For those who think American universities are in the grip of a rape epidemic, fraternities are the living embodiment of a rampant ‘rape culture’. In an essay published earlier this year, Caitlin Flanagan referred to fraternities as having a ‘dark power’. Members engage not only in binge drinking and hazing (humiliating initiation ceremonies), but also in ‘manslaughter, rape, sexual torture, psychological trauma’. It’s quite a turnaround: until recently, high jinks at frat houses were widely considered the subject of lighthearted comedy (see Animal House); today, frat houses are seen as breeding grounds for sexual assault. Little wonder calls have grown to ban fraternities outright.
Fraternities (and sororities), otherwise known as Greek-letter organisations, are long-standing institutions in the US. They started in the 1820s, and nearly half of US presidents have been members of one. They remain influential today, encompassing about 370,000 male students in roughly 800 colleges. So, when today’s critics denounce fraternities en masse, they are vilifying thousands of young men in one fell swoop, and setting up frat members as the targets of public condemnation.
That’s just what the president of the University of Virginia (UVA), Teresa Sullivan, did. In response to a Rolling Stone article that alleged a gang rape on campus, Sullivan suspended all UVA fraternities. Her presumption of guilt was extremely damaging to members of UVA’s fraternities. Sullivan effectively accepted at face value Rolling Stone’s claim that members of Phi Kappa Psi were guilty of a horrific crime. With a green light from the top, protests were held outside of the Phi Kappa Psi house. Vandals threw bricks through the windows and spraypainted on the walls: ‘SUSPEND US’ and ‘UVA centre for rape studies’. On campus, students yelled ‘rapist’ at Phi Kappa Psi members. Eventually, they were forced to move to a motel.
Sullivan’s decision to ban all fraternities also suggested that every fraternity at UVA, not just Phi Kappa Psi, was to blame. Her collective punishment was certainly unjust. Furthermore, Sullivan’s ban gave support to evidence-light claims that a pervasive ‘rape culture’ existed on campus. It’s worth recalling that the Rolling Stone piece not only told the (now discredited) story of Jackie, the alleged victim of the gang rape. It also painted a picture of frats at the centre of a party scene where mass sexual assaults were commonplace, as if Boko Haram cells were operating in Charlottesville. By banning all fraternities, Sullivan therefore lent credence to Rolling Stone’s wild claims about social life at UVA.
As we now know, Sullivan rushed to judgement, based on a fabricated story. Despite the harm done to fraternity members’ security and reputation, Sullivan has not apologised, and insists on maintaining the suspension until at least January. She announced the establishment of an ‘Ad Hoc Group on University Climate and Culture’ that will review how UVA can ‘create a culture of student safety’. First and foremost, she initiated a review of ‘student behaviour, Greek life, alcohol and other drug use’. Fraternities will need to draft new fraternal-organisation agreements to ‘provide greater safety for guests’. But this is hardly an impartial process: the group’s objectives already assume fraternities are unsafe and need to be reformed. Once again, fraternities are presumed guilty.