It has been roughly thirty years since my mother experienced a culture of sexual assault and harassment on Penn’s campus that radiated from fraternities. Penn’s rape culture hasn’t been addressed since then. I don’t have a friend who hasn’t been grabbed from behind at a party or cat–called by drunken frat brothers from the same organizations she avoided. Why has Penn failed to fix this systematic problem?
Our school is not a safe place. It is disproportionately dangerous for women compared to similar elite institutions. The 2019 American Association of Universities Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct cemented the lived experience of many women at Penn as a broad truth, legitimizing the whisper networks about which frats are the most dangerous and who to avoid on Locust. Working from within has been hailed by the administration as the only method of change. 6B has been told to have more meetings with fraternities to solve the issue of bigotry. As a former board member of Lambda and an avid LGBT rights advocate, I think this is misguided. Being told that the frat brother who hurled a slur at you simply “didn’t understand it was hurtful” is both naive and dehumanizing. Minority students are not responsible for fixing the oppression they face or proving their humanity to those who benefit from their marginalization. Instead, The Coalition Against Fraternity Sexual Assault (CAFSA) is working from the ground up to challenge the existing power structures on our campus.
I was in a Greek organization just under a semester before I realized that we were benefitting from the same organizations that protect fraternity members from changing their behavior—specifically the Inter–Fraternity Council (IFC) and the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life (OFSL). The most memorable meeting I have ever attended occurred just after CAFSA re–launched officially at Penn.
In an IFC meeting attended by an OFSL staff member in October 2019, several elected student officials expressed fear that the “CAFSA problem” would harm their reputation on campus. They suggested putting together a committee to fix their “image problem” (their words, not mine) in response to the statistics that CAFSA was posting, namely the results of the AAU Survey and the collected testimonials of harassment. Despite the incredibly shocking figures from that study, including the overall rate of sexual misconduct levied against cisgender women reaching rates of nearly one in three, there was no discussion of internal culpability or cultural change. There was no feeling of responsibility or empathy for those experiencing violence. The bigger issue, demonstrated both by the time dedicated to it and the anger in these men’s voices during the discussion, was the increased crackdown by the University on beer games at frat parties.
I mention this specifically because the OFSL representative closed out the meeting by reminding the fraternities that they had made enough progress on the bigger issues (sexual assault) that the university could focus on the smaller things (beer games). His statement was troubling because from 2015 to 2019, the AAU Climate Survey reported cisgender women’s rates of sexual assault declining from 27.2% to 25.9%. Less than a 2% decline, and yet OFSL had thought that was enough to turn their attention to policing beer pong.
I realized that I didn’t want to be a part of any organization with priorities like that. I brought the suggestion to leave IFC back to my organization. I told them I was personally uncomfortable sitting in meetings exclusively consisting of fraternity brothers because of my gender identity and personal experiences of sexual assault. I felt unsafe looking around the room, recognizing faces from parties where women I knew had been groped or objectified. I also argued that we were complicit in fraternity assault because of our privilege as an IFC member (access to funds, institutional support). My siblings informed me that they preferred to prioritize their own well–being instead of ceasing to benefit from IFC’s recognition. In the process of these discussions, I witnessed homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, as was my girlfriend (who, despite being a former president of the organization, could no longer overlook its impact and de–brothered with me). An organization that claimed to be founded on gender equality and inclusion failed to live up to its stated principles.
I believed, and still believe, that any member of a Greek organization has to reckon with its impact on Penn’s culture. By being a member of IFC, my own Greek organization was complicit in the material damage that fraternities have done to women at Penn by benefiting from the institutional power. I could not continue being complicit in the harm that my organization caused. My siblings were not ready to examine their own position critically, and I couldn’t continue to act like it was okay with me. All of us have a finite amount of time and energy, and at some point every member of our community needs to decide what they will prioritize during their time here. I could not, and still cannot, prioritize my own comfort over being complacent in the face of rampant sexual assault. (Catch me at Spring Fling with CAFSA doing sober escorts!)
CAFSA is scary to a lot of Penn students because they think that we’re trying to get rid of Greek life altogether. CAFSA’s demands are centered around improving Locust Walk and making campus safe for all students—not getting rid of Greek culture. Regardless of my personal feelings on the merits of single–sex community building, it is undeniable that the institutions at Penn built around fraternities are not interested in solving the problem of sexual assault, given the history of this problem and the contemporary response to the horrifying statistics. My own experience demonstrates this apathy, but I am not alone in feeling unsafe on Locust.
In the face of the overwhelming evidence demonstrating Penn’s rape culture and its systematic degrading of minority institutions, an engaged and critical look at our campus culture is the only way to lift up survivors and marginalized people. CAFSA is working on this—CAFSA is working on changing Penn for all of us.