UPDATED Friday, Dec. 5 at 3:12 pm -- In the week since this story was published, the particulars of the University of Virginia rape case have been called into question, including details about the alleged attackers. On Friday Rolling Stone published a note to readers backing away from the story. The contention of the story below is that setting aside the UVA rape case, the bigger problem is sexual assault on college campuses nationwide. That argument still stands. But any reference to the UVA case should be read with current concerns about key elements of the Rolling Stone story in mind.
It's not a good time for the University of Virginia, and the public relations nightmare is the least of it. The school has announced the suspension of all campus Greek life, following allegations of a 2012 gang rape at its Phi Kappa Psi chapter, as detailed in a disturbing report by Rolling Stone's Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
Much of the public attention in the days since has focused on the school's response, its inadequate policies regarding sexual assault, and past incidences of rape on UVA's campus that have gone largely ignored. In a petition on Change.org, alums with firsthand knowledge of UVA's Greek system called for its abolishment, citing the "insidious culture bred therein."
UVA, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Like Ferguson, the college campus in Charlottesville has become the flashpoint in a much larger cultural war, this one around fraternity culture. "Some things are considered traditions that are real problems," said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center. "I think this is something that should prompt not just UVA, but a lot of schools, to take a closer look at their programs."
One in five women will experience rape or attempted rape while in college, and a disturbing number of those incidents happen in connection with campus Greek life. Studies have shown men who join fraternities are three times more likely to commit rape, and that women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women. Just last month, at a single University of California, Berkeley fraternity party five people reported being given a date rape drug and sexually assaulted.
Couple those numbers with anecdotes like the Georgia Tech frat brother who sent around an email with a handy guide to "Luring your rapebait," or the Yale University frat brothers who famously marched through campus barking, "No means yes, yes means anal," and it's easy to see why the culture surrounding Greek life is increasingly being called into question.
According to some women's rights advocates, even that conversation is too narrow.
Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women, says it's not about fraternities and sororities but sexual assault, broadly defined. "We have an epidemic of campus sexual assault in this country," she said. "And quite frankly, what's going on at UVA—while it's gotten a great degree of notoriety—at the end of the day is a story that could have been written with just about any residential college's name in it."
When talking about campus sexual assault, Maatz stresses, there are two things at play. One is a criminal violation. The other is a civil rights violation that universities should be investigating under Title IX, regardless of whether the police take any action.
On that score, UVA, along with scores of other schools currently under federal investigation for their handling of sexual misconduct cases, has failed. The Rolling Stone report details how administrators mishandled the case after Jackie, the UVA student profiled in the story, went public with her rape. And Jackie's treatment by school authorities appears to be less the exception than the norm.
A student-run media outlet at UVA recently released an interview with Nicole Eramo, the associate dean of students who heads the university's Sexual Misconduct Board, in which she says that students who have confessed to sexual assault on campus are usually not even expelled. "I feel like if a person is willing to come forward in that setting and admit that they violated the policy when there's absolutely no advantage to do so..." she said. (That's news to many victims of sexual assault, who may drop classes or avoid entire sections of campus to steer clear of their aggressors, as Jackie describes doing in Rolling Stone's account.)
From the looks of it, UVA's campus will be the frontlines for a federal battle that's already well under way. Earlier this year, the White House task force on campus sexual assault released a series of steps schools should take, and the Education Department, for the first time ever, released the names of schools under federal investigation for the way they handle sexual abuse allegations. The issue has been gaining traction on the Hill as well.
In 2013 Congress passed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which requires schools to include reports of dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking in their annual crime statistics, as well as provide awareness programs for new students and employees. Another bill introduced this year by Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York would require campuses to designate advocates who would discuss available options with victims in confidence, as well as develop an agreement with local law enforcement over how to handle such cases.
Finding legislation that targets fraternities specifically, however, is much harder to do. And as Caitlin Flanagan noted in a recent Atlantic cover story, there's at least one easily identifiable reason for that. "The powerful and well-funded political-action committee that represents fraternities in Washington has fought successfully to ensure that freedom-of-association language is included in all higher-education reauthorization legislation," she wrote, "thus 'disallowing public Universities the ability to ban fraternities.'" Many fraternities also boast powerful alumni, who give generously to their schools.
Yet if so many of the sexual-assault violations filed on college campuses are filed in connection with this one corner of college life, it may make sense to target them specifically. As Jessica Valenti put it in a column in The Guardian, "while probably not all fraternities are hunting grounds for rapists and not all men who join frats (or varsity sports teams) are predators, when so much sexual violence is centered around one area of campus life, something has to be done." Women's advocates tend to agree.
At the end of UVA's seven-week suspension for all campus Greek life, it will be interesting to see what substantive reforms, if any, the school comes up with. "It's a perfect storm that I hope we can harness to really make important changes on college campuses," Maatz said.
It certainly wouldn't be too soon.