The Time I Got Banned for Writing About Fraternity Brothers Holding Each Other Accountable
Picking Up My Pen
Sexual assault on the college campus; it’s never not a problem, however sometimes it’s more publicized than not. While Bill Cosby has been connected to most of the more resent sexual assault chatter on the interwebs, college fraternities are also not without controversy.
The above stanza were the first words I ever wrote about the topic of sexual assault. The year was 2014 and I was preparing for my first year at the Brandeis School of Law. Despite being in my 30’s, I was excited about my student status, knowing my third degree would be my final one. In addition to late nights in the law library, serving on the school’s student government and grueling hour-long practices as a member of the mock trial team, I also served as a student writer on a college blog.
Knet Books is an online college textbook seller and host of the KnetBooks Blog. The blog features a variety of college centric topics ranging from dealing with the stress of higher education to managing college debt. While my articles on Christmas gift ideas and my affinity for hooded sweatshirts were typically well received, when I made a written plea to for fraternity men to hold one another accountable for their sexual behavior, I had crossed the line. My article would never see the light of day; it was banned.
The biggest story to break in recent months was the alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia which resulted in administration bringing a halt to fraternity life through the fall semester. Also, in last semester’s news was a fraternity at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee who, in September, came under investigation for allegedly marking female party-goers hands with a red X, giving them access to drugged alcoholic beverages. To close the year out, two co-eds at Brown University tested positive for the date rape drug GHB, which found its way into their drinks during a party hosted by one of the University’s fraternities. Fraternities are finding themselves at the very dangerous intersection of Drinking Culture and Hook -Up Culture, with the collisions adding up.
It was not the quality of my article that got itself banned but, rather, its topic. My editor stated that an article about collegiate sexual assault might upset some of their readers. Although I was too shortsighted to see it at the time, my editor’s comment was directly tied to the taboo nature of sexual assault conversations. There is no doubt that sexual assault is a difficult topic to discuss. Cases on sexual assault usually contain traumatic and personal details of violent acts that many consider “too sensitive” for everyday conversation.
Parents struggle with the topic when they teach their children about sex, as the conversation is usually limited to warnings of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. This leaves children to receive the bulk of their sexual education from their friends and internet porn, neither of which typically focus on the laws of sexual misconduct. Even educators experience barriers that cause them to think twice about starting these conversations. Teachers have cited a lack of education on the topic as a reason to avoid it altogether. Some have even expressed the fear of being accused of sexual harassment themselves as a reason for not including the topic as a part of their lesson plan.
Sidestepping sexual assault education is not limited to the K-12 sector. In my second semester of law school, we began our unit on sex crimes with a memorable address from our professor who explained that while our class would be trudging through this unit, there are law schools around the country that were skipping over these crimes due to their taboo nature. Indeed, law students around the country have voiced their concerns with the way sex crimes are taught, leading to professors choosing to skip the topic altogether, rather than adjust their teaching method.
For some, other cultural beliefs such as religious values place a taboo on sex (consensual or otherwise) in normal conversation. Take the Islamic faith, for example, which considers Zina (sex outside of marriage) a sin. A Muslim writer for the website Parhlo would discover that her religion’s views on sex would lead to accusations that her 2015 article “10 Surprising Health Benefits of Having Sex” crossed her boundaries as a Muslim. Psychological research has attempted to explain the taboo nature of sex talk by tying it to the idea that sex reminds humans of our animalistic nature, thus igniting fears about our own morality that may be in conflict with our religious beliefs.
For men, self-reflection also serves as a barrier to discussing sexual assault because having honest discussions about rape culture requires a level of uncomfortable self-evaluation. Thinking of sexual assault as an abstract crime that happens to (and is caused by) strangers we do not know is easy. When the conversation is personalized, however, it creates a high level of turmoil for the members of the community in question. For fraternity men, these discussions are a journey into the shadows and dark spots in their organizations that they may not be ready to take.
Teaching Fraternity Men
In 2001, I was riding high in the “life” category. I had pledged a top house and was being accompanied by one the most popular and beautiful girls from my high school graduating class to our pref night, which was a mini cruise on a steamboat. Also along for the ride was a pretty cool girl from my dorm, let’s call her Beth, who was the date of one of the older brothers in the chapter. As the night went along, I noticed that Beth had proceeded past “fun drunk” right into “needs to be helped back to the dorm drunk.”. I also noticed her date getting increasingly flirty, which was troubling considering the fact that Beth could barely keep her eyes open and head upright. At this point, I pointed out the situation to my date and we made it our mission to get Beth back to the dorm safely. As I got to know the brother in question, I eventually learned that he is a pretty good guy, and when we finally discussed what happened that night, he informed me that while he would not take advantage of a girl, he was glad that I intervened as it showed good character. While this situation worked out in the end, there are more people not intervening than are.
I knew I wanted to join a fraternity before I even knew what university I would attend. The movie Animal House did the trick on glamorizing the fraternity life and by the time I made it to the University of Louisville, I was quickly seeking out Greek Row and joining the most fun loving group on campus at the time, Tau Kappa Epsilon. It would be those days of themed parties, football tailgates and fraternizing with sororities, that would set the foundation for my eventual excursion into advocacy 15 years later.
Fraternities live in an environment that utilizes a reactive approach when it comes to sexual assault. The internet overflows with stories of fraternity suspensions and disbandings due to sexual misconduct. Chapters engaged in this type of behavior can anticipate university sanctions, unfavorable media coverage and punishments from their national fraternity office . While a reactionary culture is needed to ensure chapters are abiding by Title IX regulations, a strong proactive culture helps students avoid these issues in the first place.
Breaking down the taboo wall for fraternity men should start on their first day as a new member (also known as a pledge or candidate). New members go through a period of education, (also known as pledgeship,) before being granted full membership in Greek organizations. The education in this period usually focuses on fraternity history, bylaws, customs, and traditions. By the time a member makes it to the end of this period, they will be immersed in the customs all full members are expected to follow. This period is when members should engage in the sexual assault conversation, as teaching prevention along with other fraternity customs places consent, bystander intervention, and healthy sexual behavior in the chapter’s set of core values and expectations. Chapters such as Sigma Phi Epsilon at the University of Northern Iowa and full fraternity systems like the University of Pennsylvania’s, are among those that integrate sexual assault education in their new members programs.
As stated earlier, a barrier that fraternity men encounter when speaking about sexual assault prevention is self-reflection. Fraternity men report feeling like university-led education on sexual assault is more akin to a “stern lecture” rather than a conversation. Being automatically painted as “the bad guy” is often a turnoff for members, causing them to go on the defense and disconnect from the talk altogether. When I was formulating a way for me to use my platform as a fraternity alum to educate active members on the principle of consent, I spoke with my university’s Greek advisor who told a story of one of the past sexual assault presentations the fraternities participated in. The university center for prevention and education, sent a student activist to speak to members of the IFC (short for Interfraternity Council, the governing body for the predominantly white fraternities on college campuses). The very first words from the speaker’s mouth were “one in four of all of you are rapists. Let’s talk about it.”
Although the opening line may have been harsh, the information was rooted in research. The statistic of one in four undergraduate college women being sexually assaulted has been cited frequently. Despite the statistical backing of her statement, however, the message was lost due to the delivery. In this instance, the barrier of self-reflection was elevated because of the speaker’s accusatory tone. Though she didn’t know it, her lecture was over before it even began. After that incident, the Greek advisor told me, “The members of IFC told me never to send someone from that office again.”
Unlike the well-meaning speaker above, educating fraternity members on sexual assault is an exercise of “giving medicine with a spoonful of sugar.” A positive educational experience is one where we speak with fraternity men, rather than at them. Creating a space that brothers consider safe to speak in, sans judgement, is key to helping them over the hurdles that prevent them from conversing on this topic. Also, designing education that is relatable and realistic, leads brothers to think and converse honestly and critically about sexual assault.
When putting together my initial lectures on consent, I made sure that every example was a story from my time as an active fraternity member. I filled my presentations with the same stories I would tell pals at the campus bar, repurposing them as tales of consent rather that anecdotes of conquest. The result was a laid back, comfortable atmosphere where my audience was engaged by examples that are similar to what many of them go through on a regular basis. By using relatable examples, fraternity brothers were able to see how they themselves unconsciously partook in healthy sexual behavior. This approach also serves to demonstrate how easy the concept of consent truly is.
Of course, not every member of a fraternity is a sexual predator. On the contrary, a majority of fraternity men will express their disdain for this sort of behavior and resent the fact that their membership in a Greek organization even associates them with these despicable acts. These men need to be agents of change in their chapters. They are the ones who must band together and not only speak against sexual assault, but act against it. When an email entitled “Luring Your Rape bait” is sent out to the entire chapter, these men mustn’t be bystanders laughing with the herd. Rather, these men must risk being “uncool” in order to say these “jokes” aren’t funny but destructive. Instead of turning a blind eye to the party guest who has clearly had one too many and can’t even spell the word “consent” as she is being coaxed into a random bedroom, these men must interject. These men must be the voices of reason when their brothers are making plans to disrupt a “Take Back The Night” rally by throwing eggs and sex toys at their fellow students who are legitimately concerned about their safety on campus. Simply put, if the culture is to change, these men must be men; simply being bystanders will no longer do.
After having my article rejected, I realized that my voice may be meant for something greater than penning top 10 lists. I left Knet Books and settled into my first semester of law school. In the spring of 2016, I would create Greek Law as a public service group through the school’s student government. Through Greek Law, I would get the opportunity to work with hundreds of fraternity men and sorority women through out the states of Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Alabama. When I graduated, I would take Greek Law with me, turning it into a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Eventually I would develop a high school and middle school curriculum, helping secondary schools start the discussion of healthy sexual behavior with their students. In 2020 I would parlay this work into a full-time position at Indiana University Southeast, as their deputy Title IX coordinator, a position that allows me to continue the conversation of sexual assault prevention with our fraternity men. It is this continuation of the conversation that is needed to move the needle.
During the same years when fraternity members have filled the ranks of sexual assault awareness groups like Indiana University’s Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault (MARS), fraternities like Washington State University’s Delta Upsilon were suspended for a sexual assault at a party. At the same time when fraternity members at Kansas University formed a task force to address sexual assault in their Greek community, more than half of the campus sexual assaults reported at San Diego State University involved fraternity members. In the semester I would first have the opportunity to lecture the entire new member class of fraternity men at Western Kentucky University, a Sigma Tau Gamma pledge would record his sexual assault of a classmate at Purdue University, 278 miles away. While it is important to acknowledge and applaud the work chapters are doing to flatten the curve of fraternity sexual assault, it is equally important to remember that there is still a lot of work that must be done.
Small things like speaking up when an inappropriate joke is made or intervening in a suspect situation at a party are actions that change an entire culture. To arrive at this culture shift, fraternities must make conversations on healthy sexual behavior common and casual. And given the fact that each new school year welcomes a new class of freshmen, these conversations must also be consistent.
The same goes for blogs and other internet outlets that produce information about college life for students. These outlets must not shy away from addressing sexual assault because, unfortunately, sexual assault is just as much a part of higher education as rooting for the home team or arguing with your freshman year roommate. In the words of Louisville criminal law professor Sam Marcosson, “the first step to changing the world is to know what we’re changing.”
In a perfect world, students wouldn’t have to avoid taking a night class or be wary about walking from the library to their dorm after a late-night study session. In a perfect world, students could attend parties in the most carefree of manners, void of any worry of a drugged drink. However, until this perfect world comes to fruition, these men, these bystanders, may be all she has.