“She’s lying.” “It was her choice to go to the party.” “But frats raise money for charity.”* The response to the recent lawsuit (1) against Psi Upsilon fraternity reflects the extent to which rape culture (2) pervades our community. Sexual assault is by no means an exception at Wesleyan: one out of every four (3) college women is a victim of rape or attempted rape and one in every seven (4) college men is a survivor of sexual assault. But only lawsuits like these (5) draw national (6) and international (7) attention.
In light of the reaction to the most recent lawsuit, specifically the focus on fraternity community service and fundraising, victim-blaming and “misreporting,” we would like to redirect conversation to the real issue: how to support survivors of sexual assault and how to prevent sexual assault on our campus. Fraternities are relevant to this imperative only to the extent that we must eliminate environments in which the much wider problem of sexual assault is exacerbated. This is not a solution, but it is an immediate first step toward preventing sexual violence.
The report of rape in Psi U is not an attack on the merit of fraternities, nor a request for a list of the services that fraternities provide to the community. Turning this into a conversation about the pros and cons of fraternities (how many hours of fraternity community service vs. how many people have been sexually assaulted in the fraternity house) is not only disrespectful to survivors of sexual violence, but also diverts attention away from sexual assault.
We need to show that we take this issue seriously by combating rape culture on campus. We need to speak up when we hear responses such as “it seems like she’s creating a problem out of nothing” or “but she went home with him.” These reactions reveal three dangerous misconceptions. First, that there is a likelihood of false reporting (in reality, there is the opposite problem of significant underreporting (8)). Second, and closely related to the first, is the tendency to blame the survivor. Third is the misconception that sexual assault is always perpetrated by strangers in unfamiliar places and accompanied by other physical violence (in fact, 90% of sexual violence (9) on college campuses is perpetrated by someone the survivor knows).
It is disturbingly common for people to doubt a survivor who reports sexual assault. This is harmful when such doubt is as explicit as accusing the survivor of false reporting out of revenge or regret, or implying the same by questioning the credibility of the survivor’s claim. Consider the message that this sends. We don’t challenge someone who says that her bike was stolen or that she was mugged, so why do we doubt someone who reports sexual assault? By doing so, we refuse to take survivors seriously and diminish the severity of the crime, while making a statistically improbable assumption. The “largest and most rigorous” study conducted on false reporting found that only 2.5% (10) of reports of sexual assault were false—no more than any other crime. When it happens so rarely, what accounts for the irrational suspicion that women are falsely reporting sexual assault?
Instead of a problem of false reporting, there is a serious problem of underreporting: 74% of sexual assault goes unreported according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (11). If this surprises you, consider the fear of repercussions a survivor faces. These include harassment (which happens to survivors on our campus (12)), concern that you won’t be taken seriously, the responsibility to hold your assailant accountable, and the prospect of reliving the assault and facing your assailant in the trial. Remember these things the next time you hear someone react skeptically to a report of sexual assault.
The alleged rapist at Psi U was found guilty by the Wesleyan sexual assault board and received the most severe punishment possible, expulsion. Despite this, many students and even eyewitnesses question the plaintiff’s credibility. There appears to be a serious disconnect. The only conceivable explanation for this (except the horrifying possibility that students would knowingly allow sexual assault to occur in their presences) is that people are not aware that most sexual assault at Wesleyan occurs in familiar places with familiar people, and sexual coercion is not always obvious to onlookers. Nine out of ten (13) survivors knew their assailants and assaults often occur in familiar places like a Clark dorm room or upstairs in Beta.
The alleged rape in Psi U last May was not an isolated incident. Whether the defendant is found innocent or guilty, sexual assault on our campus—and that includes inside fraternity residences—must be urgently addressed. Regardless of the services fraternities provide to our community, fraternity brothers are three times more likely (14) to sexually assault someone than a non-affiliated male student. And this is not because fraternities attract a certain kind of male; it was only after membership in a fraternity that this likelihood increased. If this is shocking, consider the attitude behind comments such as “you should probably hook up with him because he brought you to formal” or “it’s bullshit that you won’t have sex with me, we have before!” Preventing sexual assault means eliminating places on campus in which consent is undervalued and sexual coercion is the reality.
Based on national trends, more than one hundred Wesleyan students will be sexually assaulted before the end of the year. These survivors and perpetrators are your friends, classmates, T.A.’s and coworkers. We need to take immediate action by targeting behavior and environments that encourage sexual violence. Sexual assault is a problem on our campus. Sexual assault is your problem.
*All of the examples used in this article were experienced or overheard by the authors.
Jarris is a member of the Class of 2014 and Murtagh is a member of the Class of 2015.