It wouldn’t be a typical crisis at the University without a disappointing response from the Board of Visitors. At their meeting last Tuesday, Board reactions ranged from welcome but vague, such as the new “zero tolerance” resolution, to misguided, such as Stephen Long’s immediate instinct to invoke straw men who “randomly point fingers and call for heads to roll.” After this past meeting, there’s a danger that the University is headed towards milquetoast reforms that do little to the change core dynamics of the sexual assault situation. There’s no reason we should have to accept this. The University community should take a hard look at the root causes of sexual violence rather than papering over them with half-measures that will fade away as surely as the underlying problems will not.
One notable fixture of the meeting was Board members pointing to alcohol as a major contributor to rape; L.D. Britt remarked “excessive drinking is the fuel” of the University’s cultural problems. On one hand, it isn’t a huge leap to acknowledge alcohol probably makes it easier for rapists to manipulate and control potential victims. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of sexual assaults involving alcohol. That said, a University of Michigan study this year observed that binge drinking among college students has declined 18 percent since 1991, while college students who report getting drunk in the past month has declined 11 percent over the same period. This data belies the notion that sexual assault on college campuses is now a major problem because of some new, out of control epidemic of underage drinking. It doesn’t make sense to blame alcohol for a much wider problem of misogyny and gender violence. American rates of alcohol consumption are also the lowest among the developed world, while rates of rape in the United States are fourth highest among advanced countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. Alcohol may facilitate sexual assault, but it does not magically convince people that violating another person is a good idea; that issue is much more deeply rooted.
What is far more important than whether people drink alcohol is the context in which it is consumed. At a bar, trained bartenders make judgments about whom to serve, and proprietors can be held liable for incidents on and near their property. Laughable fake ID regime aside, because they have liquor licenses, professional security and regulatory oversight, bars offer a fairly safe environment for alcohol consumption. In contrast to private parties in which the onus is on a scared person to leave, someone drinking at a bar is usually safe staying where they are. Similarly, in dorms there are almost always trained RAs or non-intoxicated peers available to assist a potential victim. This not to say rapes don’t happen in dorms, rather that there is a built-in infrastructure to prevent assaults from occurring.
Off-Grounds apartments are also major sites of alcohol consumption. There is certainly higher risk of sexual assault at apartments than at bars or dorms, but most apartments are fairly small settings where roommates or other guests can notice and then intervene in the case of potential sexual assault. Predators can exploit their surroundings somehow, but given the scale of most off-Grounds housing (and that most apartment parties are run with restrictive lists), significant informal safeguards against rape are in place.
This leaves us with the drinking environment that has gotten the most discussion in the University and national media: fraternities. Most of the conversation has revolved around what kind of person is a member of a fraternity, but I think most of that discussion is unproductive and polarizing. What is productive is to examine institutional structures. The overwhelming majority of fraternity men are not rapists nor would they ever consider committing or condoning sexual violence, but as President Sullivan said on Monday, “There is great concern that a sexual predator can hide out in a fraternity, and therefore that fraternal social activities pose literal dangers to their guests.” This has nothing to do with whether fraternities contain a vast majority of good people (I have no doubt they do). It has everything to do with the fact that fraternities have houses with unwatched upstairs and padlocked doors, the ability to widely distribute unidentifiable mixed drinks to unknowing first-year girls and national organizations with comprehensive systems for deflecting liability. A rapist on a college campus is three times more likely to participate in a fraternity than not and sorority women are 74 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted than nonaffiliated women. Again, whether most people in fraternities are well-meaning individuals is beside the point; the faceless institutions in which these good people exist are flawed.
When I first read the Rolling Stone article, my immediate reaction — after pain at hearing Jackie’s story — was a feeling of loss about a policy solution to sexual assault. I have no personal conviction against the Greek system nor desire to punish the people in it. I also could not agree more that rape occurs in many contexts outside of the Greek system and that even if fraternities were abolished altogether, sexual assault at the University would continue. That said, the more I read about sexual violence in preparation for writing this article, the more it became clear to me that our community can’t honestly address the problem if we focus only on the administration, alcohol use or hard to measure cultural and personal change. It is crucial that the University uses the Greek life suspension period to come up with reform that will address basic structural deficiencies through rewriting its Fraternal Organization Agreements. This might take the form of a new monitoring and/or oversight system independent of the Inter-Fraternity Council to more carefully regulate these organizations and ensure whatever policy changes that emerge stick. Putting cops into fraternity houses isn’t the answer, but dispassionate oversight led by students, both at parties and in a more permanent regulatory sense, can make the Greek system function more effectively for the entire University community.
Being outraged about the horror of rape is easy. For most people, it’s a basic part of being human. It behooves an academic institution like ours to do what is hard.
Gray Whisnant is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.