Female UT Student Sues Fraternity, Says Frat Culture Led To Her Sexual Assault
3:15 pm, July 18th | by Amy Tennery
The student, identified as M.J., says she attended a fraternity event during freshman orientation in July 2010, unaware that the event was a well-known “Rite of passage and sexual opportunity for the Texas Alpha Chapter [of Sigma Phi Epsilon],” according to Courthouse News Service. The complaint goes on to argue that “All University of Texas college men know of the process, and have for decades. As do the officers and directors of the national Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity corporate entity.” At some point during the night, M.J. says she fell asleep — and woke up after she was kidnapped from the frat house, assaulting and dumped by the side of the road, miles from home.
Disturbingly, this isn’t the first time a fraternity has been named in a lawsuit involving sexual assault. In 2003, the University of Washington and Sigma Chi were sued by a student, who said she was raped after attending a party at the frat house. In 2009, a University of Wisconsin student said she was drugged and raped during a frat party — incidentally, also at a Sigma Chi chapter. Her case was last appealed in March.
But do frats cause rape? Of course, it’s never the fault of any victim that she attended a frat party. But whether “frat culture” is slowly adopting the characteristics of “rape culture” is a complicated question — one that schools need to start asking themselves to protect their students.
There’s certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that guys, when packed into a frat house and bonded by The Brotherhood Of Lukewarm Natty Ice, can do some awful stuff — perhaps things they wouldn’t do if not for good old mob mentality. Consider the University of Vermont frat that shut its doors in 2011, after word of a “Who Would You Want To Rape Survey” in the frat house leaked. There’s the story of an official Phi Psi frat song titled “Push Her In A Corner,” which details a sexual assault (as a “joke”). And, in 2011, a different University of Texas frat got in hot water for hosting a live sex show. (And, lest you think I’m taking it easy on the women here, let’s recall that sororities across the country engage in brutal, disturbing hazing rituals all the time. Mob mentality does not discriminate.)
Indeed, the social science literature of the past three decades has shown that fraternity men are more likely than their nonaffiliated classmates to rape women, and some studies have estimated that as many as 70 to 90 percent of reported campus gang rapes are committed by members of fraternities. This makes fraternities a dangerous place for the women who frequent their houses and attend their parties.
What do we make of this? Shut down frats? Tell women it’s unsafe to go near one? Both those options seem unfair. There are clearly plenty of perfectly nice kids who join fraternities — and to say that fraternities “cause” men to rape women absolves rapists of some measure of personal agency and responsibility.
But of course, there’s a difference between negligence and cause — and it’s the former, not the latter, that the plaintiff in this most recent suit is alleging. As Courthouse News Service noted, M.J.’s suit “claims that the fraternity routinely gets young women drunk on ‘extremely alcoholic beverages’ and fails to protect them from sexual predators.” That’s damning stuff. And while looking the other way as its UT chapter poured Everclear grain alcohol down the throats of 18-year-old girls may not cause rape, in ignoring this behavior, the frat’s national chapter provided an environment in which the rape is more likely to occur. It’s reasonable for M.J., a girl unfamiliar with campus life who had no idea what she was walking into, to claim that this decades’-old “tradition” of boozed up debauchery may have led to her assault.
The culture surrounding frats has grown so troublesome, that a 2011 Wall Street Journal editorial called for them to be shut down “for young women’s good.” And a Hypervocal story even suggested that “rape is very much a part of college life.” When you hear the stories I’ve related here, it’s easy to see why there’s panic. But would shutting down the frats end rape culture? Even that seems too much to hope for.