School Daze: Fraternities, Sororities and Sexual Assault

walk a mile

In a few days, I will join the millions of college students throughout the United States wrapping up their summer vacations and heading back to school. While returning upperclassmen reconnect with their friends, get organized for their rigorous coursework, and (most importantly) prepare their face paints for the upcoming football season, approximately 2.5 million incoming freshmen will arrive on campuses for the first time.

These freshmen will face the usual, well-known newbie challenges – from waking up on time for class, to laundry, to crazy roommates.  But there is one surprising and unfortunate challenge all too many freshmen and upper classmen alike will face this year – sexual assault.  Sexual assault is rampant on college campuses across the US.

According to a survey recorded by Best Colleges, one in five women (and one in twelve men) will be sexually assaulted during their four years on campus – and 95% of cases go unreported. National College and University Administrations hoping to tackle this issue have taken a wide range of efforts such as amplified sexual abuse counseling services and sexual assault awareness requirements that students are expected to complete prior to each school year. Despite increased support and media attention, sexual assault has increased by 50% in the past ten years on college campuses.

Though it is difficult to name just one factor as the root cause of this crisis, fraternities and sororities (otherwise known as Greek-letter Societies) stick out like sore thumbs in sexual assault reports. For instance, men in fraternities are 300 percent more likely to commit sexual assault than men not in fraternities. Additionally, women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than non-Greek students. These numbers are particularly astounding considering over 9 million college students identified as a member of a social fraternity in 2014, according to Great Value Colleges. The undeniable correlation between Greek Society membership and instances of sexual assault has led many individuals (predominantly members of the media) to focus on the bad behaviors and lack of respect – for themselves and others – many fraternity and sorority members exhibit.

Perhaps nothing underscores the diminished respect for Greek-letter societies like the backlash to the viral #WeAreNotOurStereotypes social media campaign. The photo collage, which was intended to challenge common stereotypes associated with fraternity and sorority members such as a sense of privilege and reckless behavior, was heavily criticized for its attempt to draw sympathy for a comically “oppressed” group. One Buzzfeed commenter summed up this attitude stating, “So glad someone is FINALLY standing up for the oppressed fraternity college students. Hopefully someone will tackle the stereotypes around trust-fund kids next.”

Though staggeringly unsuccessful, the #WeAreNotOurStereotypes campaign did highlight an important distinction among Greek-life societies: not all of them act the way they are portrayed in the media. In fact, several societies have made important strides forward addressing sexual assault and substance abuse on campus. This is not to say that the media has overblown the issue – there are blatant examples of bad fraternity and sorority behaviors all over the Internet – but it is to suggest that not all societies carry themselves in the problematic and anti-social fashion that has become the overarching stereotype.

Though there is no easy answer to the lingering issues surrounding fraternities and sororities, time to think is running out. Public opinion has shifted enough for many to call to eliminate Greek Societies from College-life altogether. That would be incredibly disappointing, considering students involved in Greek Life have, on average, higher GPA’s, graduation rates, and starting job salaries, not to mention the $7 million they raise annually on average for charity. Instead of barring students from joining or creating societies, maybe it’s time for societies to make a serious effort to own up to past mistakes, establish preventative measures, and, most importantly, understand that they can be a force for positive social change while having fun at the same time.

For instance, my social fraternity, Sigma Phi, has taken many recent steps to combat issues of sexual assault, while maintaining the fun-loving atmosphere that draws students to fraternities in the first place. My chapter at the University of Michigan, following the lead of the University of North Carolina chapter, has implemented annual bystander awareness and sexual assault prevention training to arm members with the resources needed to handle a potentially dangerous situation. Sigma Phi Michigan also holds concerts for touring bands, “open-mic” nights, and even traditional college parties, all while keeping a pledge against sexual assault.

The first step on the road to recovery is admitting ownership of the problem in the first place. It is time for America’s fraternities and sororities to look into the mirror and recognize the unsustainability of the current system while there is still time. Like the Talmud teaches, “If not now, when? If not us, who?” The opportunity for dramatic change has presented itself. It’s now time to grasp it.

– Sam Blunt, University of Michigan, Intern

Photo Credit: Penn State News

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