Rape culture on campus: The silence of men

The recently revealed cases of sexual assaults at the University of Virginia should be a wake up cal

A protest at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville [AP]

There are some voices that have been conspicuously absent since the publication of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and a Struggle for Justice at UVA.” Administrators at UVA were forced to respond to the allegations of a 2012 gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, and women came out in force to share their stories of sexual violence on campus.

Erdely received so much testimony from women on the UVA campus about the rape culture that she wrote a follow-up article “Rape at UVA: Readers Say Jackie Wasn’t Alone.” However, the fraternities on campus have been silent as a whole. And this is not only a UVA problem – rape culture, often cantered in the hypermasculine environment of fraternities, is an epidemic at colleges across the US. Gregory Orr, who has taught at UVA for the past 39 years, argued: “Fraternity culture is about as deeply implicated in misogyny and other prejudicial evils as you can imagine.”

In September, New York Magazine ran a feature “Meet the College Women Who Are Starting a Revolution Against Campus Sexual Assault” that included the story of Emma Sulkowicz. She is a Columbia University student who, in response to being raped and seeing inaction on the part of her university to seek justice, strapped a mattress to her back and vowed to walk around campus until her rapist was expelled.

Women like Sulkowicz and Jackie (the victim at UVA) are insulted, mistreated, and ignored by the university administration until they take their stories public. In many of these stories of sexual violence, the victims are transformed into activists.

But where are the men, and in particular, where are the fraternity brothers? In the case of Jackie, seven fraternity brothers participated in the rape while two watched, and it took place at a fraternity party. We know that there were witnesses, and yet the fraternity and its members have been silent.

While some critics are calling for an end to Greek life, I ask that fraternity brothers speak out about sexual violence, which has been widely documented across the country, and act in solidarity with victims of violence.

Witness – Burden of Silence

I reached out to several fraternity brothers on the UVA campus for interviews, and I got only one response: “I’m sure you’re aware of the moratorium the IFC placed on fraternities in regards to speaking to journalists about the Rolling Stone article.”

The IFC should take this moment to promote open dialogue about sexual violence, and this requires admitting that the documented culture of sexual violence in fraternities has validity, and that fraternity brothers have been complicit in a culture that shames and silences rape victims.

Across the board denial of any mistreatment of women seems to be the modus operandi of fraternities. One fraternity brother at UVA agreed to speak to me as long as I didn’t use his name or identify his fraternity. He said: “The only times I’ve ever seen or heard of disrespect towards women happening at our fraternity house was at the hand of non-brothers, and they were promptly thrown out.”

To say the least, I find this hard to believe. Stories of disrespect towards women at fraternities or elsewhere on campus abound not only at UVA, but nationwide.

Fraternity culture is a vestige of the past, of a money and power pipeline that installs men into a network that protects and provides for them for life if they are loyal.

That power was on display when UVA made a choice about hiring an “independent” investigator to look into the gang rape allegations. Lawyer Mark Filip was selected to lead the independent investigation, this despite the fact that he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, the very same one whose members were accused of gang rape. He was later recused from the case.

Fraternity culture also represents antiquated values about gender, and on the UVA campus it manifests itself in a system in which fraternities have a monopoly on serving alcohol (drinking is not allowed at sororities). This installs fraternities at the very centre of college drinking and socialisation culture.

I wish I was writing the article, “Meet the College Fraternity Brothers Who Are Starting a Revolution Against Campus Sexual Assault,” but that would mean that fraternities would have to quickly usher themselves into the 21st century. All it takes is a few inspired, outspoken individuals to start a movement against sexual violence, as victims of sexual violence have shown. It is time for fraternity brothers to join them, to use their strength and numbers to speak out against rape culture and work to change it. 

Alice Driver is a writer who explores issues of gender, women’s rights, and human rights with a focus on Mexico.