When I started as a student at American University a decade ago, freshman women were warned to stay away from parties hosted by an unofficial fraternity called Epsilon Iota, or EI. And we largely did—apparently to the dismay of EI members.
An email dated March 20 and allegedly culled from an EI listerv reads, “I just think that more intimate pre-games where the girls would feel more relaxed and safe would be such a good idea to get the bitches into the right state of intoxication so that plows will be raining all over the place.”
That's just one example of the chilling remarks contained in 70 pages of emails and texts that were posted online last week, said to be collected from the EI Google group. Some of the others were far worse:
“She’s the type of girl you need to fuck hard and rape in the woods.”
“Dumb bitches learning their place.”
“Someone needs to stuff a dick in that girl’s mouth.”
Most of the messages are an incoherent stew of rape “jokes” and references to “bitches,” but some include allusions to EI brothers assaulting a woman and to women being raped by EI members.
A Change.org petition calling for the expulsion of the EI members in question has already gathered about 800 signatures, and AU president Neil Kerwin has since said in a statement that the emails require “immediate attention” from the university because “the allegations include high risk and harmful behaviors that ... may represent breaches of our student conduct code and of the law.”
Throughout the firestorm, EI has been referred to as an “underground fraternity,” but that term inappropriately lends it the cachet of a Skull & Bones-type elite society.
In reality, EI is an unrecognized collective that formed from the wreckage of American’s former Alpha Tau Omega chapter, which was shuttered in 2001 after a series of hazing and alcohol abuse incidents, according to this AU guide to greek life.
As another AU frat put in a recent Facebook post, EI is more like a "freelance club of douchebags pretending to be a fraternity.”
Still, the group continued to recruit on campus, and some members reported experiencing a tighter bond with fellow members because of the club’s clandestine operation. An EI house was responsible for 15 neighborhood complaints in a single year, with locals complaining of “loud parties, public urination, and trash.”
In 2006, the university threatened to disband EI, saying it posed threats to the campus community because “it does not follow any sort of bylaws and engages in questionable behavior such as hazing and excessive drinking.” (EI responded by saying that it does have bylaws.)
Over time, the group’s name became synonymous on campus with sexual assault, more as a heuristic than a known correlation.
"Let's get this straight: any woman who heads to an EI [fraternity] party as an anonymous onlooker, drinks five cups of the jungle juice, and walks back to a boy's room with him is indicating that she wants sex, OK?” wrote Alex Knepper, a columnist for the university’s paper, The Eagle, in a controversial op-ed in 2010. Knepper was castigated for seeming to justify date rape, but it was no accident that he named EI in his example.
We won’t know for months whether the EI members are actually guilty of the actions they brag about in the emails. Groupthink and posturing can be powerful forces within a clan of young men desperate to impress each other.
And there are plenty of other limitations here, too: Texting someone that a woman deserves to be raped isn’t illegal, though it could fall under AU’s policy against discrimination. Some of the men might have graduated, so the university would have little power over them now.
The EI emails reveal disturbing ideas, and possibly a history of disturbing acts. But “inappropriate behavior” and “fraternities,” at this point, go together like “beer” and “bong.” One in five women is a victim of “attempted or completed sexual violence” while in college, and fraternities are implicated in between 10 and 55 percent of all campus rapes.
Last year, the University of New Mexico revoked the charter of the school’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon after a party where an alleged sexual assault took place. Yale suspended a Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity chapter for a 2010 incident in which its pledges chanted “No means yes! Yes means anal!” in an initiation ritual. When the mother of a Florida State University student complained that her daughter was sexually battered at a frat there last year, “the police response was to inform the mother of a self-defense class for students,” according to the New York Times.
In a recent Atlantic article, Caitlin Flanagan investigated sexual assault at fraternity houses, including an incident involving an 18-year-old who was allegedly raped in 2010 at Beta Theta Pi, an unofficial fraternity at Wesleyan. In the legal and administrative battle that followed, Wesleyan attempted to blame the woman for not stopping the assault. Last spring there was yet another alleged attempted assault at the same fraternity.
The editors of Bloomberg.com wrote an editorial in January calling for fraternities to be abolished, but the EI case makes clear that outlawing specific chapters doesn’t solve the problem. Rooting out sexual assault at colleges is enormously tricky. It’s made even harder by the fact that EI is little more than a bunch of dudes who wear matching t-shirts, rather than an official fraternity that can be punished by an oversight body.
Kerwin’s response signals that he plans to investigate the individual EI members implicated in the emails. But it’s worth remembering that these documents represent a mentality that percolates in a number of fraternities, "official" and otherwise.
“That these alleged behaviors may have occurred within our community reminds us that we are not immune from the problems that have occurred on campuses across the country,” Kerwin wrote. "This situation cannot be viewed as an isolated set of circumstances.”