Khan: Fraternity Culture Cannot be Saved

It is time to have an honest conversation about Greek Life and its culture of sexual violence.

by Attiya Khan | 7/23/21 4:10am

During my time at Dartmouth, I have served on the executive board of Epsilon Kappa Theta sorority and the Inter-Sorority Council in an effort to discover how the widely-accepted ills of Greek life — racism, elitism, sexual violence, among others — can be addressed via collaboration. Following the recent pushback against a campus culture of sexual assault, I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that one-sided action, even amongst a group of talented, ambitious women and non-binary individuals with the best possible intentions at heart, cannot remedy the pervasive disregard for consent and personal autonomy within fraternity spaces. 

Too often, I found myself in Zoom calls with several women and non-binary individuals recommending solutions, only to be met with palpable silence from fraternity leadership. Recent statistics showing a steady increase in reports of unwanted sexual contact, and a new organizing effort among sorority leadership that has been met with mostly silence at Dartmouth, cements that fraternity culture as we know it is irredeemable. We cannot force them to care — thus, the only solution remaining is to remove their power as dominant social spaces on campus. 

The idea that Greek life requires abolition, or at least severe reform, is not new. Over the course of the pandemic, Vanderbilt University has seen one of the largest organized efforts against Greek life. Hundreds of students chose to end their Greek affiliations beginning last summer, citing “systemic apathy and animosity” from both national leadership and university officials. Many of the calls for abolition came from people deeply involved in Greek leadership, who admitted that after years of attempted change, “reform felt futile” in the face of continued systemic barriers that prevent large-scale policy changes. Vanderbilt students have good company in their struggle, with universities like Duke and Emory also seeing an increase in anti-Greek life coalitions. A University of Oregon study found that “students in Greek life experience non-consensual sexual contact at over three times the rates as traditional students in some cases,” prompting discussion on their campus as well. While some may suggest that Dartmouth Greek life is different than Greek life at other universities, information collected regarding sexual violence at Dartmouth refutes this belief.

According to the 2020 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report published by the Dartmouth College Department of Safety and Security, the number of confirmed rapes on campus has jumped from 23 in 2017, to 39 in 2018, and back down to 33 in 2019. While these numbers are startling, they only breach the surface of the sexual violence epidemic in our community. 

The Dartmouth Sexual Misconduct Survey: Executive Summary from 2018 also points to a startling distrust of campus agencies designed to handle sexual misconduct. Around 75% of women experiencing unwanted penetration chose not to report this event to any of the 14 campus agencies that can respond to instances of sexual assault, citing reasons ranging from uncertainty regarding the actual severity of the crime to a belief in general inefficacy. Rates of nonconsensual penetration or touching among women increased to 34% in 2017, compared to 28% in 2015. While women face the bulk of this risk, with survey results showing that women are four times more likely than men to experience unwanted penetration and five times more likely to experience unwanted touching, non-heterosexual students regardless of gender identity also face a heightened risk of sexual harm. First-year students face twice the risk of unwanted sexual contact from seniors despite the implementation of preventative measures like the freshman frat ban. The number of incidents overall involving a person met at a party was 34%.

There are a number of factors behind these statistics that become apparent after some time working in Greek leadership. As half of all Dartmouth sororities are not allowed to host open events with alcohol due to national regulations, fraternities have become the main avenue for social life in a barren town with not even a bowling alley to its name. Moreover, booze flows freely within Greek spaces; while alcohol cannot be blamed for sexual assault, it can contribute to the incapacitation of bystanders faced with questionable interactions in fraternities. 

The general culture of complacency among fraternity members points to another troubling source of continued abuse — in my personal experience serving on a sorority executive board, for every fraternity brother who commits an assault in a fraternity setting, there will be dozens more willing to remain silent about what they saw or heard for fear of putting the chapter at risk of rebuke. Even in meetings restricted to Greek leadership alone, I have witnessed the silence that punctuates every attempt to address these grievances. 

In a recent conversation with ISC president Molly Katarincic, I learned that fraternity culture will soon face a reckoning. Dissatisfied with administrative and national inaction, all eight sororities on campus have begun a collective organizing effort that will soon culminate in a list of demands and safety regulations that must be accepted by fraternity leadership for joint events to continue. There is an interim list until the more specific elements of the list are determined by sorority leadership, as well as lists of expectations specific to each sorority.

This is not a negligible development by any means — rather, it is an important step in line with efforts at other universities to set standards for dominant college social spaces. Even with this step, however, there remains the problem of fraternity apathy: It is always the responsibility of women and non-binary people to remedy the ills of a toxically masculine culture that finds endless support in male-dominated spaces where we will never truly have a seat at the table. As the popular adage goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. 

Fraternity culture cannot be saved. Make no mistake — sorority culture is rife with its own problems, and perhaps a future op-ed may shed more light on these aspects of Greek life. Currently, however, common practices and beliefs in fraternity spaces represent a dire and ongoing crisis that restricts women from an equal university experience. Fraternity spaces remain the dominant social space on campus for students. My heart thumps with anxiety during every walk down Webster Ave. I cannot help but think of how many people will have their college experiences irreparably changed one night, in a dirty basement where there is more beer than there is conversation. 

During my most recent walks down frat row, however, I have realized the gravity of the responsibility we as students have towards one another. Sororities should continue efforts to hold fraternities accountable on a large scale. As a member of a sorority myself, I have begun to seriously reconsider how my silent presence enables the preservation of the most unsavory conditions on campus. 

Fraternities, at the absolute bare minimum, need to start talking, and above that, they need to start leading efforts for internal accountability and culture changes. If fraternities believe this to be an unattainable and ridiculous demand, then their continued presence on our campus should be eliminated. History does not make me optimistic, and it is time to seriously consider what a Dartmouth without fraternity domination could look like. It is our collective responsibility to demand better of ourselves and one another, and to show that we do not accept sexual violence as a prerequisite for social engagement. 

Attiya Khan is a member of the Class of 2022 and a current member of Epsilon Kappa Theta sorority and the Tabard coed fraternity.

Editor-in-chief Kyle Mullins was not involved in the editing of this editorial due to a conflict of interest.

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