Frats conceal sexual violence with mafia-style rules.
By Lyla Trilling.
Alma mater, Latin for nourishing mother, is an expression used to denote one’s former college. But what’s wrong with the phrase “one’s former college?” Why must we, already in attendance of a school that describes itself as “engaging the best minds in pursuit of greater human understanding,” also have to recount our collegiate experience in Latin?
The appropriation of kinship terminology distorts the social fabric of any relationship. Columbia is not our university, she is our mother—we suckle on her teat, receiving the milk of knowledge, and in return, we give her donations, new libraries, our children, and our children’s children. Alma is not just a bronze-breasted statue that sits in the middle of campus—she is a device for social manipulation, raking in money and bringing warmth to the cold, bureaucratic monolith that is the University.
Feigning familial bonds has, for many years, convinced human beings that they are part of something greater than association, greater than friendship, and even greater than themselves. In organized crime groups, the notion of brotherhood is a mobilizing force—anything is excusable if one is serving their family. This has historically played out everywhere from the mafia to masonic lodges and cults, where “brotherhood” becomes an excuse to manipulate bonds and thwart power structures.
It is no mistake, then, that fraternities everywhere use the term “brother” to denote a fellow frat member, or “lineage” to describe their big-little relationships. Since their conception in 1776, fraternities have been hotbeds of sexual assault, violence, binge-drinking, and sometimes death, but all of that is okay—because at least they are brothers.
In July, an Instagram account with the handle @cusurvivors surfaced in the Columbia community. Its first post, thrown against a purple and blue gradient background, read: “The primary purpose of this platform is to support survivors of sexual and intimate violence at columbia university by making their stories heard.” A swipe revealed that the account was “created in partnership with lawyers specializing in defending survivors from defamation suits.” The stories shared by survivors were shocking—in part because the accounts of rape and sexual assault were so horrific, and in part because I had naively assumed that in a post-#MeToo world, we could only be progressing on the sexual violence front.
It’s so easy to just not rape someone, I thought, especially when the spotlight on sexual assault in the past few years has drenched perpetrators and non-perpetrators alike in a nervous sweat. In the past decade, progressive Title IX reforms swept the nation, documentaries were made, Lady Gaga was nominated for an Oscar with a song about sexual assault. And yet, a shocking graphic on the page showed that, since 2016, yearly sexual assault cases have steadily risen, only coming to a halt during the pandemic. The page revealed that 57% of reported assailants were associated with Greek life and 19% with athletics teams. Of course, it is impossible to attribute all sexual violence to fraternities, but there is something to be said of a structure that churns out massive quantities of sexual assault cases.
To find out what that “something” was, I reached out to some frat boys. I got different variations of the same vague, unintelligible answers: “Sorry, in light of what’s going on, I don’t think it would be wise to talk with you,” or “I promise we are doing the work that needs to be done.” It was as if a robot had been programmed to reproduce unapologetically neutral text messages. “Obviously frat boys won’t talk to you,” a friend told me. I’d expressed my anger with the lack of brothers on my side—I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t want to distance themselves from such nauseating events. “They’ll never talk,” my friend assured me. “It’s part of the code.”
In 2019, Drake released two songs in response to the Toronto Raptors’ NBA Championship win, one of which was titled “Omertà.” I often wondered what the word meant, but it seemed un-Googleable, better left a mystery (much like the presidency of Millard Fillmore or the name of that actress who played the mean girl in 13 Going on 30). When I came across the word in a reading about the Sicilian mafia, I was shocked to find out that it was merely a polished Italian version of “snitches get stitches.”
Omertà has, for so many years, served as the secret ingredient to keeping highly ritualistic brotherhoods safe from legal breaches. If every single mafioso, freemason, Scientologist, and frat brother says nothing, neither can the law. This unspoken code has penetrated every brotherhood since the beginning of brotherhoods, making each individual fraternity an iron trap, opening its mouth only when, say, a junior at Marshall University explodes a rocket into his anus during a hazing ritual and requires immediate medical attention.
Thus, a secretive fraternal bubble emerges, one made out of long-banned hazing rituals and whatever off-brand, faux-Juul vapor is trending that week. But what is it about this bubble that blatantly ignores the consent training required of Columbia first-years, the consciousness shift created by the #MeToo era, and the constant portrayal of sexual assault in pop culture as a bad thing?
“Part of it is the homosocial bonding,” the documentarian Amy Zeiring told me. “When you demand that people forge a community, often what they do to forge that community or that identity is to declare outsiders as others—and it’s very easy, then, for the outsider to be women.” Zeiring, whose daughter graduated from Barnard in 2018, is responsible for films like The Invisible War, Off The Record, and The Bleeding Edge—stories united by their themes of sexual violence and legal discrimination against women. I came to Ziering mainly for her wealth of knowledge surrounding on-campus sexual violence—The Hunting Ground, released in 2015, shifted cultural tides and forced universities to take responsibility for the sexual assault cases they had intentionally ignored. Zeiring explained that sexually degrading women, both verbally and physically, allows frat boys to homosocially bond under the guise of heterosexual behavior. “They want to objectify women because that makes them ‘strong bros’ and ‘not gay’” Zeiring said. Men in power created a fraternal culture of female obsession to fend off suspicion of an all-male, tightly-knit brotherhood as homosexual stomping-grounds. It’s the same reason Tony Soprano oscillates between a strip club and a pork shop for business meetings—nothing reaffirms masculinity quite like nude women and cured meats.
Sensing my skepticism of structural reform, Ziering assured me that the problem of fraternity-related sexual violence has an easy fix. In her work with the U.S. Military on The Invisible War, Ziering and her team found that people adopt the attitude of their leader. If the person in charge condemns violence and the mistreatment of women, it doesn’t happen. On average, women with respectful, equalizing commanders felt more accepted than they did in their daily civilian life, while women with negligent, misogynistic commanders experienced elevated levels of sexual violence and humiliation.
“If you had a real stand up coach who was like ‘Dude, this is how you treat women’ . . . you don’t see these problems,” Ziering explained. “But if you have a coach that says, ‘Do whatever you want, I want you to be happy, we will clean up after you, don’t worry about it,’ then you get a predatory problem.” According to the data provided by @cusurvivors, this checks out. The men’s rowing team possesses a staggering number of assailants, double that of any other athletic team on campus (14 cases reported to @cusurvivors, followed by football, with six). The same goes for Columbia’s Phi Gamma Delta, or “Fiji,” chapter (18 cases reported, followed by Beta, with eight). Surely, this is no coincidence: there is something deeply embedded into the culture of these specific athletic teams and fraternities that allows them to perpetrate at such high levels.
End Rape on Campus, a nonprofit founded by Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, the subjects of The Hunting Ground, has done much since its 2013 launch to provide support and legal aid to victims of sexual assault on campus. Their activism inspired Congress to enact tangible change by expanding Title IX protections to sexual assault cases around the country, helping survivors file complaints against their universities. During our interview, Ziering continuously referred to education secretary Betsy Devos’ regressive Title IX legislation. I mindlessly thought to myself: classic Betsy, opposing progress, hating women, being in Trump’s cabinet, etc. Only after the interview did I realize that I had no idea what Ziering was talking about.
So I Googled it. In 2017, DeVos rolled back Obama-era legislation that called for “preponderance of evidence,” the lowest standard of proof, in deciding the fate of sexual assault perpetrators. The Department of Education called for a nationwide abandonment of said standard in favor of “clear and convincing evidence.” In May 2020, barely a month after Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to prison in the most high-profile sexual assault case in history, DeVos required colleges to hold live hearings on all sexual assault cases, where alleged perpetrators could challenge evidence and cross-examine witnesses and accusers. “Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” DeVos said. If we consider the fact that most instances of sexual assault go unreported, and women in college are three times more likely to experience sexual assault than women in general, DeVos’ statement is particularly appalling.
In 2020, college students who come forward about their experience with sexual assault must walk into a room and convince an audience to believe them. When I searched ‘DeVos Title IX,” it took raking through poorly written think pieces and pseudo-journalism to understand what had actually happened. It was like spelunking through a media cave—except the cave was two-dimensional and the writing on the wall was in gibberish. In an age of excessive social media activism, I was shocked at the dearth of colorful infographics on my feed explaining the effects of Devos’ decision. I did a little experiment and looked up Rodham, the Hillary Clinton political fan-fiction that surfaced in the same month (Amazon tagline: He proposed. She said no. And it changed her life forever), and I was immediately inundated with 20 Google search pages, reviews, and in-depth summaries of the novel. Were we too perplexed by Weinstein’s performative limp to care about tangible regression to #MeToo era progress? If a peek into Hilary Clinton’s alternate bachelorette identity is more important than the decline of fair sexual assault hearings on campus, nothing will ever get better.
In 2018, Ibrahim X Kendi, author of How to Be an AntiRacist, wrote an article for The Guardian titled “What’s the Difference Between a Frat and a Gang?” In it, he wrote: “Gang boys are commonly cast as humanity’s problem; youth of color are demonized as super-predators . . . but frat boys apparently make stupid mistakes as all humans do; none of them, apparently, are super-preying on women.” There is a societal notion that college boys are merely misunderstood—products of fluctuating hormones and underdeveloped brain chemistry. So we excuse them for violent crimes like sexual assault because they are young and, as signified by their commitment to higher education, going somewhere. Frats, at a structural level, function using the same ritualized, secretive methods as organized crime groups. But society refuses to see them as such. Instead, we’ve allowed them to continue their role as a party-throwing, quasi-social group while sexual misconduct festers underneath their beer-soaked floorboards.
Asked what she thinks it would take to implement leadership changes at Columbia, Ziering tells me that there has to be a will for it. It seems so obvious—all structural change is created on the basis of a “will” for something. But Columbia hasn’t implemented a single new policy since the data was laid out this summer, fraternities and athletic teams have done nothing to publicly address their misconduct, @cusurvivors stopped posting in September, and the Title IX office ignored all of my emails. Even colleges that do attempt change are still met with apparently indestructible external forces that influence their “will.”
“We interviewed the president of a college I can’t name—small, but you would know it,” Ziering tells me. This president read studies about sexual assault—he knew that frat and athletic houses were breeding grounds for sexual misconduct and misogyny, so he got rid of them. But the next year, the parents of those kids bought new houses and moved their boys back in together. The thought of their sons being separated from their friends, their brothers, stung too hard. “He tried,” Zeiring said, “And they just put all their boys back together.” The issue is not that people don’t care enough about sexual assault on campus, it’s that not enough people care. The overwhelming response by fraternities to the @cusurvivors allegations was to sweep the cases under the rug, take care of things quietly, keep their omertà, and move along with their lives—all steps that Greek Life at the national level has mastered.
Ziering told me that the reason she made The Hunting Ground wasn’t to say, “Oh dear, there are predators, let’s throw our hands up, there’s nothing to be done.” It was to show that predators can be shut down if people stop giving them free passes every time they make a mistake. It is impossible for anyone, let alone college boys, to grasp the complexities of sexual violence and consent without the help of survivors, educators, and mentors. I used to think that we just hadn’t reached the tipping point yet, that there weren’t enough instances of sexual misconduct to produce any radical change, but that was naive. We’ve been past the tipping point for so long that we are numb to it. What is the purpose of the National Interfraternity Council if not to deal with the astonishing number of Class A felonies amassed by their fraternal offshoots? The only plausible explanation is that they’ve been sitting in a fluorescent-lit room banging their heads against the walls since 1776. At this point, there is only room for radical change at Columbia. Columbia must push back on the new Title IX regulations, and fraternities must undergo a complete structural and ethical makeover or leave Columbia’s campus indefinitely. Every institution in question has the money, power, and resources to substantially change their cultures of misogyny and ignorance. But at what point will they gain the will? Not even Zeiring knew the answer.
When I think about what Zeiring said—throwing your hands into the air and deeming predators a lost cause—I’m transported back to the spot on Low steps where Alma Mater sits. Yes, she’s practically bragging about her ability to wear open-toed shoes during the cold winter months, but she also has her hands in the air. If the students and administration of Columbia get things right, we may one day see this as something other than submission.