Stark Risks and Reasons for Hope in Fraternity Life

Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virgina

Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia

The national conversation surrounding sexual assault on college campuses, punctuated over the past months by the plight of the mattress-bearing Columbia student and new policies at Harvard and in California requiring “affirmative consent,” seemed to come to a head as we approach year’s end with Rolling Stone’s release of a detailed piece alleging the gang rape of an undergraduate at the University of Virginia as part of a member initiation ritual at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity [“A Rape on Campus”, November 19, 2014]. The description of events provided by the victim goes far beyond the brutal but often ambiguous encounters that have been the usual focus of recent attention to campus assault: the conversation amongst the attackers as recalled by the victim suggests that the attack was premeditated as part of a recurring house tradition, and the victim was restrained and beaten as each brother raped her in turn.

For those who have defended fraternities in the debate about their role in campus assaults, the stark details of the case present a moment of reckoning. If it was ever possible, it is certain that no one can any longer honestly ignore the fact that the characteristics of fraternities create a space within which sexual crimes are made easy. The sanctioned privacy, group-funded alcohol, openness to inexperienced women, and adjacency of brothers’ bedrooms all allow sexual predators to enact their plans with alarming efficiency. Given these frank facts about the risks of the system, the question for those on both sides of the debate is this: does the ultimate blame for assault in most cases lie outside of the fraternity system such that assault can be curtailed through regulation and awareness, or is the problem of sexual assault endemic to the structure of fraternities in a way that demands their abolition?

At the very least, an honest and informed observer should understand the necessity of a vibrant movement on campuses to promote sexual ethics and regulate some of the more jarring risks of the Greek system. Even before the Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative began this year, it’s been clear that Dartmouth has made substantial progress in this direction. The past few years have seen the Mentors Against Violence, student advocates for sexual safety, expand into the Movement Against Violence, itself only the centerpiece of a broad network of student organizations hosting well-attended and well-received conversations and events on sexual issues. Dartmouth’s fraternities increasingly require their new members and officers to participate in mandatory training and conversation with groups such as the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative and TiPS that confer specific knowledge and skills brothers can apply to make open events safe and intervene as a risky situation develops. Finally, the Interfraternity Council’s diligent cooperation with the six-week ban on freshman attendance at Greek events, in light of all of that policy’s apparent demerits, shows their openness to bold experimentation where safety is concerned.

The scale of the changes that the administration and fraternities have made in the interest of curtailing assaults can’t be offhandedly dismissed. But as Moving Dartmouth Forward and the broader student body continue to devise methods to progress further still, the second portion of the original question still lingers. An answer must be posed to the claim that sexual crimes at fraternities, from encounters turned abusive by a brother’s entitled lack of discipline to brutal premeditated assault in the guise of a house ritual, result inevitably from the character of private, male-controlled spaces on college campuses. If this claim is true, no measure other than abolishment can curb sexual violence at Dartmouth or elsewhere: all of our recent innovations, and any planned reforms short of a definitive end to the Greek system, would amount to window-dressing.

In the context of this grave indictment of fraternities’ very character, the exonerating evidence comes from the distinction between an individual’s opportunity and his choice. There are many ways by which private, liquor-fueled parties provide bad actors the opportunity to indulge their sexual excesses at the expense of innocent women. But if the houses that created these spaces aren’t the cause of these bad actors’ inclinations, hope persists that the risks of system can be effectively quelled to a point that makes the system worth preserving.

In the 2008 book Nudge, a study of the relationship between environment and decision-making, legal and sociological scholars Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein describe the mechanisms by which institutions may create “choice architecture”, which expands or limits the range of options available to individuals and may cause behavioral changes. “The design features of both legal and organizational rules have surprisingly powerful influences on the choices made by those affected,” they offer in summary of the multiple examples, from spending habits to alcohol consumption, where the structure and culture of organizations creates the context for poor decision-making. This kind of engineered psychological prodding is the essence of the charge mounted against fraternities by critics, who claim that assault is spurred and incentivized by the perfect storm of risk factors.

But by Thaler and Sunstein’s definition, a behavioral “nudge” of the sort fraternities have been accused of creating requires much more than the creation of risky options. In their chapter on “Resisting Temptation”, the pair describes how faced with the lure of a tempting option, an individual’s ultimate choice results from the combination of cultural cues and his own existing inclinations. In the case of UVA, it seems certain that the culture was overriding, sweeping brothers into the crime by the force of tradition and intimidation. But to presume that structural influences are the cause of all or most of the sexual misconduct that takes place within fraternities generally overlooks the reality of existing inclinations. The cruel impulse to seek dominance and gratification predates bid-night at one’s fraternity. Limiting opportunities for that impulse to manifest, whether with single-sex floors or single-sex colleges, has never been known to subdue it the way an overriding culture of sexual integrity can, whether or not Greek houses populate the campus.

The most dangerous voices in the sexual assault conversation, then, are those that suggest that all or most reported assaults are mere tall tales spun by regretful young women, or that “mistakes” are unavoidable given the unquenchable appetites of young men. While chaos may be inherent to sexual encounters, these fatalist views obscure both the role of choice on behalf of the aggressors and the possibility that those choices should or could have been avoided. Recognizing the inadvertent but unmistakable role they often play in letting those choices play out, fraternities at Dartmouth should accept that they can rectify the risks they pose only by surpassing their current role as allies in the fight against sexual assault and assuming responsibility as the organizations most likely to affect their members at that crucial personal level. It seems glib to suggest that groups of young men gathered to socialize, drink, and often seek casual sex could play a significant role in producing a culture of restraint. But personal relationships, privacy, and credibility shared among brothers can help develop self-restraint in a way the pleas of distant administrators and student groups never could. As the UVA case and other stories of brutal abuse continue to circulate, each fraternity member at Dartmouth and elsewhere should tremble at the thought of a woman being abused at the hands of a brother, and promote sexual integrity within his house through his words and his witness. The gradual, passive influence of a moral pledge upheld publicly by one’s most intimate friends can be as useful a tool as any in suppressing the corrupt impulses inside his heart.