Chin: An Easy Way Out
Closing fraternity basements ignores the prevalence of intimate partner violence.
In April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a number of fraternities at Dartmouth closed their basements on the Friday of the first weekend. While their effort to stand in solidarity with those who have been sexually assaulted is laudable, such basic initiatives, including the #MeToo movement, fail to capture the complexity of the issue. These initiatives do draw attention to the prevalence of sexual assault, but they are relatively unidimensional and do not engage with issues about sexual assault that are harder to face, creating a false sense of resolvability. It is important that fraternities at Dartmouth College are acknowledging culpability for perpetuating sexual violence, even if only in a small way. However, limiting action to the physical space of a fraternity removes responsibility from individuals. Furthermore, this limited action does not address the fact that many assaults happen outside of basements and in intimate spaces with familiar people.
First of all, simply shutting down fraternity basements overlooks the influence of fraternity culture outside the physical space. Cornell’s Zeta Beta Tau fraternity’s “pig roast” contest, for example, in which brothers allegedly competed to sleep with “overweight” women, took place over a long period of time. Florida International University’s Tau Kappa Epsilon came under fire for sharing at least eight female students’ nude photos in a group chat and joking about rape, among other things. In casual conversation, some women mention knowing they have been the subject of body shaming in brothers’ online or in person conversations, dismissed as a sort of “locker room talk.” These actions occurred outside of fraternity spaces while still under fraternity auspices. Fraternities are culpable for enhancing problematic sexual dynamics that already exist throughout society.
It is statistically known that sexual violence is often committed by perpetrators known to the victim, but this fact is not always reflected in trendy social media movements. According to a study by RAINN in 2015, 28 percent of rapes are committed by a stranger while at least 70 percent are committed by someone known to the victim. Forty-five percent are committed by an acquaintance and 25 percent by a current spouse or significant other. The fraternities’ decision to close their basements echoes widespread perceptions of college sexual assault policies. An article in The Atlantic quotes College President Phil Hanlon’s online statement about the special committee, casting it as a crackdown on fraternities to “end harmful behavior, including sexual violence, high-risk drinking and exclusion in campus social spaces.” But can a special committee really end harmful behavior? There is a stereotype that sexual violence usually occurs when two strangers meet in a basement; however, a sexual encounter can begin between two acquaintances either in or outside a fraternity basement.
Focusing all of the attention on fraternities removes the onus from individuals and places the blame on institutions, perpetuating the notion that only sleazy frat boys are capable of committing sexual assault. This attitude is echoed in another Atlantic article by Caitlin Flanagan called “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” a title that characterizes fraternities as an ominous and unknown force rather than a collective of negative attitudes from the people in it. It seems people have learned little from the Harvey Weinstein aftermath, in which men attempt to deny claims of sexual misconduct based on their supposed identity as upstanding citizens. Stephen Wynn, chairman of the RNC, said, “The idea that I ever assaulted any woman is preposterous” and Matt Lauer, co-host of “Today,” said, “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized.” It is not institutions that create people, but people who create institutions.
Being intoxicated in a male-dominated space clearly creates a power dynamic. However, a more ambiguous — and perhaps even more dangerous — power dynamic exists between acquaintances and friends. Similar to the way it was difficult for the national consciousness to imagine “respectable” people and mentors as perpetrators of assault, it can be hard for people to imagine that someone they know — and maybe even someone they trust — can take advantage of them.
At a small school like Dartmouth, where friends-with-benefits relationships are popular, it is important to consider how sexual relationships with acquaintances can create power dynamics. While the power dynamics in fraternities are now a prevalent topic, articles in the mainstream about friends-with-benefits are typically fun anecdotes about awkwardness; rarely do they consider the potential for an imbalance of power. Girls often use a buddy system when they go out, and even brothers take precautions — at least publicly — to make their basement a safer space, but a sexual encounter with a friend can begin outside of a frat, unlike hooking up with strangers after dancing in a frat basement. It is only natural to want to trust friends, but a friend may take advantage of and betray this trust, resulting in a sexual assault that is both shocking and numbing.
Sexual violence in fraternities is still a vital conversation, and should not be minimized. In line with RAINN’s statistics, sexual harassment and shame at the hand of “friends” should be a conversation that exists beyond the genre of blog anecdotes. It is difficult but doable to place restrictions on a fraternity, but relationships cannot be regulated. This conversation is more difficult to face emotionally and practically, which makes it all the more necessary.