It’s an evocative question, I know. However, as light shines into the dark recesses and shadows of the fraternity houses on Rugby Road, I’m not sure it is too strong of a descriptor.
The recent article published in Rolling Stone chronicles one woman’s experience of a gang rape at a nearby fraternity house. Sabrina Erdely, the author, delves into the sexual violence that runs rampant in the UVA community. She looks into the traditions of the institution and into the cultural foundation on which it now stands, uncovering the rot at the core.
I was born in Charlottesville. I have lived in this community for over 10 years- the longest I have lived anywhere in my 34 years. I love this town. My father (who is now a priest in the Anglican church) is an UVA alum and former ‘frat boy’. I have friends who have been raped in fraternity houses along Rugby Road. This feels personal.
And, for that, I am thankful.
Because I feel entitled to my rage. Yet, I am full of fear.
The definition of ‘terrorism’ is rather nebulous. From the U.N. to our own government, it seems each entity has its own interpretation. The reason, as posited by Geoffrey Nunberg ((October 28, 2001). “Head Games / It All Started with Robespierre / “Terrorism”: The history of a very frightening word”. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2010-01-11), that it is so difficult to encapsulate, is because it is easy to use the pejorative to promote one’s own aim. By labeling, for example, a political activist as a ‘terrorist’ what may well be an acceptable instigation of change becomes stigmatized as immoral and harmful to other citizens, essentially allowing those in a position of power to hijack the agenda and commandeer the catalyst. In many cases, expressing an opinion regarding the political environment can lead to dire consequences if it is seen as a ‘terrorist’ action.
There are, however, some common threads that tie these multiple definitions together. According to what I could find from the UN (United Nations Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004)), US Department of Defense (Joint Pub 3-07.2, Antiterrorism, (24 November 2010)) and other academic studies (Rhyll Vallis, Yubin Yang, Hussein A. Abbass, Disciplinary Approaches to Terrorism: A Survey, University of South Wales, (2004)), terrorism involves: Acts or threats of violence, meant to coerce through fear, individuals including and beyond the immediate victim, toward political, religious or ideological aims.
If we look at the systematic and engrained sexual violence perpetrated by members of UVA’s fraternities, we see that the above definition, sadly, holds.
Of course, the above statement requires some investigation into what constitutes sexual violence, coercion, and sussing out what the ‘political, religious or ideological’ aims might be.
Let’s start with sexual violence. I continue to be astounded at how many people, both men and women, whom I encounter that perceive rape or sexual assault to be on some sort of continuum with ‘blurred lines’ surrounded by ‘gray areas’.
According to the US Department of Justice: “Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.”
“Explicit consent”. This is the tall, iron gate, ladies and gentleman.
According to npr.org and the California Legislative Information website, in September of 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown, signed a bill into law that would require a ‘yes means yes’ approach. From the SB-967 bill: ” An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by both parties to sexual activity. ‘Affirmative consent’ means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.”
What I find interesting about the bill is that consent is outlined as verbal affirmation but also may include (“according to lawmakers”- npr.org) active and clear non-verbal consent. This bill was specifically added to the Education Code in the area of student safety.
So, we’ve outlined that sexual assault is an act of violence. But, what about the coercion issue, which is fundamental to the definition of ‘terrorism’? Is sexual assault being used to create fear directly or is the fear a byproduct of the act?
According to Jill Filipovic’s piece “Rape is about power, not sex“ in The Guardian: “Rape is a particularly difficult crime because it’s about both power and violence. Rapists use sex organs as the locus of their violence, but rape isn’t about sex, at least not in the sense of being motivated by sexual attraction or an uncontrollable sexual urge.” This statement expresses the general consensus (although there is some disagreement) related to the motivations behind sexual assault. Therefore, the emphasis on rape being about power solidifies that the aim of the assault is to produce dominance and fear among the assailed as well as others who may identify themselves as potential targets of similar violence. What is perhaps most troubling about the incident highlighted by the Rolling Stone article, is the premeditated nature of the attack. The intention to do harm, implement violence and exert power over another individual, seems to me, to fit the definition of actions meant to incite fear.
If we return to Erdely’s findings in her article, we see how the social structure has bent and twisted to ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence within the UVA fraternity system, go unpunished in every sense of the word. “Two years later, Jackie, now a third-year, is worried about what might happen to her once this article comes out. Greek life is huge at UVA, with nearly one-third of undergrads belonging to a fraternity or sorority, so Jackie fears the backlash could be big – a ‘shitshow’ predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed. But her concerns go beyond taking on her alleged assailants and their fraternity. Lots of people have discouraged her from sharing her story, Jackie tells me with a pained look, including the trusted UVA dean to whom Jackie reported her gang-rape allegations more than a year ago. On this deeply loyal campus, even some of Jackie’s closest friends see her going public as tantamount to betrayal.”
Yesterday, I spoke with a friend who is a professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages & Culture at UVA, who planned on discussing the issue of sexual violence at the university in his class and was promptly censored via email by one of the deans who cited the sensitive nature of the topic. He was flabbergasted. Here is a man who leads daily conversations about the horrific treatment of women in places like Afghanistan and yet, he may not, according to the higher-ups in the administration, discuss the issue of the abuse of women within sight of his classroom window?!
Violence causes fear to the individual and that fear spreads like a virus to others. In a tight-knit community viruses are hard to contain. (Take the literal norovirus that overtook 15 first years in the last few days…) Decades and generations of condoned sexual violence means that a pervasive culture of fear has likely worked itself into the DNA of The University. And it is not just the young women – those in the direct line of fire – who are infected. Take my professor friend, whose work has been threatened, whose classroom has been appropriated, whose teaching has been influenced through a display of power, all as a direct consequence of sexual violence. Going back to the Rolling Stone article, Erdely identifies young women and men who act out of fear of being social outcasts if they so much as acknowledge the rape of their ‘friend’.
It is clear, to me at least, that sexual violence causes fear beyond the victim and that fear influences the decisions of others to, in essence, protect the perpetrators through silence, inaction or direct support of their violent activity.
The final piece remains as to what is the political, religious or ideological agenda that motivates this violence?
This part is tough for me to unravel. As a woman, I find it very difficult to find a way into the mindset of a man who sexually abuses women. As a woman who has never experienced sexual violence first hand, I find it even more difficult to understand the motivation. What I have discovered is that the motivation is as diverse and varied as the men who assault women – spanning all races, socio-economic groups, ages, and religions. I have read interviews with men who have admitted to rape and their outlook runs the gamut from bitter, soul-questioning remorse to outright pride at their behavior. Earlier, I cited Filipovic’s article entitled “Rape is about power, not sex”, which does shed some light into what drives men to assault women. And in her article she outlines how men have used sexual violence as a way to promote ideological, religious and political purposes across the globe – there is no shortage of precedence for this type of fear-inducing violence.
If we focus on the predominantly white, wealthy, 19-22 year olds that identify their loyalty under the label of Greek letters, I am hoping we might gain a better understanding as to the ideology behind these brotherhoods.
Let’s go back, way back, to the start of fraternities. William & Mary calls themselves the “Birthplace of the American Fraternity” as the first ‘fraternity’ was created there in 1776, according to their website. From its inception, Phi Beta Kappa was created as an elite conglomerate of individuals. It was the first time Greek letters were used to signify an organization and these were an overt indication of scholarly pursuit, further identified in their motto: Philosophia Biou Cybernētēs, now translated as “Love of Learning is the Guide of Life” (http://www.pbk.org). There is a continued reverence, to this day, of the tradition of fraternal organizations and a pride heightened by a personal association with brothers throughout history. There is also a sense of entitlement and elitism subscribed to members of these organizations, that almost goes without saying.
Why do men join fraternities now?
According to Patrick Daley of the Fraternity Advisor (www.fraternityadvisor.com), young men join for 6 main reasons:
2. To Build Their Resume
3. Leadership Experience
4. They Don’t Want to Be Left Behind
5. Meet Girls
6. To Party
Another take on what influences the decision to join Greek life, comes from Bogey Wells at http://www.totalfratmove.com in his article “Why I joined a Fraternity And Why You Should, Too”:
“The fear of the unknown that had kept me at a distance quickly disappeared as I realized that fraternities are not breeding grounds of rape, the objectification of women, and overt drug and alcohol use, but rather unique, miniature communities of college-aged males who enjoy being with one another and like the infinite perks that come with being initiated into a fraternity.
Fraternity brothers become your family away from home. They become your confidants when things get rough, yet they’re also the ones who will kick you back into gear when you need to be set straight.”
He goes on to point out that, “the fact of the matter is that any large group of men in their late teens and early twenties are going to find themselves in trouble at some point. The odds are against them. The law does not discriminate between Greeks and those who are unaffiliated. However, a news headline featuring an outrageous, illegal action with fraternity letters plastered next to it draws ratings.
Rape, sexual assault, drug use, and other illegal, reprehensible activities occur in our society all day, every day. Pick up your local paper and count the number of everyday citizens arrested for those crimes. They outnumber the Greek affiliated college students arrested for the same crimes by far. My point is, for those of you who think that joining a fraternity condemns you to four years of immoral and criminal activities, you are incorrect. In fact, if you decide to rush, you will be pleasantly surprised at what you find.”
On its face, this young man’s opinion and experience is innocuous, positive even. However, I read some of the comments in response to his post, presumably from other fraternity members and pledges, and this is a sampling of what I found:
“Makers__Mark: Should’ve included rush boobs”
“inhocFaF: ‘Rape, objectification of women, and overt drug and alcohol use’ sounds a lot like a PIKE party. The latter two sound a lot like the typical greek party.”
“1laMbDachiguy: Going Greek was the 2nd best decision I made, after being born an American”
“Shotgunning: great writing! i was also against Greek Life in the beginning of freshman year. all it takes is talking to a couple of brothers and you will understand how different fraternities are from the stereotypical frat.”
One commenter, ritamans, writes a rather long response. Here is a small section :
“The truth of the matter is, is that while deplorable activities happen all over the world, it seems to be a breeding ground for fraternities everywhere. Furthermore, while you think the numbers are “low” in the grand scheme of things, you’re only talking about the incidents that you KNEW about and that were reported. I know plenty of inappropriate actions by fraternity guys that I know were never reported because the girls and guys did not want to come forward.
Do yourself a favor and think before you write. No one’s rape or exploitation should be considered “irrelevant” just because it didn’t happen to 100% of the population. Educate yourself. You went to a university to learn in the first place, didn’t you?”
This sparks a lengthy interchange among the subsequent commentators, my favorite (please note my intense sarcasm) is this one from Bourbon and Beer: “what are you some kind of mom?”*
*As some kind of mom myself, this seems as good of a place as any to express some of my thoughts on sex…
Sex is the ultimate communion. It is both powerfully physical as well as psychological. When a woman feels violated sexually it impacts her outlook on sexual experience moving forward. The freedom she once longed for and the creativity she may have hoped to explore is deadened, numbed, or replaced by shame, guilt and anger. The enjoyment of sex that both men and women long for is distorted, often irrevocably, by forced sexual contact. Women find themselves in the role that has been so clearly laid out for them by the pleasure-only-for-the-man porn industry, expansive reach of misogynistic music, and myriad sex-driven marketing campaigns in everything from food to fashion. Women are primed from a young age to find their value in how they are perceived by others. Breaking through that illusion into a true sense of self-worth requires safe places to explore their interests, their sexuality and their relationships with others; A place where they are heard and seen and known. It requires that we, men and women, express the inherent value that each woman embodies through a committed partnership of respect. Women are powerfully sexual and yet few get to experience that potential realized because we, as a cultural, have loaded women down with shame and fear.
Back to totalfratmove.com…
Furthermore, on the same page, under the Trending Today headlines sidebar we find:
The same Bogey Wells wrote the coverage relating to the Rolling Stone article about UVA and says this: “Obviously, Jackie’s story didn’t sit well with some people, and the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity has been under siege since the story’s release.”
And this: “The national fraternity issued a press release on Facebook Wednesday that stated it is aware of the situation and is investigating all allegations. The Facebook post triggered a string of illogical, generalized rants against the fraternity.”
I do not doubt that he would categorize this very post as an illogical and generalized rant as well.
I believe the underlying belief behind fraternities, from my outsider perspective, is this: Brotherhood above all else.
A deep and abiding sense of loyalty creates a sense of belonging, a place of security surrounded by the chaos of entering manhood and facing the untethered challenges of the impending ‘real world’. Under the eaves of hundred year-old roofs, surrounded by the brick and ivy, the pooled insecurity and longing for connection, grows into a fellowship. The songs, the chants, the traditions all support this communal experience. Finding community is essential to the health and growth of society. But at what cost? What meaning is found in the words of the songs? What has seeped into the foundation of these seemingly ancient buildings?
Here blood and beer pool together. There is semen and tears. There is anger and fear. And still there is longing. Longing from the women who want to be accepted and admired by these young men. Longing from the brothers to play a role in this new-found family. Longing for both to be valued. To have a sense of self, revealed and solidified. A longing for sexual exploration and enjoyment of life. A longing to be welcomed and wanted. The longings are healthy and good. But the pursuit of selfish aims coupled with a disregard for the humanity of another creates isolation and destroys the very connection that we strive for.
If brotherhood is, in fact, the ideal that drives the society and culture surrounding the fraternities, is it the driving force behind sexual violence? It is indeed what allows the spread of fear among students and the administration at UVA? The alumni who sustain the fraternities and the University with their financial contributions, are they also complicit in sustaining this culture? Could we go so far as to say that the fraternities have political aims, if we define politics as organized control over a human community?
I don’t have the answers.
When I had my first son, I thought, “Why am I bringing another white male into the world?” White men, historically, are responsible for heinous and systematic exploitation that continues to this day. And yet, they still wield power culturally and politically. Together with my husband, we are committed to raising our sons to live and lead with grace, respect, and humility. Perhaps, our two boys can be agents of change. Perhaps, they can navigate the broken system and play a role in extracting the rot at its core. Perhaps, as brothers, true brothers in spirit and peace, they can demonstrate what it means to invite others into a purposeful community of reconciliation, replacing fear with love.