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  • Gabrielle Galchen

Case of 2020: Greek Life vs. Rape Culture

In nearly every Hollywood movie, the typical college scene features one key element: fraternities. And while Hollywood is by no means reality, it holds true that 5,478 out of 5,500 colleges (99.6%)  in America have Greek life. Nationally, around 10% of college students are sorority or fraternity members. There are currently over 9 million student and alumni members of fraternities and sororities, which accounts for about 3% of the US population. 

However, Greek life has experienced a 4% decline in new recruits in recent years. This is largely because of a very disturbing trend in most Greek life: rape culture. 

The statistics are indisputable. Multiple studies have shown that men who join fraternities are three times more likely to commit sexual assault and that women in sororities are 74% more likely to experience rape than other college women. Also, though fraternities only make up 3% of the population, more than 50% of gang rapes are perpetrated by fraternities.  However, the main question stands: do fraternities reflect rape culture, or do they perpetuate it? The answer is simple: yes. 

On the one hand, rape culture is prevalent in multiple aspects of American society: both men and women normalize and excuse sexual assault from a young age. Namely, victim blaming and slut shaming are social norms that begin from a young age. It begins when a girl is criticized for wearing a conventionally short skirt to school, and continues when a survivor is criticized for the way she dressed/dresses. It begins when a girl is criticized for leading a more conventionally promiscuous lifestyle (unlike men, who obtain social clout and are perceived as more “masculine”), and continues when a survivor’s sexual history is scrutinized. It begins when catcallers expect women to remain silent, and continues when prosecutors and judges assume false reporting is normal and frequent. 

The reality, however, is that there is only one factor to blame for sexual assault: the predator. Regarding clothing: both currently and historically, survivors dress both modestly and provocatively, indicating that this factor is irrelevant. Regarding sexual history: both currently and historically, survivors have been both virgins and non-virgins. Lastly, regarding false reporting: it is estimated that between 2% and 10% of sexual assault allegations are false. This is the same percentage for any other crime, and should not be held to a double standard. 

This reality is largely ignored. A recent national Inside Higher Ed survey revealed that only 6% of college students believe sexual assault is an issue at their university, whereas 33% agree that sexual assault is prevalent at other campuses. This is reflective of the general societal ignorance to rape culture; an ignorance which is all but deadly, as ignoring the plight of women only serves to augment it and not hold assaulters (95% of which are men) accountable for their actions. 

Not only is sexual assault disregarded in American culture, it is both passively and actively decriminalized. 

On the social level, college-age victims of sexual assault often do not report to law enforcement: only 20%. According to a recent RAINN survey, typical reasons for doing so were believing that police were ineffective (9%), not wanting to get the perpetrator into trouble (10%), believing it was not significant enough to report (12%), having a fear of reprisal (20%), believing it was a personal matter (26%) or other reasons (31%). 

On the judicial level, out of 1000 sexual assaults reported, 995 perpetrators will be acquitted of allegations. Though 23% of rapes are reported to the police, only 4.6% of reports will lead to arrest. In turn, 0.9% of assault cases get referred to prosecutors, and 0.5% will lead to a felony conviction. Lastly, only 0.46% of accused rapists will be incarcerated. Given the fact that sexual assault allegations are true 90% to 98% of the time, this is genuinely terrifying, and can by no means be exclusively blamed on fraternities. 

However, fraternities do indeed perpetuate rape culture, which is why they are referred to as “dangerous places for women” by many academic sites and studies. 

At its very core, the ideal fraternity brother obtains top grades yet also engages in a very sexually active lifestyle. As fraternities only consist of men, fraternity men adhere to a culture of toxic masculinity centered on sleeping with women and eliminating the competition. The more women a frat man sleeps with, the more he can climb up the “social hierarchy” of the fraternity. Whether or not the girl was drunk or intoxicated- both of which eliminate consent- is typically not of relevance when fraternity men applaud one another for their sexual exploits. 

Fraternity parties are the main element of fraternities that provide a conducive rape environment. Fraternity parties usually have a high turnout because most college students under 21 do not have access to other locations. Freshmen usually cannot enter house parties or bars, and dorm parties are often written up for being too noisy. However, fraternity men often take advantage of this: some frats only let men in if they have enough women with them, others only make men pay to enter, and a few prohibit men from entering altogether. 

Furthermore, because fraternities provide alcohol, it is easier for perpetrators to exploit the environment. The abundance of alcohol makes it much easier to take advantage of a woman who is drunk and may not remember what was done to her the previous day. Prosecutors may also blame the woman for not being in control. It is also made easier to spike a woman’s drink using a roofie drug, which incapacitates the victim and often causes them to black out. Rape cases associated with roofie drugs are also more difficult to prosecute because the drug causes short-term amnesia, so the victim cannot clearly recall the assault or predator. A recent study found that one in 13 college students report having been drugged, or suspect that they were drugged.

Though everyone agrees that fraternities clearly perpetuate rape culture, there is a debate over whether to abolish or reform them. 

Those who advocate to ban fraternities argue that fraternity culture is inherently focused on partying, sex, and the often excessive use of drugs/alcohol. As long as fraternities exist, the misogynistic and toxic culture will continue to be perpetuated.

Though fraternity-banning colleges such as Middlebury and Williams state that they do not regret doing so, the more popular college approach to ending rape culture is by reforming fraternities. Some universities believe educating fraternity men about rape culture will prevent them from becoming predators. This makes sense: hyper-masculine culture materializes before college, and there is a severe lack of funding towards sex education nationwide. For example, the University of British Columbia required all fraternities to take workshops on sexual consent and healthy masculinity. 

However, many universities reasonably claim that merely attending a workshop will not necessarily induce a predator to change their behavior. As such, other universities have taken more direct action. For instance, in 2014, Wesleyan University decreed that historically all-male fraternities must allow women to join in order to change the chauvinistic culture.  Other universities mandate alcohol-free housing or ban alcohol above 15% ABV (most types of hard liquor) unless sold by a licensed third-party vendor. These vendors are more likely to identify underage buyers, making it more difficult for underage fraternity students to drink to excess. 

Lastly, a few universities have focused on accountability by mandating that individual student conduct cases be reviewed by university officials, rather than by independent and potentially biased Greek governing councils. Many universities have also begun to employ rule enforcers in Greek housing to mitigate drinking levels, as campus officials typically choose to ignore the excessive alcohol consumption at Greek parties.  Whether or not fraternities will be officially banned remains a debate. However, the reforms that colleges are increasingly pursuing do fundamentally change the nature and goal of fraternities. Though fraternities may still be technically permitted, their very definition is constantly being redefined as rape culture finally comes to light. 

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©2020 by The Bipartisan Feminist Project.

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