The occurrence of sexual assault on college campuses gets a lot of attention because, frankly, it’s a big problem. It’s a problem because of its prevalence. It’s a problem because of universities’ responses. It’s a problem because college traditions around drinking and sex create abundant opportunities for people to misbehave. All of these problems are symptomatic of rape culture, in which sexual violence is normalized and condoned.
In discussing how to put an end to rape culture on college campuses, fraternities take a lot of blame for objectifying women, practicing shoddy consent, and facilitating and defending rape. Examples like the recent scandal involving the Penn State chapter of Kappa Delta Rho demonstrate that fraternities can create an environment that dehumanizes, degrades, and violates women. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Fraternities have the potential to be organizations that empower and protect women. Scientists have tried their hand at using fraternities as tools in the fight against sexual assault, with promising results.
Do fraternities foster rape culture?
In March 2015, a police investigation into a private Facebook page belonging to the Penn State chapter of Kappa Delta Rho revealed that fraternity members had posted photos of nude, unconscious women. Photos of these “unsuspecting victims” included, according to the police, postings of “nude females that appeared to be passed out and nude or in other sexual or embarrassing positions. It appears from the photos provided that the individuals in the photos are not aware that the photos had been taken.”
The results of the Kappa Delta Rho investigation were infuriating and disappointing, and, unfortunately, the photos were not the only recent sexual assault scandal involving a fraternity. For example, a Georgia Tech fraternity came under scrutiny in 2013 after an email surfaced with detailed strategies for targeting and incapacitating women at parties with the intent of having sex with them. In 2011, the popular media discovered that a member of a University of Vermont fraternity circulated a survey that included a question asking, “If I could rape someone, who would it be?”
Taken together, these headlines portray fraternities as dangerous places for women. The young men involved demonstrated attitudes characteristic of rape culture: they were dismissive of their female peers’ rights, they treated sexual assault as a joke instead of as a serious crime, and they condoned the violation of women’s bodies. It would be comforting to believe that these events represented the isolated actions of a few individuals, and were in no way representative of the fraternity system’s attitudes toward women. Unfortunately, although these examples are extreme, they are not out of line with research on Greek organizations and sexual assault, which has found that fraternity men are three times as likely to sexually assault a woman, compared to their non-Greek-affiliated peers (Loh, Gidycz, Lobo, & Luthra, 2005). Fraternity men are also more likely to hold rape supportive attitudes, such as believing that “being roughed up is sexually stimulating to many women” (Bleecker & Murnen, 2005). The behaviors and beliefs of fraternity men compared to other men suggest that the fraternity system fosters beliefs about women and sex that are characteristic of rape culture.
How do we react to evidence that fraternities perpetuate rape culture?
Fraternity and university administrations are working to make it clear that they will not tolerate sexual assault. For example, Penn State responded to the investigation against Kappa Delta Rho by suspending the chapter for one year (although some argued that this action was much too lenient). More recently, the national headquarters of Kappa Delta Rho expelled 38 members from the fraternity and revoked the charter and recognition of the Penn State chapter. University of Vermont immediately suspended Sigma Phi Epsilon when it learned of the survey asking members whom they would like to rape.
Although responding to claims swiftly and seriously is important for shifting the college culture around sexual assault, it is not the best or only way to effect change. What results could be seen if, instead of condemning fraternity men for sexual misbehavior, colleges treated men as responsible, autonomous individuals who were motivated to prevent sexual assault? Prevention practices that target fraternities and other potential perpetrators do just that. These programs are attractive for multiple reasons. First, prevention is incredibly important for lowering the incidence of sexual assault—although university responses to sexual assault send an important message, we don't yet understand their effect on sexual assault rates. Evidence-based prevention efforts are one of few demonstrable ways to lower the incidence of sexual assault.
Second, focusing on potential perpetrators of sexual assault is an appealing ideological strategy because it avoids the victim-blaming tone that often arises in sexual assault prevention. PSA’s reminding people not to walk alone at night or leave drinks unattended, although practical, carry the connotation that if you don’t adhere to these rules, you’re at fault for being assaulted. The problem of sexual assault is not the fault of potential victims, but of potential perpetrators. Instead of the burden being on women to look out for themselves, prevention efforts can charge men with responsibilities of (a) not assaulting women, and (b) looking out for women and speaking up when they see something happening.
Third, prevention programs focusing on men aim to make cultural changes by affecting norms and attitudes among large groups of individuals. In addition to dealing with the symptoms of rape culture, we have to change the causes of it in order to eliminate the problem of sexual assault on campus. The causes include acceptance of rape myths, normalization of sexual assault, and a lack of empathy toward survivors of sexual assault.
How can universities enlist frats as allies in the fight against sexual assault?
To date, intervention scientists have used two main approaches to addressing sexual assault with fraternities and other college men: empathy-based interventions and bystander awareness training. These strategies, which are often used in tandem, target different groups of men and theoretically reduce sexual assault in different ways.
Empathy-based prevention programs aim to help men identify with the trauma resulting from being sexually assaulted. The target population of these programs are potential perpetrators; the idea is that if men understand sexual assault as an important problem (instead of a joking matter), and can imagine it happening to them personally, they will be less likely to assault someone. Complementing the empathy-based approach is bystander awareness training, whose target population is not necessarily potential perpetrators, but anyone who might witness a sexual assault or the events leading up to it. Bystander training aims to give people the skills and confidence to intervene when they witness something problematic. For example, upon seeing someone try to lure a drunk person at a frat party into a private room, the bystander might defuse the situation with humor, a silent glare, or even by spilling a drink on one of the people involved.
An important question to answer about these interventions is, do they work? Preliminary research suggests that they can have important effects on men’s behavior.
Perhaps the most well-documented evidence-based empathy program for fraternity members is The Men’s Program (Foubert, Tatum, & Donahue, 2006). A main component of this program is that men watch a video depicting a male-on-male rape, then make connections to a male-on-female rape to facilitate increased empathy toward female rape survivors. Men in the program also learn bystander intervention skills. As a result of their participation, men reported gaining understanding of the privilege they have as men, a support network of men concerned with issues of sexism and sexual assault, confidence in intervening when they hear or see problematic things, and a decrease in rape-supportive attitudes (Barone, Wolgemuth, & Linder, 2007).
Other bystander training programs have found that participating in bystander training was associated with decreased self-reported sexual aggression, fewer associations with sexually aggressive peers, lower rape myth acceptance, and more assault-preventive bystander behaviors like walking home a friend from a party (Banyard, Moynihan, & Plante, 2007; Gidycz, Orchowski, & Berkowitz, 2011).
Oh great, so all schools should be using these programs, right? I’ll contact the dean of my university.
Hey, I didn’t say that. Don’t put words in my mouth. Although the concepts behind empathy-based and bystander training interventions are great, and the research into them is promising, it is still preliminary. The steps from research to widespread implementation are many—replication with bigger, more diverse samples in order to understand why, how, and for whom the intervention works, dissecting the various components of the intervention to make it more efficient and cost-effective… the list goes on. We don’t know if these programs are the most effective strategy to prevent sexual assault. Even if we conclude that these programs are effective, we don’t know which bystander training or empathy-based programs are best; there are many brands of intervention, and not all are created equal. On the other end of the stick, not all campuses are created equal, and so it’s difficult to tell whether a specific program will be useful at a specific university.
Despite the long list of questions that remain about the effectiveness of empathy-based and bystander training sexual assault prevention programs, they are becoming increasingly popular as universities have begun to pay more attention to sexual assault prevention. Branded, evidence-based programs like The Men’s Project and The Green Dot are being adopted on college campuses across the country. Student-led bystander training programs are also multiplying out of grassroots movements to make campuses safer.
The rise of these types of prevention efforts signals increased investment in changing campus culture around sexual assault, and embracing men as agents of change is a key piece of the puzzle. Although plenty of work remains to be done before we understand the best way to intervene with men, empathy-based and bystander training interventions have shown that turning fraternities into women’s allies is a promising addition to existing policies. It’s heartening to envision a future in which college women see fraternities as safe places, and where women are safer because of the presence of allies in the Greek system.
Banyard, V. L., Moynihan, M. M., & Plante, E. G. (2007). Sexual violence prevention through bystander education: An experimental evaluation. Journal of Community Psychology, 35, 463-481. doi: 10.1002/jcop.20159
Bleecker, E. T., & Murnen, S. K. (2005). Fraternity membership, the display of degrading sexual images of women, and rape myth acceptance. Sex Roles, 53, 487-493. doi: 10.1007/s11199-005-7136-6
Foubert, J. D., Tatum, J., & Donahue, G. A. (2006). Reactions of first-year men to rape prevention program: Attitude and predicted behavior changes. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 43, 954-974. doi: 10.2202/1949-6605.1684
Gidycz, C. A., Orchowski, L. M., & Berkowitz, A. D. (2011). Preventing sexual aggression among college men: An evaluation of a social norms and bystander intervention program. Violence Against Women, 17, 720-742. doi: 10.1177/1077801211409727
Loh, C., Gidycz, C. A., Lobo, T. R., & Luthra, R. (2005). A prospective analysis of sexual assault perpetration risk factors related to perpetrator characteristics.Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20, 1325-1348. doi: 10.1177/0886260505278528
Barone, R. P., Wolgemuth, J. R., & Linder, C. (2007). Preventing sexual assault through engaging college men. Journal of College Student Development, 48, 585-594. doi: 10.1353/csd.2007.0045
I am a developmental researcher focusing on relationships and health in adolescence and young adulthood. My goal is to enable people to have healthy, fulfilling sexual relationships.