Editor’s Note: The author is a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity.
It was a cold winter morning during Caroline Scott’s sophomore year. She needed to make a phone call. She was still trying to piece together the previous night’s events.
She dialed a friend, who she knew she had been with the night before.
His voice came through. “Oh, you don’t remember?” His nonchalance caught Scott off guard. She replied that she didn’t. “Oh well you know, we had blackout sex.”
Scott was shaken. His response had been so casual, so normal – was she crazy? She didn’t want to overreact, but she felt terrible. “I felt like a slut,” Scott says. “I felt like I had asked for it. I felt like it was my fault. I felt so violated and so used.”
Unsure of what to do, Scott apologized on the phone, saying she was just trying to figure out what was going on. His response did not console her: “This is just what happens in fraternities.”
Students don’t only commit sexual assault in fraternities. But Scott’s story is not uncommon. Fraternity members and their institutions have normalized an unsafe sexual culture across campus. “We have this crazy culture where it’s so easy to think these things are okay when they’re not,” Scott says.
Fraternity culture sets the precedent for Northwestern’s social culture. By dominating the social scene, fraternities exert influence across campus, far beyond their own houses. After high-profile sexual assault allegations at Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), students have ramped up demands for fraternities to create a safer sexual culture. But in the 10 months since these allegations, the Northwestern community has struggled to address the danger posed by fraternities.
Weinberg senior Asha Sawhney, the president of Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE), has heard countless stories from survivors at Northwestern. While not all of these accounts take place in fraternities, Sawhney says they certainly stand out. But due to their traumatic and confidential nature, most of these stories stay hidden.
“So much of what we hear is stuff that we’re not really authorized to share to the public,” Sawhney says. “A lot of us walk around this campus with the invisible weight of all the things we know are happening in fraternities, but because we are a survivor support group, it’s not our place to publicize that information.”
But on Feb. 6, 2017, some of these stories were revealed. Northwestern’s Chief of Police Bruce Lewis emailed a security alert to every Northwestern student warning that on Jan. 21, four female students had reportedly been given a date-rape drug at an event at the SAE fraternity house, and two of the students believed they were sexually assaulted. Another student reported being sexually assaulted, possibly involving a date-rape drug, at another unnamed fraternity house.
“This is stuff that I have seen my entire time at Northwestern, especially in Greek life, especially in the sorority community,” Scott says. “I mean, the number of survivors that I know is absurd. I am a survivor myself and I mean it’s just standard. So when it came out I wasn’t shocked. It made total sense.”
On March 30, the University announced it had “concluded its review related to the alleged sexual misconduct” and would take “no disciplinary action or further investigative action” at the time. A month later, the University suspended SAE for one year – not for sexual assault, but because it violated its disciplinary probation by hosting parties and providing alcohol to minors.
Meanwhile, SAE continued to throw parties off-campus, flouting its suspension. The fraternity still organized bar nights and formals in the spring. Throughout the fall, operating as an unrecognized chapter off-campus, SAE members have continued to recruit freshmen to join their ranks.
In October, IFC announced it would not recognize SAE until 2021, condemning the actions that have “continued to make the Northwestern community less and less safe.” But the University says it will allow SAE back on campus in 2018 as long as it successfully completes its suspension. Because of this, if SAE does return to campus as an unrecognized chapter, it won’t receive the same regulation, education and programming that IFC chapters do. Students have spoken out against SAE, including former SAE member Jimmy Wester. In a letter to The Daily Northwestern, Wester wrote, “It is disturbing that SAE prioritizes ‘having fun’ over being introspective and realizing the overwhelming presence of sexual assault on our campus.”
SAE is not the first fraternity with an unsafe sexual culture, and it won’t be the last. As a member of Sigma Chi, I watched as most fraternity members distanced themselves from the problem of sexual assault after the SAE allegations, claiming “that’s not us.” But the reality is many fraternity members do commit sexual assault, and every fraternity member plays a role although we don’t always realize it. I wanted to know how to upend this culture.
Northwestern’s fraternities have received scrutiny since their inception. Sexual assault, antiquated rituals and harsh hazing traditions — fueled by considerable amounts of alcohol — have consistently endangered students.
But this time, Scott says the sexual assault allegations were a call to arms for the Northwestern community, and especially for sororities in Panhellenic Association (PHA). “We’re done with this shit and ready to take action,” Scott says.
Students and administrators are examining the role fraternities play on campus; asking if they should be abolished or reformed, and how to best enact change in these entrenched, obstinate institutions. The University, Greek national organizations and PHA can contribute to reform, but student activists, fraternity leaders and administrators say the fraternities themselves must be committed to change in order to bring about a healthier, safer sexual culture.
Even before the SAE allegations surfaced, many students wanted to get rid of fraternities. Former Associated Student Government (ASG) Vice President Macs Vinson said in April that these organizations are far more detrimental than students and administrators realize.
“IFC and its constituent organizations have no problem lying to us or reckoning with the danger they present to students on campus,” Vinson says. “We have to understand that students are literally in danger because we have this on campus.”
Administrators around the country are seriously considering Vinson’s point. In November, Ohio State suspended all fraternity activities indefinitely, and Michigan’s IFC suspended its own social activities after multiple chapters at both schools went under investigation for sexual misconduct, alcohol violations and hazing. Florida State, Penn State and Louisiana State all suspended fraternity activities in the past year after fraternity pledge deaths.
But when The Daily asked Northwestern President Morton Schapiro about the possibility of abolishing fraternities in February, he implied that Greek life was here to stay. “I really think it’s pretty unlikely,” Schapiro said. “I think they have 1,000 beds.” With a two-year campus housing requirement starting this year, Greek life’s living spaces are especially valuable for the University, and the administration hasn’t signaled any interest in eliminating IFC.
Further, SHAPE Training Chair Sophie Spears says simply abolishing fraternities wouldn’t create a safer sexual culture. Sexual assault exists outside of fraternities, and by breaking down these formal structures and moving activities away from campus, there could be even less oversight and accountability.
“I think to just categorically abolish Greek life without doing it in combination with policy review and a new regulatory structure for all student organizations that have social events would be really problematic,” Spears says. “[It] could lead to completely unregulated and unsupervised social situations and it would be even more difficult to address sexual assault.”
While administrators have shown little interest in abolishing IFC, there are still ways that outside institutions can put more pressure on fraternities to combat sexual assault and the culture surrounding it.
The first is the University. In 2011, it created the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education (CARE) to provide resources and educate students about Northwestern’s sexual assault policy. CARE’s services include confidential support and advocacy, as well as referrals and educational programming across campus.
But Sawhney and Spears say CARE is limited in scope and, with longer-term investment from the University, could be even more effective, increasing its reach and contributing to more holistic change.
“We have three people who work in CARE,” Spears says. “Why are we not pouring so many more resources into that? There’s so much work that could be done if we had more people.”
Meanwhile, administrators claim they have limited influence within fraternities. Dean of Students Todd Adams has dealt with several fraternity incidents as head of student conduct. He says Greek life is predicated on self-governance, but when fraternities fail to self-govern, the University steps in to hold them accountable.
Students, however, believe the University could do more within fraternities.
“Greek life’s social activities frequently occur on campus,” Spears says. “[That] provides Northwestern with opportunities to regulate those social events in a way that would lead to healthier drinking and sexual culture.”
ASG and Greek life leaders, including ASG president Nehaarika Mulukutla and IFC president Rodney Orr, have pushed the University to be more realistic about underage drinking and work with students to make drinking safer rather than punish students who drink. Alcohol often plays a role in sexual assault, and these students want the University to recognize the prevalence of alcohol and provide constructive oversight.
But Northwestern has been reluctant to condone underage drinking, and therefore unable to effectively monitor and regulate it. “The University can do a bit but they have their hands tied,” Sawhney says. “There’s so much legality around what they can and can’t do. Every decision has to be super airtight.”
Alcohol becomes even more complicated in Greek housing. Adams, a leader on Northwestern’s Community Alcohol Coalition, says while students 21-and-over can drink in dorms, the University doesn’t allow alcohol in fraternities because they don’t have the same live-in staff as residence halls. While most fraternity national organizations allow alcohol, sorority nationals mandate dry houses, and the University can’t change that.
Along with an alcohol ban, Spears says most sorority nationals don’t allow men in their house after a certain time of night, and they are never allowed to host parties. Most are held at fraternities or off-campus houses, where IFC rounds provide little or no oversight and the power resides entirely with fraternity men.
In both fraternities and sororities, outdated national policies perpetuate an unsafe sexual culture. Greek national organizations are powerful and deeply entrenched in American higher education, and their influence is spread across the country. But realistically, each chapter at each school acts individually, making sweeping changes across chapters nearly impossible.
“The sad thing is that most of the real change would have to be made by a national organization that exists beyond this University,” Sawhney says, “and considering the broad diversity of chapters across the country, there’s not really any cohesive efforts to change things in nationals.”
In the absence of leadership from national organizations, Northwestern’s sororities have banded together at times to push fraternity members – and the University – to combat sexual assault.
In Spring of 2016, after rumors of sexual assault led to the suspension of multiple fraternity members across IFC, PHA launched a sexual assault task force to provide a space for the sorority community to express their feelings and develop plans for action. Juliette Johnson, a SHAPE member and PHA’s vice president of outreach and engagement, says the task force worked with a new sense of urgency after the SAE allegations surfaced in February.
“I think it mobilized people,” Scott says. “The task force was so beautiful because it was something we’ve all known forever and we’re done and we’re ready to act.”
First, the task force surveyed sorority members about their experiences in fraternity spaces. The vast majority shared negative responses. Out of 182 respondents, 78.6 percent said they have felt uncomfortable at a fraternity event, and 82.2 percent said they have felt a fraternity place its interests above their own safety or comfort.
Next, the task force invited two representatives from each fraternity to a meeting, where Johnson says 60 IFC members discussed the survey results with sorority members. Most fraternity members don’t realize why or to what extent sorority members feel uncomfortable, Johnson says, and with the survey, fraternity members can make their spaces feel more welcoming.
“I wish, if I could have told that guy, ‘This is how this action affected me,’ I wonder if he would have done it, you know,” Scott says. “What that really feels like and means, and how we can work on it.”
At its next meeting, the task force brought in CARE Assistant Director Erin Clark to brainstorm ideas for more effective educational programming. CARE operates SHAPE and MARS, which give presentations to new fraternity members each winter about consent, sexual assault and the culture of masculinity. But Johnson says it’s hard to change culture with only one presentation.
“A lot of education is put on new members,” Johnson says. “But we think that something as serious and as pervasive in our community as sexual assault should be talked about more than once every four years.”
Johnson says sororities can also use social pressure to push fraternities. She suggested sorority chapters boycott parties or events with fraternities who cultivate a dangerous sexual environment. PHA’s 12 presidents agreed to do this with SAE in February, but some sorority members still attended SAE events. “It reflects a general apathy that people have toward sexual assault because I think it’s very normalized,” Spears says.
According to Scott, PHA needs to be resilient and unified in applying pressure to change the sexual culture within fraternities.
“These actions are going to take a while, which is hard, and it’s going to be hard keeping up that momentum,” Scott says. “This is going to be a process that’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of failure. But we can’t lose that energy.”
Clark, however, stresses that sororities – and others on the outside – should not have to bear the burden of holding fraternities accountable.
“Pressure, support and encouragement from the outside community is vital to pushing for change in masculine spaces,” Clark says in an email. “But ultimately true accountability needs to come from within.”
Paul Ang, CARE’s former Coordinator of Men’s Engagement, pushed fraternity members to examine their own cultural ideals of sex and masculinity in his two years at Northwestern.
Ang often cites the pyramid of violence, where the physical expressions of violence like sexual assault are narrow at the top, propped up by a sturdy base of unhealthy cultural attitudes. Few people actually commit rape, but by being complicit and condoning harmful language, attitudes and beliefs, many more are active in supporting rape culture. This exists across Northwestern’s campus, but fraternities particularly value certain “manly” qualities, which Ang says perpetuate sexual assault.
“These constructions of masculinity often revolve around sexual conquest, ability to drink alcohol, athletic ability, status on campus and placing a high value on brothers over other people,” Ang says in an email.
“Components like these lead to sexual aggression and violence, group objectification of women, adherence to rigid traditional gender roles, belief in rape myths and a lack of accountability for perpetrators of a variety of gender-based violence.”
As former IFC president, Phi Delta Theta president and MARS presentations chair, Will Altabef saw this daily. Altabef says in order for fraternity members to create a safer sexual culture, they must confront and talk about harmful language and actions when they crop up in everyday moments. Altabef says he’s been most proud of his fraternity when a member gets called out for saying something “messed up.”
“It can seem trivial,” Ang says, “but when you shift the way you talk, you shift the way you think about things.”
Cultural change must go deeper than words. Former Zeta Beta Tau President Eli Goldstein believed that by cutting out harmful language, his chapter’s beliefs would shift. But Goldstein says not everyone did the work to understand why it was necessary.
“Policing language only goes so far,” Goldstein says. “The issue I ran into is that people didn’t speak the way they shouldn’t speak because it was bad, they did it because they didn’t want to get yelled at.”
Apathy can keep fraternity members from understanding their impact. “Even if you don’t consider yourself part of the problem,” Scott says, “or you think you’re a good guy, you still have a responsibility to realize your role in it implicitly, and then do your best to call other people out and truly hold others accountable.”
When fraternity members wind up in Todd Adams’ office for misconduct hearings, he says they often fall back on a textbook defense: “We didn’t do anything.” This inaction, Adams says, is precisely the problem.
“If some things haven’t been managed or if they’ve been mishandled or if they’ve just been left,” Adams says, “Doing nothing is actually a decision point, and there hasn’t always been good recognition that the lack of doing something might be the bigger problem than doing something and not quite hitting the mark.”
After the SAE allegations, IFC suspended all social events for the rest of Winter Quarter in attempt to encourage reflection. But former MARS Outreach Chair Liam White, a Sigma Chi member, says that didn’t stop fraternity men from drinking and going out to bars, and life soon returned to “business as usual.”
“No Greek chapters had any tools in their back pocket to self-examine,” White says. “It was just kind of left up to them to do so. Most people didn’t do that work.”
Although IFC has worked with SHAPE and MARS to create better educational programming, and the outside perspectives are necessary, White says fraternity members frequently respond better to people they share a bond with – their fraternity brothers.
Recognizing this, IFC created a director for safety and accountability this year, with hopes of developing a safety and accountability chair in each chapter. Orr says chapter leaders like these are well positioned to create cultural change within their fraternities.
“When I was chapter president, it was something that I stressed every day,” Orr says. “It was always on my mind: How do we make this place better? I think chapter leaders really need to create that space where people aren’t afraid to talk about these things.”
IFC’s 16 fraternities vary in culture from chapter to chapter and count over 1,000 students among their members. It’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of these efforts in such a disparate group. Johnson says some of them continue to have conversations about sexual assault while there are others that still “aren’t quite there yet.”
Scott says she has mixed feelings about Greek life and its capacity for reform. She’s grateful for the support her sorority provided, and says the strong sense of community has immense potential. But she recognizes the inherent flaws in the Greek system and has experienced the perils of fraternity culture.
“It changed things,” Scott says. “It was something that I had to work through to recover from and it still gets triggered. ... It absolutely affects the way I interact with social spaces that are male dominated and just with guys in general. I was lucky to have so much support and the more I talked about it, the more people came forward and were like, ‘Yeah that happened to me too.’”
The Northwestern community will continue to pressure fraternities to create a safer sexual culture, but it remains to be seen if individual fraternity members are willing to drive change themselves. It’s difficult and unpopular to challenge the status quo. According to Ang, it’s why fraternity culture is so resistant, even impervious, to change. “It costs men to engage with masculinity and hold each other accountable,” Ang says. “The easiest thing to do is never change.”
Accountability is often dispersed throughout fraternities, so that each fraternity member doesn’t feel like they need to do anything at all. But it’s not on the institution – it’s on each fraternity member to question the culture of the institution, and take it upon himself to create a better one.
“It is on individuals,” Scott says. “Even if you’re not someone who has committed sexual assault, it’s still on you to call each other out and help each other actively fix it.”