Complacency, Activism, and Change: Sexual Assault on Campus

For many, it’s a familiar feeling: the prickling of the hairs on the back of your neck as you walk home at night, glancing over your shoulder as you hurry back to your apartment, keys between your fingers in your pocket, knowing that you always need to be alert. “I’ve always been ‘careful,’ or as careful as you can be,” one survivor said. But too often, careful isn’t enough.

Sexual assault is a pervasive problem across societies and nations, for people from all walks of life, but advocacy around the issue has most recently come to the center of national consciousness in the form of the burgeoning conversation on rape culture on campus. In the 2014-2015 school year, as pieces such as Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) and the film The Hunting Ground highlighted the inadequacy of university responses to assault allegations, University of Chicago students reported sixty-six cases of sexual misconduct to the university; this figure does not include the large number of annual cases that go unreported. Although the issue of sexual assault pervades all different spheres of campus life, much of the contention surrounding the issue has been focused on university institutions that may contribute to the problem, namely fraternities and the university itself.

Such institutions seem to have a disproportionate impact on campus sexual assault. Popular wisdom, oft-referenced but rarely cited, states that members of fraternities are three times more likely to commit sexual assault that their non-Greek classmates. Greek life at UChicago is no different.

“It’s the most difficult thing,” said Michael Meng of Lambda Phi Epsilon, “to look at our new classes in the eyes and see all of these bright, new, young faces, because they’re typically first and second years, and see…  somewhere, one of you, I know one of you is going to make some terrible mistake or do something terrible in their actions, and it’s really difficult to reconcile that vision of them with what they would do or might do.”

Greek Democracy: Fraternity Leadership on Sexual Assault

Meng’s own path to Greek life as a bright, new face was unconventional: as an openly gay minority student from Texas, a frat house was the last place where he expected to find himself. However, he felt welcomed into the Greek community, and one incident in particular drew him to UChicago’s fraternities.

“I remember one particular case, my first-year orientation week, I was actually on the track field, people were running around, and I was like oh, this is kind of cool, but I was sitting. And I remember an upperclassman of some sort, this person said something along the lines of hey, faggot, what are you doing? And I was shocked. It was first year, I came from Texas, I was very closeted then, it was a very conservative culture, and I came to university and was like oh gosh, this is great, I can just like hang out. And then that happened and it was actually somebody in a fraternity that came out to say, hey, what did you just say? He was clearly wearing letters, at the time I had no idea what those letters were, but that was kind of an indication to me that Greek life, perhaps my kind of images of them from movies, stories, et cetera, might not be exactly like what it might be. So that kind of encouraged me to not feel like my sexual orientation or some other parts of my minority identity would make me uncomfortable in Greek life.”

For Meng, Greek life was a space where he could feel comfortable and accepted for his sexuality; for others, issues surrounding sexuality at fraternities were not so easily resolved. As former president of the UChicago chapter of Lambda Phi Epsilon, Meng has been involved in managing instances of sexual assault in the past; in the course of his three years with Lambda, he has realized how subtle cases of sexual assault can be, with many incidents stemming from “unthinking, unwanted behavior,” something that a greater awareness of the situation could have prevented. He spoke of the prevalence of sexual assault as stemming not so much from violent tendencies as from a lack of understanding. “That’s something that I’ve definitely noticed,” he said. “As a college student, when you have all the freedoms in the world to move wherever you want to, to sleep or eat at whatever hours you want to, that oftentimes these freedoms, to individuals, often seems as if  it goes much wider. But you have to be able to draw on an understanding of other people as well, and I think that’s sometimes an issue that we need to address in our Greek organizations.”

Meng’s assertion that issues of sexual assault arise primarily in nuanced social situations is well-founded: 70 percent of assailants in cases of sexual violence were known to the survivors. At the same time, he said, lack of understanding in the moment when an assault occurred does not necessarily correspond to a lack of awareness. “There’s not a single person, I’m willing to defend, in our Greek community who does not know that sexual assault is not ok. But why then does it still happen?” When Meng posed this question to the university’s greater Multicultural Greek Council, he got an answer that interested him. “I can’t validate it by any means,” he said, but the pervasive opinion “that people have in our community that it’s not Greek life that molds people to do terrible things, but rather it’s the people who select to go into Greek life that often have characteristics that make them more likely to be in these situations.”

Even if the university were to completely ban fraternities, as has been suggested at other institutions, Meng says that the problem will not go away, because the people who would have been drawn to fraternities would still be part of the university campus. Rape culture, defined as a social attitude that normalizes and/or trivializes sexual assault or abuse, extends beyond the walls of the frat house. However, fraternities are still centers of lively and sometimes licentious student activity, and they therefore must confront the consequences, intentional or otherwise, that arise within the brotherhood. When he hears stories of fraternity brothers committing sexual assault, Meng says, “my initial thought is that these people are not being taught by their leadership, or are not being placed in positions by their leadership in which they would be consciously aware of their actions.”

Ron Yehoshua of Delta Kappa Epsilon expressed a similar sentiment when asked about the role of fraternities, RSOs, and other social groups in cases of sexual assault. It all, he said, comes down to rape culture. “Potentially a lot of people that, or students at UChicago who have committed sexual assault, I feel like a factor of them in them committing sexual assault is they were in this community where, maybe it wasn’t labelled completely as “this is ok to do,” but it was a kind of blurry, fuzzy line,” he said. “And that there’s all this talk about oh, you get drunk, get really drunk, and you do stupid things.” Even though these incidents emerge in large part from a lack of understanding, he says that it still needs to be made clear what is not acceptable. To illustrate, Yehoshua brought up the analogy of a professional football player (likely Plaxico Burress) who brought a gun to a nightclub and accidentally fired while it was in his pocket. “Yeah, you were drunk, it’s a mistake,” the football player said, “but that’s not ok.”

In response to this perception of a lack of understanding of the nuances of sexual assault, Meng said that Lambda now holds discussions about sexual misconduct with its pledge classes, a policy the began in the fall of 2016. However, there is a limit to what the fraternity can do to handle cases of sexual assault when they arise. If an individual member commits sexual assault and the fraternity finds out about it (through the assailant or public information; the organization is not automatically informed through the university or other authorities) they can and usually disavow the member. This action can be repeated within the community of UChicago’s fraternities: if a fraternity does not properly handle a case of sexual misconduct within its organization, Meng explained, the other fraternities will not permit them to re-sign the Fraternities Committed to Safety document, an agreement to certain standards of behavior that is resigned by the Greek organizations at the end of each quarter. Beyond establishing community consequences for the committing or mishandling of sexual misconduct, Meng explained the Multicultural Greek Council has made the decision that their policy would be to direct survivors toward university resources, instead of attempting to facilitate rehabilitation or confrontation with the assailant. At the same time, Meng said, they recognized that university resources leave something to be desired. For the moment the best the fraternities can do is hold each other and each others’ national leadership accountable for their brothers’ actions.

A Survivor’s Story

Of course, fraternities are not the only places on UChicago’s campus where sexual assault occurs. In an interview, Michele Rasmussen, Dean of Students in the University, said that in her time at UChicago she’s seen that it is not the case that the vast majority of sexual assaults happen at fraternities. Indeed, in the case of a survivor who wished to remain anonymous, sexual assault was, as she put it, “too close to home.”

She’d always been careful, she said. She didn’t walk home alone at night, she stayed aware of her surroundings and her actions when she was around big groups of people she didn’t know. But in the end, it was someone she did know, at a party in her boyfriend’s apartment. In the end she decided not to take official action, because it was “too nebulous a situation.” “I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore,” she said. “I wish it didn’t happen because I just didn’t want to deal with the aftereffects of it.”

When the survivor told her friends about the situationshe was reluctant to label it as an assault, although she said her friends saw it that waythey weren’t shocked. “The next words that I heard from a lot of people is that, oh yeah, it really can be everyone. It’s something that a lot of girls have accepted,” she said.

The difficult experience has reinforced for the survivor the fact that sexual assault can be anything and it can happen to anyone. She agreed that sexual assault is an issue on college campuses, but that fundamentally it was a societal problem that could only be truly remedied by a thorough education program across the state. At the same time, she lamented that sexual misconduct is a fact of life that many women have accepted.

“It Affects the Entire Community”

Kathryn Seidewitz, president of the Phoenix Survivor Alliance and a survivor herself, agrees that fundamentally the problem is one of education and information.

You know, it’s these attitudes that we have, we’ve been told since birth like, you have to get sex, you have to get it from the other person. You need to do it. The sort of aggression and the inability to know what a healthy sexual relationship is, what consent looks like, that cuts across the spectrum. Nobody got this kind of education in high school. I’ll talk to my friends, and no one got a comprehensive sex education. I went to a very progressive high school in Maryland and even we were not getting educated about consent. We barely learned about birth control.”

PSA is attempting to mitigate the damage of this miseducation by running workshops intended to address misconceptions and stigmas surrounding sexual assault and rape culture. However, Seidewitz emphasized the immensely significant role played by sex education earlier in life, saying “we can make steps here, and we can work on it here, but people are already coming in as fully-formed human beings, and they’ve already had their ideas about sex and love and friendship formed already. And so everything that happens here is going to be a process of unlearning, and everything that happens here is really going to be fighting back against what we already know.”

Part of what people already know, Seidewitz said, manifests itself in a tacit toleration of sexual misconduct, in spite of the fact that many people are aware of the presence and negative effects of sexual assault. Generalizing from her knowledge of sexual assault cases during her three years at UChicago, Seidewitz said that when sexual assault would occur, “Everyone knew, and everyone was like, this isn’t a great thing, and then that person would still get invited to parties, you know, get cast in shows, get roles.”

As difficult as it has been for Seidewitz and others to witness this reaction to sexual misconduct on UChicago’s campus, it can be difficult for players to reach a consensus on issues of sexual misconduct that arise outside the context of violent rape, as in the cases that Meng discussed and the anonymous survivor experienced. How can one adjudicate within the 25 percent of cases in which the assailant was a current or former spouse or partner of the survivor?

Rasmussen says that it makes no difference to the administration whether the student is assaulted within their relationship, in a fraternity, in the dorms, or in any other context: the responsibility of the administration begins when a University of Chicago student comes to the school with a report that they’ve been assaulted in any way. “Our responsibility, I don’t think of it in terms of location, or entity, or group that that student belongs to. If one of our  students is hurt by somebody else, our responsibility is to do everything we can to support that student and to seek recourse within the scope of what we can,” she said.

Seidewitz feels that it is difficult to address situations that involve a close relationship between the survivor and the assailant. “It’s harder when you’re in this grey area where you’re like, I don’t really know what happened, I just didn’t want it to have happened,” she said. “How do you handle then the assailant in this larger social circle. And I really don’t have the answer for that.” In these situations, PSA might suggest that a friend of the survivor speak to the assailant and have a conversation about why their actions were wrong; however, this can be very difficult to achieve within the reality of a social group. Ideally, if the assailant recognized the magnitude of their actions and expressed regret, there would be a way for them to heal their relations with the community and rebuild trust.

One possibility for this to occur is restorative justice models. Restorative justice is a means of addressing misconduct through dialogue between offenders, survivors, and their communities, with the goal of repairing harm rather than distributing punishment. In their 2009 paper, James Ptacek and Loretta Frederick explain that the use of restorative justice in cases of intimate partner violence has been criticized for the potential that it might minimize the harm to women by treating the survivor and assailant as a “problem couple” or that it will pressure survivors to take responsibility for their partners. However, it also has a great deal of positive potential to create safety for the survivor and accountability for the assailant and widen the circle of support for survivors to their entire community.

Seidewitz appeared to be cautiously optimistic about the value of restorative justice in handling cases of intimate partner violence between students, saying “the assailant can see then that this is not a thing that happened between two people, but it affects the entire community.” She emphasized the immense reach of a single event of sexual misconduct. “It’s really interesting how these acts that happen, that are so brief generally, they’re just happening between two people in this closed room,” she said. “And then they have these ramifications for years to come to dozens, hundreds of people.”

Assault and the Administration

In cases of sexual assault at the University of Chicago, those hundreds of people include students and faculty on campus, circles of friends, and family; however, they also include the administration, especially individuals in the administration taxed with addressing problems of sexual misconduct, such as former Title IX Coordinator Sarah Wake, Deputy Title IX Coordinator Shea Wolfe, and Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen.

In 2011, the national Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released what Rasmussen referred to as “the Dear Colleague letter,” in which the office put universities and colleges on notice that they would have to begin interpreting Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in a very different way than they had been in the past. Title IX now applied not only to athletics but also to other forms of sex discrimination, including sexual misconduct. This letter dramatically changed the way universities across the country, including the University of Chicago, dealt with issues of sexual misconduct.

In an interview with Wake and Wolfe at which a university lawyer was present, Wolfe explained that the Title IX office takes a student-centric approach to cases of sexual misconduct. “A survivor-centered approach typically means that in these instances students have lost some control in terms of the incident that might have happened to them, and so we want to be able to help them get some control back,” she said. The Title IX office can give students access to self-care resources, academic accommodations, no-contact orders, or a bridge to the disciplinary process.

When it comes to the disciplinary process, Wake and Wolfe explained, students have the option to work with either the Chicago Police Department, the university’s own disciplinary apparatus, both, or neither. Students do not have to undertake a formal disciplinary process in order to access university resources, and the police disciplinary process and that of the university are independent of one another.

However, Wake explained, “the only time that we can’t honor a student’s request to not move forward with an investigation is if doing so would present some type of threat to our community.” This is rare, she says, and usually the university can honor a student’s requests. Additionally, she said, if the student goes independently to the police to begin and investigation, the university could find out and be obligated to act. Although the university has implemented a new mandatory online sexual misconduct training and is taking other steps to mitigate the risks of sexual misconduct in the past, it has come under fire for its handling of sexual misconduct cases, particularly since becoming the subject of a Title IX investigation in 2014.

Although the Title IX office is responsible for handling the disciplinary and legislative issues of sexual misconduct, it, along with Campus and Student Life, is responsible for programming to mitigate the risk of sexual assault on campus in general and for communicating with the student body about these issues. “I think this is one of those areas where we’ve seen a tremendously important role of student activism,” said Rasmussen, speaking of the “glacial” pace at which universities and colleges can move without such outside pressure.

Wake emphasized the importance and the goal of expanding the dialogue to the entire campus community, saying “I think one of the things that I’ve really tried to do in the last year is kind of change the dialogue to get people to understand that this is a problem that the whole community should care about and not just survivors or not just people who are going through the process.” To this end, Wake and Wolfe have been meeting with faculty across academic departments as well as housing staff to address how to confront issues of sexual misconduct, and the reception to these seminars has been generally positive. Additionally, the Office of Campus and Student Life is looking at expanding its programming, with a special emphasis on training programs for men.

The administrators recognize that the relationship between the administration and the student body can be a strained one. Rasmussen remarked that the campus climate survey from spring 2016 confirmed that many students, especially women, did not feel comfortable going to the university with issues of sexual misconduct. Wake also acknowledged this hesitance, but believes that the situation is improving with increased communication. “When I started a year ago I did hear this kind of refrain about, I don’t trust the university, I don’t want to go talk to the administration about this” she said. “So my goal was really to talk to as many students as I could from the very beginning. And I was very lucky that the Phoenix Survivors Alliance decided to engage with me at the very beginning, and that opened a lot of doors to me to have meaningful conversations with a variety of students.”

Can rape culture change?

Going about daily life on campus at UChicago, it is all too easy to become complacent about issues of sexual assault. Every few months, a particularly scandalous case will emerge, outrage will bubble to the surface, and erupt in protests and calls for action; a few weeks later, life will settle back into its daily routine. However, in conversations with people from across the university, it is clear that these sporadic eruptions all emanate from the much more dangerous churning toxicity of rape culture, lying underneath every social interaction. These interviewees have stressed that sexual assault can happen to anyone, in any situation, and it is something that most people are extremely aware of.

Sarah Wake spoke of her own experience as a female professional and that of the female professors at the university. “I can draw on my own personal experience of being a lawyer at a large law firm that was fairly male-dominated. The kind of comments that you can tend to hear on a day-to-day basis that can just kind of chip away at you and make you feel like you don’t belong. And I’ve had really interesting conversations with our faculty and our staff too about the comments they experience in the work as female scientists or any member of any marginalized group and how that impacts their ability to do their work,” she said. Rasmussen agreed, saying, “Women in particular are often objectified in ways that we shouldn’t be surprised we see the amount of sexual violence we do.”

Sexual assault also has an impact on the brothers of UChicago’s fraternities. “To some extent you always have to be slightly on your guard,” said Yehoshua. “And I guess it’s the same thing for drunken behavior at parties and stuff like that. You can never really be free, you just have to always have that slight bit of worry and foresight to see what bad can happen in the future and how can I prevent that.” Adam Seigal of Alpha Epsilon Pi told the Gate, “For people who are at risk of sexual assault, it very obviously limits basic human freedoms of having a right to your body and having a right to personal autonomy.”

Seidewitz emphasized the degree to which sexual assault limits the freedom of survivors. “It affects their ability to just be in a class, because if this has just happened to you and you’re like, wow, now I have to go to Sosc and talk about Marx, how the fuck am I supposed to do that. Trauma affects your freedom in that it lives inside of you and you still have to go live your whole life day to day.”

The anonymous survivor walked away from her experience with a renewed recognition of the understanding among women that sexual assault can happen to anyone and be perpetrated by anyone.

The toxic rape culture that is broiling under the surface of social interactions at the University of Chicago and other communities around the world is not something that could disappear overnight, and among all the interviewees there was a recognition that sexual assault can never vanish. However, Rasmussen was optimistic about the possibility of real, albeit slow, change.

At the end of her interview, she spoke about how she’d recently watched an episode of Golden Girls, a show she’d loved in her childhood. An overweight character came onto the screen, and was instantly made the butt of a volley of fat jokes that Rasmussen found appalling. It hit her, “like a ton of bricks,” she said, that the culture had changed concretely since her childhood when she had laughed at the same insensitive jokes. “Sometimes in my darkest days around this work, you do get very despondent,” she said. “When you hear about a really terrible case and you go, how could one student do this to another student, and why, despite all our efforts around training and the climate survey, and everything that we’re doing, why is this still happening? So you can get kind of despondent. But I realized, because it’s a cultural thing, the culture can change.”

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

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