Thoughts on Dartmouth’s Assault Problem

By Ke Ding

When it comes to attitudes about the issue of sexual assault at Dartmouth, most opinions seem to fall between two poles: those who just don’t care, or for whom it’s not an issue; or those for whom it is not just a problem, but indeed is the biggest issue that the College faces.

I won’t go into too much depth about which side is more correct, mostly because I don’t know, but also partly because I have a hunch that the truth (as it usually is with subjects like these) is somewhere in the middle. There are cases of sexual assault at this school, so any position of extreme apathy doesn’t make much sense. In fact, it makes absolutely no sense in light of the Clery Report, which showed that in 2008 and 2009 Dartmouth had the highest reported rates of sexual assault in the Ivy League.

The 2010 Dartmouth Clery Report
On the flip side of the coin, to say that it is the most important issue the College faces seems a bit of a stretch as well. During an update on administration action on sexual assault, Dean Spears remarked upon the universality of the issue across campuses nationwide.  With all this in mind, however, it does seem fair to say that it is nonetheless a problematic issue, and one for which we should search for a solution.

The goal of this essay is not to take a side, but to present and to air out the steps to a possible solution to the problem of sexual assault. To begin, let’s start with some basic facts. There is a strain of thought that would argue that the social scene here at Dartmouth, based as it is around the fraternity system, is especially conducive to sexual assault. This topic in and of itself is a major source of contention, especially when it is stretched too far and made into an attack on the fraternity system as a whole. I remember a piece written in the Daily Dartmouth by Matt Ritger last year putting forth the idea that if all the fraternities were made co-ed then sexual assault would happen less, the idea being that the women in the co-ed house would be more likely to stop sexual assault from occurring.

It was an interesting idea, but one that was flawed in failing to take into account or discuss the numerous benefits of the fraternity system, which, at its heart, forges strong and inimitable bonds of brotherhood and friendship.  At the same time, however, that article touched upon some important ideas.  We should be cognizant of the fact that it is indeed easier for sexual assault to happen or to be initiated in a social space such as a fraternity basement. To illustrate, all one has to do is to imagine the differences in the possibility of sexual assault originating in a frat basement, as compared to the possibility of sexual assault at, say, a non-alcoholic get together in One Wheelock. Instead of getting rid of the Greek system as we know it, as Ritger suggested, I believe that the Greek system can actually be a force against sexual assault.

A central problem of sexual assault at this school is that there simply is not enough to disincentivize it. When someone is assaulted, it often goes unreported. And when it is reported, it often turns into a case of he-said, she-said. Frighteningly, the end result is that people just wave their hands, ignore it, and go on as things were as before. A female friend of mine, for instance, was sexually assaulted at a fraternity one weekend, only to be expected by her sorority sisters to attend a tails reception at the same fraternity with the rest of her sorority the next weekend.

A common theme in campus discussion on sexual assault is the contention that the campus “culture” at large is somehow conducive to sexual assault. This is a somewhat nebulous accusation. Nevertheless, it is true that very rarely do we see a zero-tolerance policy in a fraternity basement amongst brothers, if for no other reason than that they trust each other to do the right things. Let’s be honest with ourselves, though. Sometimes a certain brother doesn’t do the right thing and a bad situation occurs where somebody is victimized. The rest of the brotherhood, if all is right, would take action to punish the perpetrator and make sure that it doesn’t happen in the future.

This sort of action is, however, very much the exception, not the rule. Parkhurst is left to deal with the problem, and the issue is seen as something between the perpetrator and the victim. This attitude means that an atmosphere of acquiescence prevails in many fraternities: a lax attitude that certainly does not endorse sexual assault, but nevertheless looks the other way when a brother makes a poor decision, either out of an inability to deal with uncomfortable or awkward situations, disbelief and denial, or indifference. Because the group as a whole is not incentivized to make sure that all of its members behave the right way, the group as a whole will not make sure that all of its members behave the right way.

In order to decrease incidents of sexual assault at this school, we need an environment (fraternities, because that’s where most of the social spaces are) where the members of that environment (brothers) are vigilant and proactive in preventing sexual assault. We need to incentivize all the brothers of that fraternity to fight against sexual assault, not only on those days when the MAVs come in or when there’s a discussion on the issue, but on those Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays when the beer is flowing and the party’s in full swing and it’s easy to forget that sexual assault is a real issue with real victims.

So far, the administration’s response has been focused on the treatment of those victims. This is not necessarily a critique of the administration itself: as Dean Spears made clear on Tuesday night, administrators aren’t down there in the basement or in our dorm rooms with us at 2:00 AM on a Friday or Saturday night. Treatment is all well and good, but in order to prevent actual damage from taking place, the student body needs to take the initiative. In the end, we’re actually empowered: we are the ones with the power to effect change. And the Greek system, ingrained as it is in our campus, could take the lead.

So, before the proposal, a quick recap. Here are the two conclusions that we can make thus far.

1. Real talk. Many sexual assaults are linked in one way or another to fraternities. 

2. The way to decrease the number of sexual assaults is to enforce group action against it: to ensure that your brothers are responsible for your actions.

Once we arrive at these two insights, then, the solution presents itself. What if there were collective punishment of places where sexual assault happens? And I’m not talking about something that the Administration would throw down.  What if instead the Greek system itself took the lead in enforcing proactive measures to prevent sexual assault?

The sad truth is, people—and more relevantly women—continue to return to the places where sexual assault occurs, even after sexual assault has occurred. People continue to hang out there, and the brothers of the perpetrator don’t feel any ramifications.

What would happen, then, if instead people boycotted those places? The whole house would feel the ramifications, and therefore there would be incentives for all members of the house to make sure that sexual assault does not occur, if for no other reason than to make sure one person doesn’t ruin it for everyone else in the house. 

To illustrate: say that at the fraternity Alpha Beta Gamma, there is an incidence of sexual assault. It doesn’t even have to be a case involving a brother. After this incident, sororities and other fraternities could take the lead in refusing to have tails or social events or even hang out at Alpha Beta Gamma until the issue is resolved.

Of course, the idea is that nothing this drastic will ever have to occur. With the credible threat of social probation, or a virtual boycott, hanging over their collective heads, the brothers of Alpha Beta Gamma will be incentivized to make sure that nobody is in a position in their house to be sexually assaulted by a brother or a non-brother. Correspondingly, those brothers would be more likely to ask questions when it looks like somebody is in a bad situation, more likely to be on the lookout, more likely to be protective of prospective victims. And hopefully, this tightening up of the culture in the basements will result in fewer cases of sexual assault.

Of course, there are caveats to this whole issue. One of the central problems with sexual assault is that often the details of a particular case are murky. Regularly, both parties were inebriated, and one said one thing, and the other said another, and so on and so forth. And, of course, only some sexual assault cases start and end in a fraternity. It’s a touchy, messy, complicated subject.

But it is also a problem, and one which does call for ideas and possible solutions. Indeed, being the messy problem it is, it probably calls for multiple solutions.  It is my hope, then, that what I’ve outlined above could be one of them. It’s great to have raise awareness, to have campus dialogues, but at the end of the day the real and present issue of sexual assault calls for action. In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt told the country: “The country needs, and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Prescient words then, and as applicable as ever now.