One in five women is assaulted during her time on a college campus. The college rape epidemic is finally capturing headlines after years of relative silence on the issue, and some of the worst offenders are feeling pressured to take action. Colleges and universities, just like everywhere else, should be safe places for women, and the fact that women have been struggling on multiple fronts with sexism in academia and rampant rape culture on campus is disgusting. It’s also a telling comment on the value of women in society; women who are paying a great deal of money for an education are still treated like disposable baubles set on campus for the pleasure and entertainment of men.
A campus without rape culture isn’t just a place where women aren’t sexually assaulted on campus, at campus events, and at off-campus events/locations connected with the college. It’s also a place where women feel comfortable, able to be themselves, and welcome. Hostility towards women on campus is hardly anything new (I will never forget the time a male student made a crude comment about the friendship between me and a male professor, while referencing Eloise and Abelard — way to be a sexist asshole while also highlighting the long history of hostility about women in academia, dude). Sexism and misogyny are actively tied into rape culture on campus, which is why fighting it requires a comprehensive overhaul of campus culture.
One obvious place to look is fraternities, which have, for decades, been hotspots of sexual assault and misogynistic culture. While fraternities are incredibly diverse and run the gamut from party houses to studious groups of men genuinely concerned about creating a better campus culture, improving the world through their work, and supporting their brothers, fraternity culture (and perception of same) is a clear known issue.
Which is why many colleges and universities are turning to their fraternities first when it comes to finding ways to address the crisis of rape on campus. In Amherst, for example, the college banned off-campus fraternities in an attempt to address its rape problem, and it’s not the only university to ban, sanction, or clamp down on fraternity activity — though actually closing all fraternities is a rather unusual step to take.
The move, of course, triggered outrage and protest from fraternity brothers, who took to campus to complain. They protested the closure of the fraternities and suggested that the college was afraid of addressing the problem so it took advantage of an easy scapegoat, and mischaracterised fraternity life in the process. Many students at Amherst, including those who had favoured more control over fraternities, were not impressed with the ban, and were concerned that it might not be the right choice for the college. Banning fraternities alone wouldn’t be enough to address the campus rape problem, and banning all fraternities would be a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
What I didn’t see much of, though, was a discussion from frat members themselves on how they could fight rape culture on campus. The college made an unfair and poorly-considered decision when it announced that it was banning student fraternities without input from the student body or solicited comments from frats. But savvy frats could change the narrative and the conversation not simply by protesting, but by actively confronting the college when it comes to the campus rape issue. If fraternity brothers could articulate how they might address their reputation and use their fellowship for good in the fight against campus rape, it would certainly rub Amherst’s nose in it, and it might set an example to other fraternities.
As collectives of men, fraternities have tremendous power and influence over each other. Thanks to the desire to fit in with the group, younger members are eager for direction and mentoring from older ones. What if some of that mentoring work took the form of talking about consent culture, respect, and challenging brothers to rethink cultural attitudes about women? A fraternity working together could fight sexism and misogyny in its ranks, but it could also play an active role in fighting rape culture on campus — holding workshops and classes, volunteering with campus safe ride home/walking partner programs, and working directly with campus women’s groups to identify issues and resolve them.
Simply regarding fraternities as the enemy may be direct, but it won’t bring about a solution to the problem. Fraternities are a symptom, not the root cause, and while rape culture can play a heavy role in fraternity life, it’s hardly embedded inextricably in fraternity identity and culture. It doesn’t have to be, at any rate, if fraternities are willing to admit that it’s an issue and work on it. Their willingness to change could trigger larger campus reforms and discussions among other camps groups.
Targeting fraternities alone might seem like an easy way to make a good PR strike against the rape crisis on campus, but it’s not going to resolve underlying cultural issues on college campuses. Women are raped on campus because we live in a society that condones, facilitates, and sometimes even rewards sexual assault. They’re raped in high numbers on college campuses because of the sexist social structures college campuses reiterate, from professors who don’t treat their students equally to students who make misogynist comments without being punished to, yes, fraternity parties where brothers intentionally get women intoxicated and plan to rape them.
Changing rape culture on campus is an uphill battle in the face of a society that lives and breathes rape culture every day. The solution lies in enlisting the cooperation of students, not alienating and infuriating them. It also lies in avoiding the cheap and easy shot and going to the heart of the problem. If I believed that closing fraternities would end college rape, I’d advocate for it in a heartbeat. But it won’t, and we all know it.
Image: Commencement 2012, Nazareth College, Flickr.