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Fraternity Culture Linked To College Sexual Assault Problem

Evening Edition

Aired 10/21/14 on KPBS News.

The attention paid to rape on campus has brought fraternity culture under a microscope. Sexual assault at fraternities is a serious problem that some universities and even some Greeks are starting to confront.

At San Diego State University, two women have reported sexual assaults at fraternity parties since the beginning of September. Cal State San Marcos is investigating an entire fraternity after multiple similar allegations.

Sexual assaults involving fraternities is not a new problem. In fact, such assaults are high on the list of insurance claims against fraternities nationwide. But with the news media, lawmakers and the White House focusing on how universities handle these cases, some believe the culture and norms of campus Greek life will soon get even more scrutiny.

“Right now a lot of attention is being paid to intercollegiate athletics (regarding sexual assaults)” said Peter Lake, a professor of law at Stetson University in Florida. It’s only a matter of time, he said, before the focus shifts to another highly visible student group: fraternities. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating how more than 80 schools respond to rape on campus.

Experts and Greek insiders agree that a competitive, testosterone-driven environment fueled by alcohol and casual sex is part of fraternities’ sexual assault problem. So are the large-scale parties at fraternity houses, which can be ideal surroundings for predatory behavior.

Two studies in 2007 and 2009 published in the NASPA Journal suggest that fraternity members are more likely than non-fraternity members to commit rape. One of those studies found that women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women.

Victims often don’t report rapes at fraternity houses because of fear of retaliation from its members. And brotherhood loyalty pressures some fraternity members to protect known perpetrators. Meanwhile, college and universities, along with the national fraternity industry, carefully measure oversight to avoid liability.

Like athletics, fraternities tend to be highly visible at colleges and universities. Their members often sit on student government boards and hold other leadership positions on campus. SDSU has 44 social and cultural fraternities and sororities. UC San Diego has 43.

The University of San Diego has 14 fraternities and sororities, comprising 25 percent of the student body. Cal State San Marcos has eight Greek organizations with roughly 500 members.

Wesley Episcopo is a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon and is a graduate of the FratMANers class at SDSU.

At SDSU, some fraternity members are trying to change attitudes, little by little. Every semester, 18 to 20 fraternity men cycle through a course called FratMANers, which stands for Fraternity Men Against Negative Environments And Rape Situations.

They spend three hours a week talking about sexual assault, parsing what it means to get consent for sex and describing signs of an assault about to happen. They then give workshops to their peers. The program was founded in 2004 and is part of the school’s Student Health Services.

“It’s honestly the best class I’ve taken on this campus,” said Wesley Episcopo, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, one of SDSU’s largest and most popular fraternities.

“It’s cool to just bond together and see other fraternity members on the campus who are concerned about this,” he said.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Young women head to "fraternity circle" close to the SDSU campus on a recent Saturday night.

The Culture of Fraternities

By their nature, fraternities are competitive. Recruits “rush” fraternities. While philanthropy and leadership opportunities are a thread of Greek life, it’s the parties that really make the case to potential pledges.

“There are many, many fraternities across this country where the recruitment process and the idea of what the fraternity provides is access to brotherhood and camaraderie centered around partying and, really, access to women and sex,” said Jeff Bucholtz, co-founder of We End Violence, which provides education around sexual violence. Bucholtz also sits on SDSU’s newly formed sexual assault task force.

Once inside the fraternity, language and behavior norms can easily send the wrong message, Episcopo said. “There’s that big ego part where it’s like, yeah, you gotta go out and get laid tonight. And everyone’s like yeah, get laid, get lucky, have a good time, and a lot of members take that the wrong way.”

They feel pressured to live up to an idealized version of a fraternity brother who gets good grades, is “top dog” on campus and has sex every night of the week, Episcopo said.

Younger fraternity members often need educating, he said.

“They say, well she was asking for it. She was wearing a short skirt, no clothes basically, and she was all themed-out, dressed like a mermaid or whatever,” he said.

Fraternities often have themed or costume parties.

“We have to tell them the girls might not feel as if they are being slutty. So we teach them that’s someone’s sister, that’s someone’s daughter, that’s someone’s best friend,” Episcopo said.

Then there are the parties themselves.

Episcopo is sometimes on the risk team that works Sigma Phi Epsilon’s fraternity parties. He monitors who gets in and who gets cut off from alcohol. He makes sure no one gets hurt.

He rattles off a list: “loud noise, dark, lots of people, plenty of alcohol.”

“You know whenever someone talks about a rape situation, they involve those four general topics,” said Episcopo.

“If you say those four things, it kinda sounds like a fraternity party.”

Bucholtz is quite clear that your average fraternity man is not a rapist. But, he said, when the goal of fraternity parties is to get really drunk and have sex, that gives protective cover for those who are.

“For a predator, that’s an incredibly brilliant space to enter because it’s less likely that what you’re doing is going to stand out enough to look dangerous,” said Bucholtz.

In 2002, David Lisak, then a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, wanted to know more about perpetrators of sexual assaults who are never charged or convicted. Lisak called his study “Repeat Rape and The Undetected Rapist.” He surveyed more than 2,000 men in college. Around 6 percent of those surveyed in Lisak's study had committed rape. The majority of them were repeat offenders.

Lisak recorded a reenactment of an interview transcript with a fraternity member he calls Frank (not his real name). Frank describes how he and his fraternity brothers got freshmen girls to come to parties.

“They were the easiest, like, they didn’t know the ropes. They were easy prey,” said Frank.

Frank told Lisak they would get girls drunk with a special punch made of hard alcohol and fruit juice. He said there were designated rooms in the fraternity house for sex.

“We’d set aside a few rooms to bring the girls up to when they were ready,” Frank said. He then describes sexually assaulting a woman in one of those rooms, even though he clearly didn’t think of it as rape.

The party Frank described was more than 10 years ago but not much has changed, according to interviews with current and recent students and members of the Greek community. Energy drinks and vodka are the preferred concoction at fraternity parties today. At SDSU, party-goers say cocaine and marijuana are both common. And, statistics show, freshmen women are still targets.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

The SDSU chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon has a house in the center of "fraternity circle." They are known for throwing elaborate parties.

Is Anybody Watching?

Journalist Caitlin Flanagan spent a year investigating fraternities for The Atlantic. National fraternities buy extensive insurance policies to cover injuries that take place at chapter houses. She said sexual assault is the second most common insurance claim filed against fraternities, after assault and battery.

“It’s almost built into the line item budget of the fraternity industry that they’re going to get a huge number of sexual assault claims and they need to budget appropriately for that,” Flanagan said.

She pointed to a 2010 analysis by a major fraternity insurer that found sexual assaults accounted for 15 percent of the insurance claims filed against fraternities. Flanagan is certain that number understates the problem. Unless a young woman or her parents consult a lawyer, she likely doesn’t know it’s possible to file an insurance claim against a fraternity.

Further, claiming a rape from within the Greek system can pit a young woman against an entire organization. “Because now she’s not just putting herself in conflict with one young man who has assaulted her in a dorm room,” Flanagan said. “Now she’s putting herself in conflict with a brotherhood of young men who have sworn loyalty to one another for their lifetime.”

Those who do speak out about sexual assault in the Greek system are often silenced by other members.

Episcopo, who trains others through the FratMANers program, said the question of reporting rape is hard for many Greek men. During workshops, the question is sometimes posed: “If you had a member who you knew raped a girl what would you do? Would you send them to the police, understanding that your chapter at large might be in danger?”

“A lot of people said no. They would keep it hush hush,” Episcopo said.

Flanagan said fraternities that have a bad reputation are well known on campuses. However, universities will only go so far in cracking down on them, she said.

“The more supervision and the more control you exercise over the fraternity, the more you establish a legal duty of care,” Flanagan said, which means one party has to conform to a certain standard of conduct to protect against unreasonable risk of harm.

“Once you establish a duty of care, when the lawsuit comes in, you’re on the line,” said Flanagan.

Law professor Peter Lake said the new broader interpretation of Title IX really challenges the long-held practice of universities avoiding a legal duty of care.

Title IX is the 1972 federal law banning sex discrimination in higher education, which includes sexual assault.

“The position the Department of Education seems to take is that the broadly conceived environment in which students live and learn is the orbit of Title IX responsibility,” Lake said.

Historically, universities and colleges have viewed their jurisdiction less broadly and more geographically, as in on, off, or close to campus. For example, SDSU’s policy covers sexual misconduct by a student with “nexus to campus."

“You can talk about jurisdiction all you want,” Lake said. “But Title IX says if you see sex discrimination, you have to respond to it,” regardless of the geographical relationship to campus. In other words, in this new era of enforced Title IX compliance, schools might not be able to keep a carefully calibrated distance from what happens at fraternity parties next door to campus.

SDSU requires its fraternities to maintain insurance policies of at least $1 million and to cover the university as part of their policy. After reviewing the policy, Lake said it’s not an unusual one but it does “reduce the university from exposure to insurance claims.”

Randall Timm, head of SDSU’s Student Life and Leadership, said his office regularly advises the fraternities of the various rules they have to follow. If they break the rules, they can face a campus judicial process described as “educational and developmental.” Such a process can result in suspension and probation of the entire chapter from university-sanctioned events and support.

SDSU has suspended three fraternities in the past five years for violating its rules.

Combatting the Problem

In mid-September, eight national fraternities announced they would band together and create the Fraternal Health & Safety Initiative to combat issues facing fraternities, especially sexual and relationship misconduct, binge drinking and hazing. They are working with an insurer to develop a training program on these topics for their members.

The training is expected to reach more than 35,000 undergraduate students on more than 350 college campuses, including some at SDSU and Cal State San Marcos.

Nancy Sterling, a spokeswoman for the international chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon, one of the participating fraternities, said they feel “very strongly that their members live up to a code of conduct.”

“Obviously anything involving a sexual assault would be criminal and not in keeping with that code of conduct,” added Sterling.

TKE has suspended the San Marcos chapter while Cal State San Marcos conducts its Title IX investigation into multiple sexual assault reports involving the fraternity, which is no longer recognized by the university due to a list of infractions, including hazing and drug and alcohol use. The Title IX coordinator on each campus is charged with investigating sexual assault reports. It’s not a criminal investigation, but a student can be expelled if found guilty.

Oceanside police have been conducting a criminal investigation into at least one of the alleged reports since it occurred at a party in their jurisdiction. Detectives had to change tack recently when their only suspect, a TKE member, was cleared through DNA testing.

Phil Ortiz went to SDSU and is a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He’s a former president of FratMANers. He thinks groups like FratMANers can make a difference because it’s personal: fraternity brother talking to fraternity brother.

“It’s not some university administrator wagging their finger at you,” he said.

Ortiz, who led the group six years ago, said the fact that it’s still going strong is encouraging.

“It’s going to take a lot of effort to change the culture and change the norms, but it’s a good place to start,” he said.

On Wednesday, members of FratMANers will be handing out teal ribbons at SDSU to raise awareness around sexual violence on the campus. October is within the “Red Zone” on college campuses, a period when rates of sexual assault reports involving freshmen women are statistically higher.

This story was edited by Lorie Hearn, executive director and editor of inewsource, a KPBS media partner.

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