for addressing sexual violence on campus, she suggested that students will take different approaches to tackling their schools’ issues with frats.
“Some schools may find that eliminating their Greek life programs is going to make their campus safer, but others may find that’s actually not the answer, and it’s more effective to harness that population in prevention programming and approach them as partners in creating a consent culture,” Seitz-Brown said. “Schools’ decisions should be rooted in the voices of survivors — if survivors are saying that they want to dismantle all Greek life on campus because there’s no getting around the fact that so much violence is enabled by Greek life, then that’s one side of things, and administrators should listen.”
So far, most activists and survivor-led groups on campus aren’t calling for that. Kierra Johnson, the executive director of Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE) — a group that engages campus leaders on issues of sex, health, and wellness — told ThinkProgress she doesn’t know of any colleges that have an active campaign to ban fraternal life. At UVA specifically, a petition demanding reforms that’s garnered thousands of signatures calls for Phi Kappa Psi to be shuttered, but doesn’t seek to crack down on other fraternities or sororities.
Instead, the students involved with URGE are mostly working on efforts to engage the Greek community in consent education and bystander intervention efforts. Thanks to a renewed national focus on issues of campus sexual assault — and particularly on men’s role in creating a culture where sexual violence is unacceptable — new opportunities to partner with the Greek system have emerged.
“I’ve been really excited over the years to see many of our chapter members working with the Panhellenic Council,” Johnson said. “They plan events in collaboration with fraternities and sororities; they’ve recruited fraternity and sorority members to be participants and join our chapters. They include them as an important part of reaching the campus community as a whole.”
There’s some evidence of these efforts across the country. This fall, eight national fraternities announced that they’ll work together to develop training programs for their members about binge drinking and sexual misconduct. The Washington Post recently profiled the “consent bros” who lead discussions about sexual violence prevention at chapter meetings. Efforts like “Consent is so Frat” have spread to more campuses this year.
“We have seen fraternity members who are very engaged and want to be part of the solution,” Seitz-Brown agreed.
Still, activists say there are some larger institutional issues on college campuses that can undermine these positive efforts. The Greek system is set up in a way that makes it difficult to hold individual brothers or fraternities accountable for their bad behavior, especially if the school administration is worried about losing money or support from powerful alumni. And at some schools, frats may pursue short-term solutions — like bringing in someone to talk about rape who isn’t actually an expert in sexual violence prevention — to pay lip service to the issue.
“There needs to be a higher level of accountability, both within the Greek system and also within the system that holds the Greek system, which is universities and campus administrations,” Johnson said. “Campuses have got to do more than look the other way because a check may be in the balance if they expel a particular student from a particular family.”
And changing the culture that leads to fraternities’ rape-themed chants, banners, and jokes is no small feat, according to feminist writer Jessica Valenti, who made the case for banning frats in a September article published on the Guardian. She told ThinkProgress that fraternities currently function in way that essentially makes it easier for rapists to operate, and more difficult for the community to call them out for perpetrating violence.
“Because of the nature of the fraternity system — brotherhood, and protecting your own, and everything like that — you’re less likely to see guys becoming social outcasts for raping women,” Valenti said. “We know that the majority of dudes are not rapists. But you’re offering this extreme social protection for rapists when it’s the norm for frats to try to incapacitate women. So someone who’s doing that with the intention of raping a woman can do that and no one thinks that’s weird, it’s just part of the culture.”
Plus, it’s clear that questioning frats has the potential to hit some kind of deeper cultural nerve. Valenti’s article about fraternities — in which she pointed out that fraternity brothers are three times more likely to commit rape than college men outside the Greek system — inspired more hate mail than perhaps anything else she’s written for the Guardian. And even though UVA’s current suspension is just temporary, it’s sparked a lot of passionate backlash, too.
“This is not about saying we need to shut down all frats tomorrow. It’s just about opening that conversation as one of the ways we might be able to do something about this, if we’re really serious,” Valenti said. “But it feels like you’re not even allowed to mention it.”
Aside from the specific steps that college administrations could take to reform the Greek system, there’s a difficult reality at the heart of the activism to address campus sexual violence: When it comes to fostering the attitudes that assault is unacceptable, a lot of the culture change needs to happen years before students even get to college.
“We’ve really got to be willing to deal with the root, underlying causes of violence,” Johnson said. “I reject this idea of ‘boys will be boys, and if you get them together, they’re an unstoppable problem.’ As the mother of a son, I can’t believe that! I have to believe that the work we do from K through 12 greatly impacts what happens when these young men are on campuses as young adults.”