Wonder why addressing sexual assault on university campuses is such a complicated, entrenched problem?
Behold the backward decision forced by national sorority executives over co-eds in the Greek system at the University of Virginia. A Washington Post headline summed up the ludicrous unfairness in one pithy line: “U.Va. sorority sisters ordered to stay home Saturday night for their own safety — while fraternity brothers party.”
The sororities have basically been ordered on lockdown, grounded from attending the parties hosted as fraternities welcome in their new pledges. All-girl, mandatory sorority events are ordered instead.
These adult leaders are completely missing the point.
Women will be safer from sexual assault on campuses nationwide when fewer men commit assaults. The answer isn’t to limit where and when women can go. It’s to demand appropriate behavior and enforce penalties for violations, including criminal charges if warranted.
The National Panhellenic Conference, the national organizational system linking sororities, seems to be advocating for fraternity no-go zones, as if the young men cannot be expected — in fact, that they should not be expected — to behave. The edict came in letters to the 16 sorority presidents on the Virginia campus. It’s a stand that is offensive to both genders, steeped in the old-school attitude that there are just some places where women do not belong.
It’s interesting that the dictate did not issue from the university’s administration, which has been under intense media glare on such issues for more than year. Indeed, the university has confronted campus sexual assault as few others have had to.
First, there was the disappearance in September 2014 of 18-year-old Hannah Graham. By October, her body was found. The man charged with Graham’s abduction has a history campus sexual assault accusations and has been forensically linked two other assault cases, including the death of another woman. You can bet those facts shed a chilling light on the reality that abusers carry on when they are not held accountable, and even escalate their crimes.
Last November, Rolling Stone published a sloppy piece of journalism accusing unnamed members of a campus fraternity of a gang rape. The story fell apart upon scrutiny. No charges were ever brought. Despite its reporting problems, the piece highlighted the bureaucratic and legal problems that universities face when trying to fairly judge the validity of sexual assault accusations. The university halted many Greek activities after the article published and underwent a deep analysis resulting in a range of new rules governing alcohol use at fraternity parties and how guests are allowed entry.
Apparently, that’s not enough for the National Panhellenic Conference.
Thankfully, the young people are pushing back, to the extent that they can. At least one petition and several online letters have been circulated, signed by students in the Greek system and non-members. The author of one letter summed up students’ frustration:
“Instead of addressing rape and sexual assault at U.Va., this mandate perpetuates the idea that women are inferior, sexual objects. It is degrading to Greek women, as it appears that the (National Panhellenic Conference) views us as defenseless and U.Va.’s new fraternal policies as invalid.”
But for all the brouhaha, a stalemate has occurred.
The university won’t weigh in, saying it’s a matter between the sororities and their national leaders. The sororities are not commenting on the record because they know doing so risks their chapter status; same for the fraternities. Apparently, nationals still hold a lot of sway. (I’m a Delta Zeta, which has a chapter at U.Va.)
At my Midwestern campus, word that nationals were visiting always elicited a groan. There was a feeling that national leadership was well-meaning but sometimes out of touch, meddling without full understanding of campus issues.
Sounds like things haven’t changed. What’s astounding is that Greek systems promoting themselves as enhancing leadership and the moral development of young women are taking such a paternalistic stand.
So what’s next? Will homecoming celebrations are off limits? How about end-of-semester parties?
Inasmuch as sexual assault remains a problem on college campuses, the answer is not a retreat to the sexist stereotypes of the past. In fact, those stereotypes linger in too many workplaces and other institutions.
Young people recognize those problems and want to address them. They will be the catalysts of change.
But adults have to trust them.