UVA's Greek policies exacerbate sexual assault issue

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It is the eve of men’s bid night at the University of Virginia (UVA), and Greek Row is unusually quiet. On most weekend nights “Rugby Road” is teeming with women dressed in brightly colored themed party attire, pouring into a wide array of noisy fraternity houses. Yet on one of UVA’s largest party nights of the year, sorority women are confined to their own houses.

In a desperate attempt to combat the atmosphere of binge drinking and sexual assault that often accompanies bid night at UVA, The National Panhellenic Conference banned 16 UVA sororities from attending fraternity events two weekends ago.

UVA’s Greek system has been under intense national scrutiny since the fall, in part due to the publication of a harrowing article that described an alleged sexual assault at one of the school’s fraternities.

Transgressions attributed to Greek life at other schools have garnered similar national attention. Allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct within the Greek systems of Amherst College and West Virginia University led the institutions to suspend fraternities and sororities entirely. Facing similar accusations, Johns Hopkins University banned Greeks from throwing open parties. MIT now places significant limits on the size of all fraternity social events.

While these actions are aimed at keeping college women safe, they are simply Band-Aids that do nothing to address the greater problem at hand. Sexual assault issues within Greek life stem from traditional, outdated policies that need to be changed. Occidental’s recent response to rape culture sets an example for improved policies.

Unlike Occidental, at most schools across the country, fraternities host the parties, while sororities are banned from hosting any event that involves alcohol.

According to Nicolette Gendron, a senior in UVA’s Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, this ancient policy disempowers women.

“Sorority women only know what it is like to be a guest at fraternity house parties,” Gendron said. “As a result they are usually unaware of the fraternity house’s layout, who comes in and out of the house, how much alcohol is served, or who they can turn to if they need help.”

Gendron, who transferred from Occidental in 2012, argues that the restrictions on sorority parties deprive women of the power of choice, and place them in a subordinate position to men at social events. She is just one of many sorority women who are calling for a more even playing field within Greek systems.

At Occidental, local sororities do not have to deal with outdated national policies that ban them from drinking in their homes. As a result, they host their own parties in familiar environments, surrounded by friends, drinking on their own terms.

Occidental fraternities and sororities also typically have several sober brothers or sisters on hand to confirm everything is going smoothly. At larger events, organizations often check IDs and hire security and bartenders to further ensure the safety of party-goers.

Gendron says these policies are largely ignored at UVA events.

“I’ve rarely seen anyone getting their ID checked, and sober brothers certainly do not have a presence at parties,” she said.

Poorly regulated and taking place only on men’s turf, fraternity parties at schools like UVA become unsafe places where good-natured partying can quickly take a sinister turn.

The frequency of sexual assaults in Greek life is largely due to skewed views about sex among college students. Too often, men are taught to see sex as something to be taken, rather than something that should be mutually agreed upon. When this attitude is combined with heavy drinking, sexual assaults frequently occur.

Due to the existence of these views and the lack of general sexual assault awareness, preventative education on college campuses is invaluable. Title IX Coordinator Ruth Jones oversees this process at Occidental. Jones sees prevention education as a major step towards the ultimate goal of preventing all types of sexual violence and sexual assault. In addition, Jones emphasized the importance of providing a safe space that validates and assists survivors by making available survival advocates and confidential counseling.

Jones stressed the need for a fair disciplinary system that functions as it is intended to. Schools that appropriately punish perpetrators of sexual assault create an environment in which students must understand the severity of rape. If they trivialize it, they will face serious consequences.

Unfortunately, such policies have yet to be implemented at UVA. Recently, the Huffington Post reported that the university does not expel students who have been found guilty of rape. While UVA has recently adopted a zero-tolerance approach toward sexual assault, their formal resolution does not include any concrete policy changes that would punish sexual assault offenders more severely.

If schools like UVA adopt—and strictly enforce—policies that resemble Jones’ suggestions, she believes sexual assault numbers will drop drastically. Adopting more safe and equitable party policies within Greek life could also go a long way in preventing sexual misconduct.

But in the end, institutionalized policies can only do so much. It is time for college men to realize that sexual assault is a heinous issue that has been trivialized for far too long. By educating ourselves and holding each other accountable, we can be the ones to reverse the trend.

Jamie Stevenson is a junior psychology major. He can be reached at jstevenson@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyJStevenson.