An Act and Action
On the national and university levels, Greek organizations have joined the conversation on campus sexual assault in different tones.
Editor’s note: After this story had gone to print, Alpha Phi formally declared their opposition to the Safe Campus Act. The NPC and the NIC retracted their support as of Friday, November 13th. They remain committed to the Fair Campus Act.
The block is busy. Laughing and shouting, college students pass between alternating patches of light and shadow cast by street lamps. On the fronts of the houses, Greek letters glint in the faint glow. Inside one house, emblazoned Sigma Nu, the bass throbs, dull and forceful like a heartbeat.
This is High Street, home to three of Yale’s housed fraternities: SigEp, SAE, and Sig Nu. There are several other fraternities and five established sororities scattered elsewhere in New Haven, but High Street is the home base for much of the University’s Greek life.
A “Frat Row” like High Street exists on nearly every college campus in America. And in the face of mounting national frustration at the prevelance of sexual assault and harrassment at Greek institutions on campuses, Frat Rows across the country are coming more and more under fire.
Recently, though, the national arms of several fraternities and sororities with chapters at Yale have joined the discussion, lobbying in support of a piece of federal legislation on sexual assault called the Safe Campus Act. Introduced by Republican Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona in late July, the bill would drastically change reporting requirements for sexual assault on campuses. If passed, it would prohibit universities from conducting internal investigations into complaints of sexual assault unless the victim files a report with the police or allows the university to refer the complaint.
In other words, if a survivor of sexual assault wanted the perpetrator to face punishment, they would have to go to law enforcement — speaking to the university would no longer suffice.
Over the last few months, the bill has garnered significant backlash from sexual assault victim advocacy groups. Yet although several members of Yale’s Greek organizations have taken it upon themselves to address the issue of sexual assault on campus, all members interviewed were either unaware of or against the bill their parent organizations had endorsed.
Between the national and local levels of Yale’s Greek institutions, there seems to be a disconnect.
In September, The Huffington Post published the statements of 23 advocacy organizations that reject — or in the case of the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston “STRONGLY OPPOSE” — the Safe Campus Act.
Surveys of sexual assault survivors show that many find it difficult to report sexual assault. A recent Association of American Universities (AAU) report, published Sept. 22, showed that only 25 percent of more than 150,000 sexual assault survivors in colleges reported the crime to campus authorities or police. And advocacy organizations worry that a mandatory police-reporting requirement like the one found in the Safe Campus Act would deter even more sexual assault victims from coming forward.
National Greek organizations, though, have come out strongly in support of the act.
The national arm of the Sigma Nu fraternity, which has a chapter at Yale, has announced its support for the bill. And two umbrella organizations, the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) and the National Panhellenic Council (NPC) — both claiming to represent the interests of their member Greek organizations, including all of Yale’s housed fraternities and four of its sororities — have publicly endorsed it.
The NPC says in its mission statement that it “serve[s] as the national voice on contemporary issues of sorority life.” The NIC, meanwhile, claims to “advocate the needs of its member fraternities through enrichment of the fraternity experience.”
Not only have these two groups endorsed the Safe Campus Act, but they have paid big money — $140,000 in lobbyist fees, in fact — to fight for its passage.
Interestingly, both organizations also endorse the Fair Campus Act, another federal sexual assault bill that doesn’t include the law enforcement-reporting requirement. But the NIC stated that in comparison to that act, the Safe Campus Act “will more effectively engage the criminal justice system in the investigation and adjudication of allegations of sexual violence.” The NPC concurred, saying that the Safe Campus Act “would result in an increase in survivor protection and safety because law enforcement will investigate more allegations and have a better chance of taking criminals off campus.”
Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., — who have introduced yet another legislative alternative to the Safe Campus Act — published a letter to NIC and NPC officials condemning their support of the Safe Campus Act. McCaskill stated in a press conference that the bill “backfires in every way imaginable against what fraternities and sororities claim to want.”
Because of this, McCaskill says, “I would be very upset if I were a young woman in a sorority today.”
Despite Greek organizations’ emphatic support on the national level, though, seven members of Yale’s Greek chapters either had not heard of the Safe Campus Act or opposed it.
The two members interviewed who knew of the bill learned about it through personal work with sexual assault victim advocacy rather than through their Greek chapters.
Helen Price ’18, Kappa Alpha Theta’s chief marketing officer and co-founder of a new student group called Unite Against Sexual Assault at Yale (USAY), expressed her opposition to mandatory police reporting for sexual assault cases. “It’s important for [survivors] to get justice on some level, without having to go through an exhausting and stressful judicial process,” she said.
Price added, “If [the Safe Campus Act] passes, it’s going to be disastrous, to be honest, for people coming forward and reporting their sexual assaults.”
Max Cook ’17, president of Sigma Nu and an executive board member of USAY, objected to the mandatory police reporting provision as well but acknowledged a disconnect between his personal opinions and the actions of his larger organization.
Cook was blunt: “I’m focused on Yale’s culture, not the Sigma Nu at Florida State.”
This year’s AAU report — which surveyed students at 27 different U.S. univsersities — revealed the sobering reality of sexual assault on college campuses across the country. At Yale, which showed a higher rate of incidence than average, this proved especially true.
The report revealed the frequency of sexual misconduct at Yale, stating that over 74 percent of female undergraduate respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment, and 16.1 percent of all Yale students had experienced attempted or completed sexual assault. Certain groups, like students who have non-binary gender identities, experienced sexual assault at even higher rates. For instance, 28.4 percent of “other gender” students experienced sexual assault.
On the whole, the report showed Yale students are at an above average risk of sexual assault or misconduct compared to students at the 26 other universities polled.
Almost all students interviewed for this story — Greek and non-Greek affiliated alike — brought up the report’s findings, characterizing them as “shocking” and “alarming.” And in the wake of the report and heightened campus awareness, many in Greek organizations at Yale have felt compelled to act.
Cook, for one, said his participation in Greek life was exactly why he applied to the USAY board. “After the AAU report came out and I saw the rise in energy on campus related to sexual assault, I felt conflicted in my role as a president of a fraternity,” he said. “I decided I needed to use my role as president of Sig Nu in whichever way I could to be a major player in trying to start the conversation and bring other stakeholders in the conversation” about bettering Yale’s sexual climate.
The statistics in the AAU report do not indicate where on campus the sexual assaults occurred. Elizabeth Larsen ’15, student affairs fellow at the Office of Gender and Campus Culture, wrote that due to the Title IX and UWC complaint process confidentiality, it is impossible to say where these incidents happen.
But many say fraternities’ dominance in campus party culture cannot be overlooked.
Burgwell Howard, dean of student engagement and designated Greek life liaison, wrote in an email, “The Greek chapters definitely do play a role in the social life of Yale … in this manner, they do play a significant role in helping our campus address issues of sexual assault.”
Action on the part of Yale fraternities can be seen as crucial given the history of fraternity incidents related to sexual harrassment at Yale.
Within the past decade, multiple instances of sexual harassment at Yale fraternities have gained national attention. In 2008, Zeta Psi members were photographed holding signs reading “WE LOVE YALE SLUTS” outside the Women’s Center. In 2010, Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges chanted, “No means yes, yes means anal” on Old Campus. Last year, SAE was accused of sexually harassing and mocking a female student in a chapterwide presentation. And this past Halloween weekend, SAE made national news after an allegation of blatant racism — a member turning black women away from a party, saying “white girls only” — brought forth a chorus of similar incidents experienced by women of color across campus.
Though all of these events sparked outrage when they occurred, the University response has not been consistent.
The Women’s Center considered suing Zeta after the 2008 scandal, but ultimately chose to submit an extensive report of complaints, along with a proposal outlining solutions to sexual harassment on campus. In that case, the University took no formal disciplinary measures. In the wake of the DKE scandal, the University levied five-year sanctions against the fraternity. The administration took similar — though shorter — action against SAE after the events of last year. And an investigation has just begun into the events that occurred on Halloween weekend.
Price characterizes her impression of Yale’s sexual climate as “disappointing” and “unhealthy,” even beyond the AAU sexual assault numbers.
“[Fot] a lot of my friends and I, when we go out, it’s pretty normal to get groped at some point during the night,” she said. “But people wouldn’t think of reporting it because they don’t think it’s serious enough to report.”
That normalization of inappropriate behavior, Price said, has contributed to a troubling dichotomy. “The problems with the sexual climate as I see them are that people see it as a binary between being a good guy and a rapist,” she said. “A lot of people don’t seem to get that small actions — slut shaming, being sexually aggressive at a party — contribute … to an unhealthy sexual climate.”
Sadé Kammen ’19, a member of USAY’s executive board, has also experienced these behaviors first-hand and criticizes a lack of bystander intervention training for freshman. She said Yale’s sexual climate surprised her when she arrived on campus this fall, noting that she and her classmates have so far only participated in the Communication and Consent Educators’ first-year consent workshop (“the froyo discussion”), which she says her peers treated jokingly.
“At night, the amount of small sexual microaggressions that I’ve experienced, especially as a woman of color, has been alarming,” she said.
Kammen said she has endured multiple instances of unwanted groping or touching that happened despite her saying no, adding, “The lack of people stepping in even when they could see I was uncomfortable is alarming.”
Yale’s Greek organizations may not be taking a stance on the Safe Campus Act, but according to members of several chapters, attempts are being made to combat sexual assault.
Price, who says USAY grew out of an event she co-organized earlier this year called the Fearless Conference, emphasized the importance of getting all campus groups involved in combatting sexual violence. Attendees to this year’s Fearless Conference included contingents from Yale’s Theta chapter and all three High Street fraternities. USAY now has an executive board of eight students hailing from several different spheres of Yale: Sofia Braunstein ’18, Sonia Blue ’18, Cook, Celeste Dushime ’18, Neema Githere ’18, Lindsey Hogg ’17, Kammen and Jack Williamson ’18.
“The key is realizing [that sexual assault is] everyone’s problem, and there’s no excuse to not be involved,” Price said.
That includes engaging Greek organizations.
“You can’t have organizations who are seen as — and are — demonstrably part of the problem and just chastise them and not invite them to be part of the solution as well. You have to enlist groups who haven’t traditionally been involved,” Price said.
To that end, Price said the cornerstone of USAY’s work will be its Campus Leaders program. The program will consist of students from different parts of Yale — sports teams, Greek organizations, cultural houses, performing arts troupes, LGBTQ groups and more — serving as active ambassadors to USAY. “They commit to our aims … and to actively call out those who aren’t upholding those standards in their own personal behavior,” Price said.
Administrators and Greek organization members say that beyond USAY’s work, there are other important initiatives already in place.
“CCEs do customized workshops within many fraternities and sororities, at their request,” wrote Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs, in an email.
Vincent Kennedy ’16, CCE project coordinator and a member of Chi Psi, said that these workshops often add specialized topics such as hosting guests and crowd management to general bystander intervention.
“[Fraternities] have direct control over the way the lighting is, the drinks that are served and how loud the music is” at a party, said Kennedy. “Those things have a tangible impact on the way a night plays out.”
Laura Goetz ’17, a CCE and board member of Sappho, agrees. “Who owns the space does a lot for the power dynamic [during parties],” she said. “A lot of campus feels unsafe and [changing that] should be our primary priority.”
However, Dean Boyd noted that there is no University mandate for these Greek-specific CCE workshops. Instead, they occur at a specific chapter’s request.
SAE President Grant Mueller ’17 said his chapter’s new members participate in CCE workshops, and SigEp President Amin Mirzadegan ’17 said his members participate in workshops with both the CCEs and the Sexual Literacy Forum (SeLF). Alpha Delta Phi president Henry Guild ’17 wrote in an email that his chapter has “not been contacted by anyone from CCE regarding Greek-specific workshops,” but would “be very excited to partake in them in the future.”
The leadership of Delta Kappa Epsilon did not respond to requests for comment and Zeta Psi declined requests.
With the exception of Kappa Alpha Theta, the leadership of Yale’s NPC-affiliated sororities declined comment as well, citing national media regulations. Jessica Leão ’16, president of Theta, did say that her organization hosts frequent internal talks about Yale’s sexual climate and hookup culture. “We always co-sponsor Take Back the Night, and basically everyone in our sorority is there,” she said.
Members of Theta, Sig Nu and Chi Psi said that their members who are CCEs have helped facilitate internal, informal conversations about the sexual climate as well. Cook said they generally hold a chapter-wide discussion at the beginning of the year.
“I think there’s something to be said about having a conversation [about this issue] with someone who’s part of your community already,” he said.
However, Boyd noted that these discussions are not unique to Greek organizations, writing: “Individual CCEs almost always work with groups of which they are already a part.”
Dean Howard said he and his colleagues have facilitated discussions with chapters and individual members regarding hosting, risk management and bystander intervention. Referencing the AAU report, he added that he is hoping to gather Greek leaders “to talk more about their relationship with the city and to see what we can work on in relation to what we’ve learned about Yale’s sexual climate.”
In the wake of Halloween weekend’s SAE incident, women of color have demanded that Yale listen to their voices and their accounts of feeling unsafe. National statistics show that women of color are disproportionately at risk of sexual violence, as are people of non-binary gender identities, Price noted. She says USAY intends to address this: “With any social justice issue, you have to foreground and put the most marginalized voices first.
Recognizing their role as facilitators of the social scene, certain fraternities and sororities at Yale have claimed a voice in the conversation. Nationally, however, the tactics of these same fraternities and sororities have faced significant criticism.
Since its introduction, the Safe Campus Act has persistently made headlines. But on Yale’s campus, Greek-affiliated students paying dues to organizations that support it largely differed in their opinions on how to combat sexual assault. Yet Greek chapters on Yale’s campus have not felt a pressing need to comment on this disconnect. Instead, those that have chosen to address sexual assault issues have done so like other student groups, with workshops and discussions.
The effectiveness of these efforts — and whether the disconnect between national and chapter wings of Greek organizations will result in further tension as news of the Safe Campus Act spreads — remain unclear.