Szuhaj: Greeks Can Halt Assault

Sexual assault can be halted, in part, by fraternities taking action.

by Ben Szuhaj | 1/13/17 12:25am

I published an article entitled “In Defense of Fraternities” which received a fair amount of criticism. My argument was three-fold: that fraternities offer benefits for members, that they are not as limiting as stereotypes may suggest and that during my first term in a fraternity, I had a positive, enjoyable experience.

The intent of my article was not to discuss all of the complex issues related to or affiliated with Greek life but rather to point out that fraternity life can be a rich and rewarding experience for members — a rather obvious argument which at best I assumed to be a positive, albeit benign message, and at worst a self-servicing advertisement of privilege. Never did I expect to be accused of propagating toxic masculinity or rape culture. Never did I think penning a 650-word article about membership in a fraternity required one to add such disclaimers as: sexual assault still happens on college campuses at an alarming rate. Racism is still a problem in America. Differences in socioeconomic status can still lead to differences in access to opportunity. I did not add in my article that we, as Dartmouth students, are a diverse community of people facing a world replete with complex issues because I assumed that fact was obvious.

But here, now, I would like to begin a discussion of the issues related to the Greek system. I cannot adequately address them all in one column, so I’ll devote the rest of this piece to the issue that appeared most often in the criticism of my previous article: sexual assault.

It is undeniable that fraternities and their members have the potential to be complicit in behaviors that directly or indirectly lead to sexual assault. Sexual assault is often associated with high-risk drinking and social spaces. It is perpetrated disproportionately, although not exclusively, by men. Toxic masculinity — the warped sense of masculinity that profiteers off of sexual conquests, slut-shaming and “locker room talk,” and that is present in some but not all male-dominated groups — perpetuates rape culture. Add to the mix the fact that male-dominated social spaces — such as fraternities, where a brother’s bedroom may only be a flight of stairs away — can be intimidating for male and female guests alike and can cause them to feel as though they are indebted to brothers, that as guests they must reciprocate for inhabiting the brothers’ space or consuming the brothers’ alcohol, and the risk of sexual assault rises.

I am fully aware of the role fraternities in particular and social spaces in general play in sexual assault, but I am bothered by the assertion that Greek life at Dartmouth is a fundamentally harmful force and an unchangeably harmful institution. I believe that it, like many things, is much more complicated than that. Just because toxic masculinity and rape culture may exist within some all-male groups does not mean those despicable influences are present among all of the all-male groups on campus. And while “all-male” may be a prerequisite for the propagation of toxic masculinity and rape culture within an organization, I also believe that all-male organizations such as fraternities can provide a framework within which dialogue can take place, on which policy can be implemented and with which we can work to reduce the incidence of sexual assault on our campus.

At this point you might be wondering: “How?” That’s a fair question. It’s one I’ve been grappling with for weeks. The answer, I’ve come to believe, is through a multi-step approach composed from within, designed and implemented by students in an effort to change our cultural norms regarding sexual violence, to better empower survivors and bystanders, to make reporting easier for survivors and to make repercussions more severe for perpetrators. While the scale of this approach may be daunting, many student organizations, such as the Greek Leadership Council and Movement Against Violence, are already crafting policies and initiatives designed to help move us closer to achieving these goals.

I say “move us closer” because when it comes to eliminating sexual assault, absolute achievement is a very difficult thing to measure. For instance, how does one measure the change in our cultural norms regarding sexual violence? Furthermore, seemingly straightforward changes like making reporting easier become much more difficult when you consider how intangible factors such as fear or shame often prevent survivors from reporting in the first place. In my opinion, this is where the importance of peer counselorship and compassionate, well-informed dialogue is most potently felt. Counseling has the potential to ease the immense physiological burden of coming to terms with a sexual assault. Dialogue, especially that which takes place between organizations such as MAV and fraternities, can educate fraternity members on when and how to intervene in sexually coercive situations. But even more than that — even more than compassion, education, policy and dialogue — what we need is time.

Sexual assault is a crime, and like all crimes, there will always be people who engage in it. If we can’t identify and stop every would-be rapist before he or she acts, then we must hope that over time our community — and all of the social groups and organizations contained within it — comes to condemn the crime more and more and intervene in problematic situations when they arise.

As much as it pains me to say it, I believe that for these changes to take place, we need more time. Time is what allows social norms to change, and time, coupled with education, compassion, dialogue and policy, is what will allow us as a community to continue to reduce the rate of sexual assault at Dartmouth. I believe that fraternities and formalized social spaces in general provide a level of accountability that anonymous dorm parties do not. They also supply a framework that can perpetuate the programs and dialogues already taking place, which will, eventually, lead to change.