The University of Virginia, in response to a recent Rolling Stone article that exposes an alleged 2012 gang rape at the Phi Kapp Psi chapter on its campus, announced over the weekend that it was shutting down all of its fraternities immediately. The only problem with that announcement is that the university also said it plans to let the fraternities reopen January 9. The right time to bring back the fraternities is never.
That details of that incident illustrate not only how a young woman can get raped at college, but also how her school will try its hardest to do nothing about it. As Rolling Stone recounts it, a freshman student was befriended by a Kappa brother, who gained her trust over the course of the semester's few weeks. He invited her over to a party at the fraternity's towering home base, and there he brought her back to a room where he and six other men took turns raping her.
The events reported in that story are an especially gruesome version of an act that is far too common at America's fraternities—according to a 2007 study, men who enter fraternities are three times as likely to commit rape as their fellow students who do not. It is past time for the country's colleges and universities to shut down their fraternity systems, entirely and forever.
One can make the argument that fraternities do good things, and sometimes they do (often just so that they can later justify the bad shit, but I'll play along). Yet here is a simple truth: Fraternities facilitate a substantial number of rapes on college campuses that would not otherwise happen. To say that we must keep fraternities around even though they manufacture rape is to say we must accept one of humanity's most heinous acts as an unavoidable cost of operating a college campus. It is not, and we must not.
A supporter of the fraternity system, who agrees that the issue of rape at fraternities must be addressed, might argue for some nebulous idea of "reform." But why wait? Why let the slow churn of bureaucracy eventually produce something that might, at the very least, better help women after they have already been raped?
Why not, instead, eradicate the source of so many of these assaults in the first place, and why not do it immediately? Why not use the upcoming spring semester—and the subsequent summer—to wash our hands of fraternities? Why not significantly reduce the number of rapists and rape victims in our next round of incoming freshmen?
Reform means trusting the same people—the deans and presidents and administrators—who have failed to protect young women, and failed to punish the men that have hurt those young women. Here is another simple truth: The act of rape has been allowed to prosper at fraternities for decades because it was convenient for the people who run colleges to have it that way.
Now, in this moment, it is no longer convenient for the people who run colleges to allow rape to prosper at their fraternities, so they are discussing what might be done to curb it. But when the media attention dissipates—and it will dissipate—will the people who run colleges again find it more convenient to let a culture of unchecked sexual assault prosper at their fraternities? Why even risk that they will?
A supporter of the fraternity system might argue that merely eliminating fraternities will not end the problem of rape in and around college campuses. This is true. But because we cannot snap our fingers and erase rape does not mean that we shouldn't try and start that process by snapping our fingers and erasing fraternities. When it comes to combating sexual assaults on campus, we must start somewhere. Ending fraternities, it is clear, would be the most effective place to start.
If we eliminate fraternities, won't young men on college campuses just find somewhere other than fraternities to commit rape? Some will, and if you ever were looking for a reason to get behind the "ban men" meme, this would be it. But fraternities produce rapists at a rate much higher than the rest of the college population. It is not a coincidence. There are statistics, backed by common sense.
There are very few other reasons, even at colleges, for 30 or so young men to congregate daily, in private, in an environment that has proven to facilitate sexual assault. There are very few places, even in college towns, that provide the space for 30 or so young men to gather women on the weekends, serve them alcohol (and other substances mixed with alcohol), and take them away to private rooms if they decide that they want to rape them.
Fraternity houses—with their big open rooms that branch out into smaller, darker, locked rooms—provide that space. In Rolling Stone's account of the UVA case, a fraternity brother and her date left an area where dozens of people were dancing and drinking, and he led her down a hallway and into another room. This in itself did not seem suspicious, as the victim describes it, but standing in that room were six other men, who had been waiting patiently to rape this specific victim.
The entire alleged crime was institutional and collective: fraternity members, using their fraternity house. No fraternity, no gang rape.
Phi Kappa Psi, like all fraternities, exists to teach bad values to developing young men. Sent off to campus to educate themselves as individuals, fraternity members instead learn to subordinate their values and plans to a collective. After a torturous and dehumanizing selection process, fraternity members are able to write a check and purchase 30 new friends; it's not surprising that they would see sex—pour a drink, girl is yours—as similarly transactional.
The needed reforms around rape on college campuses are complex. Lawmakers and administrators need to develop new systemic policies that will protect victims and actively identify, punish, and prosecute students who have committed sexual assaults. Meanwhile, though, they need to stop those rapes from happening in the first place. There's no easier way to start that process than by eliminating fraternities.
This may sound drastic. It is not. Colleges have already decided amongst themselves that eliminating fraternities is a quick and simple way of immediately reducing instances of sexual assault.
By deciding to suspend its fraternities temporarily, the University of Virginia has acknowledged that those frats cannot be implicated in any new offenses while the eyes of America are watching. It is a tacit admission that the school cannot risk, not now, another sexual assault being committed. It has decided that the easiest and most palatable way for this to happen—for UVA's fraternity brothers not to rape—is for its fraternities to cease to exist.
So why bring them back? Shut them down and move on.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]