So after sexual assault survivors filed federal Title IX and Clery Act complaints against UC Berkeley for sweeping cases under the rug to the U.S. Department of Education, spearheaded state and federal legislation and created a national dialogue about campus sexual assault, how does UC Berkeley respond? By hiring a few people, making a website and creating posters. That should solve the pesky rape problem, right?
If you’ve hit the RSF, had an appointment at the Tang Center or happened to stop by Calapalooza back in September, you’ve probably seen the colorful, eye-catching “Stop Sexual Violence” signs. While they might seem like an encouraging symbol of change, the posters were created after students left for the summer, and neither public survivor activists nor student government representatives were consulted about the campaign.
More importantly, the posters do not educate students about consent, bystander intervention or available resources for survivors. Although it may seem easy to dismiss, education is critical to shattering the myth that only a violent attack perpetrated by a stranger counts as a sexual assault. Beyond education, UC Berkeley must hire additional staff to ensure all reported cases are fairly and thoroughly investigated. Instead of taking action, UC Berkeley used valuable resources to solely appear to care about sexual violence, effectively avoiding having to seriously address it.
It’s not only students who think this facade is problematic. Several weeks ago, four state legislators came to campus to interrogate administrators on how they’re responding to a recent state audit critical of UC Berkeley’s responses to sexual violence cases. More than three times, Assemblymember Das Williams asked variations of the question, “Why doesn’t UC Berkeley educate its students on the sanctions for perpetrating sexual assault?” He was met with silence. While administrators couldn’t answer the question, the answer comes all too easily to survivors: because serious punishments for rape and sexual assault do not exist at UC Berkeley. Disciplinary probation, semester-long suspensions or “reflective writing assignments” are not appropriate responses to sexual violence.
You might be tempted to think, “But the university cares about sexual violence because they said so in an email!” Sure, it’s easy to make a few public changes and act like it’s revolutionary. But when it comes down to the important, private meetings where investigators meet with students, nothing is changing. At the roundtable, survivors spoke of mistreatment from the university as recently as this summer. On multiple occasions, administrators failed to give timely case updates, refused to allow survivors to appeal inadequate disciplinary sanctions and did not enforce the existing affirmative consent policy. On a more basic level, administrators could not even be bothered to treat survivors with compassion and respect.
It’s particularly interesting that throughout the Title IX complaint, nearly all of the survivors who went through the reporting process cited issues with the university’s lead sexual assault investigator, Denise Oldham, of the office for the prevention of harassment and discrimination. Students have voiced concerns about her conduct for over a year. Although Oldham has denied saying this, survivors wrote in a Title IX complaint that they recall her saying, “We see over 500 cases every year but are only able to seek formal disciplinary resolutions in two cases the previous year.” That statistic was referenced multiple times in the complaint; yet despite this discrepancy, she is still employed here.
Like the administration, the Greek system is also being scrutinized. While sexual assault is not limited to fraternities and sororities, it’s important to be critical of how CalGreeks, specifically the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council, are addressing this pervasive problem. The common refrain “it happens everywhere” is not a valid excuse — it only deflects the responsibility to end it.
Out of 64 members of the Greeks Against Sexual Assault coalition, only 10 are from fraternities. IFC members, including those in leadership positions, frequently deflect responsibility by claiming that only their guests and not their brothers commit sexual assault. Although non-Greek affiliated people have sexually assaulted others at fraternity parties, we personally know of assailants from at least 12 different Berkeley fraternities.
Fraternity men are 300 percent more likely to be perpetrators than nonfraternity men, and sorority women are 74 percent more likely to experience sexual assault than nonsorority women. The trend is clear: The Greek system has a serious sexual assault issue, and some banners and the support of a few IFC allies will not change this. If it’s hard to picture that a brother could be an assailant, chances are that he probably doesn’t recognize it either. Research from David Lisak, a prominent scholar of criminology and campus rape, has shown that most perpetrators normalize predatory behavior and do not identify as assailants. If we are to eradicate campus sexual violence, we have to stop normalizing the attitudes that allow it to persist. And that starts by taking tangible steps, not just hanging up a seemingly supportive sign.
Surprisingly, sororities are also contributing to this issue. This week, a sorority woman publicly expressed her anger about a sexual harassment incident that happened in her house. But instead of responding with concern for her wellbeing, her chapter’s president — and several other sisters — immediately reprimanded her for jeopardizing the house’s reputation. Why does a house’s reputation take precedence over stopping sexual harassment?
This was not an isolated incident. The few survivors who speak out about sexual assault and harassment in the Greek system are often silenced by other members. Some sorority leaders warn survivors that the chapter will be punished for it, through severed social ties with the perpetrator’s fraternity, reputational damage or a fear of sanctions from the school. Meanwhile, two-thirds of these assailants who are often viewed as “nice guys” will continue to prey on others.
The administration, CalGreeks, Berkeley Student Cooperative, other student organizations and the entire campus community must take responsibility and adequately prevent and respond to sexual violence. We all need to support survivors, educate each other about consent, change inappropriate behaviors and hold perpetrators accountable.
Sofie Karasek is the co-founder of End Rape on Campus and Meghan Warner is the director of the ASUC Sexual Assault Commission. Other signatories include:
Nicoletta Commins, Title IX complainant
Caitlin Quinn, External affairs vice president
Haley Broder, ASUC senator
Melissa Hsu, ASUC senator
Austin Prizkat, ASUC senator
Sarah Leverenz, PHC vice president of risk management
Mila Meldosian, Office of the president sexual assault policy deputy
Allyn Benintendi, Office of the president sexual assault policy deputy
A previous version of this op-ed mischaracterized statements made by Denise Oldham to a Los Angeles Times reporter. In fact, Oldham told the reporter information on the record that conflicts with an account given by several UC Berkeley students in a Title IX complaint.