With the federal review of colleges suspected of mishandling sexual assault cases underway, campuses across the nation have recently been addressing the issue of alcohol. Dartmouth announced a complete ban on hard liquor following several reforms on its fraternities and sororities, while Brown has prohibited alcohol from all its residences, including Greek houses. It seems that while the degree of action being taken varies by institution, one thing is clear: Universities are focusing on Greek life as the center of alcohol abuse and sexual assault.
It is undeniable that many cases of sexual assault do in fact occur within the context of fraternity parties. The stereotypical story of a freshman girl getting too drunk, then being led upstairs where she becomes a victim of sexual assault is one that is familiar to many, partly because, as with any cautionary tale, there is a basis of fact.
However, it is necessary to shift the perspective beyond just Greek life. What is almost never mentioned in discussions concerning campus drinking and sexual assault is that fraternities are not the only places where students imbibe irresponsibly. Penn boasts over 450 student-run clubs and organizations, many of which host their own parties several times a semester. Some even practice their versions of the “pledging” process in imitation of fraternity culture.
But unlike registered fraternities — which are required to follow guidelines set by the University’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, as well as those of their national headquarters — non-Greek organizations are not held accountable to any standard of behavior beyond the general student conduct policy.
This means that these organizations are largely flying under the administration’s radar. Even if only a fraction of the 450-plus student clubs on campus has any traditions or culture involving alcohol, it still vastly outnumbers fraternities and sororities by a large margin.
Additionally, sexual assault happens not just at raucous parties, but also in private, personal situations. Almost three quarters of sexual assault cases occur between non-strangers, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, with 28 percent of sexual assaults occurring between intimate partners.
Furthermore, the fixation on fraternity culture as the perpetrator of sexual violence falsely frames the issue as a solely heterosexual one. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention reports that bi- and homosexual males and females are subject to comparative rates of sexual violence to heterosexuals, with bisexual women having nearly double the rate of heterosexual women. Clearly, the risk of sexual assault is not limited to the male-on-female story of the freshman girl at her first frat party.
Fraternities are not guilt-free of partaking in the culture of excessive drinking and sexual misconduct, but we cannot expect to lay sanctions on them alone and consider the issue resolved. It is all too easy to lay the blame on the highly visible Greek societies that seem to dominate the social and party scene, but they are only part of the problem, not the problem itself.
Ultimately, the issue that we need to address is not “where” students are drinking, but “who” is drinking. While fraternity parties often present riskier situations, the current limited focus on them actually harms the effort against alcohol abuse and sexual assault by restricting the field of vision.
As long as the prevalence of irresponsible drinking persists, the danger of alcohol abuse and sexual assault will continue to endure on campus.
Currently, Penn has a short, almost comical, online alcohol safety module augmented by even shorter sexual assault presentations during NSO. With just these few cursory warnings, students are left to roam free; for many, it is the first time away from home, and the newfound freedom outpaces restraint, to their detriment.
If the University is to address the issue of alcohol abuse and sexual assault, it cannot simply overlook the fact that students are at risk both within and outside of fraternity parties. It needs to dispel the myth, however far reaching, that one can only be sexually assaulted at a frat party. Intimate partner violence is a real issue, LGBTQ sexual violence exists and non-Greek clubs present further complications and dangers.
We need to end the existing problems at fraternities, but it is time we widen our view and figure out a way to end the sexual violence crisis that persists beyond the walls of chapter houses.
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