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Fighting the system: Greek councils re-think their approach to addressing sexual assault

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APRIL 16, 2017

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Look for more stories covering this topic in other issues of the Weekender this month.

Not only does the issue of sexual assault continue to plague college campuses across the nation, but it also seems to have become interminably linked to the construct of Greek life.

UC Berkeley is not unfamiliar with the striking pervasiveness of sexual assault, especially within its Greek organizations. According to last year’s Annual Security Report, there were a total of 47 instances of sexual offenses reported on or around campus in 2015. And while sexual assault is not an issue exclusive to the Greek system, few would be shocked to hear that the most recent report of sexual assault on campus, occurring last Saturday, took place at an unspecified fraternity.

Some argue that the frequency of sexual assault in these organizations can be linked to the dangerous gender imbalance within the Greek system, which separates men and women in a way that can create environments highly conducive to sexual violence. As a member of a sorority, I have witnessed firsthand how the system’s structure creates this dangerous gender imbalance.

“Power dynamics are pretty much cemented within the Greek system,” said Lubna Sebastian, a former ASUC Senate candidate whose platform includes expanding sexual assault awareness and increasing survivor support, in an email. She is also a member of Greeks Against Sexual Assault, or GASA. “Only fraternities can hold parties with alcohol in their homes, they tend to pick the drinking games, themes and security, and (they) have control of the bars and alcohol.”

“As a member of a sorority, I have witnessed firsthand how the system’s structure creates this dangerous gender imbalance.”

In an article published by Northwestern University’s newspaper North by Northwestern, Nicolas Rivero discussed the possibility of making all sororities and fraternities co-ed, as was recently tried at Trinity College and Wesleyan University.

But considering the deep history and steady popularity of Greek life at UC Berkeley, this does not appear to be a possibility. The first of UC Berkeley’s fraternities was founded in 1870, and there are currently dozens of chapters affiliated with the university as well as several unaffiliated houses.

Without completely dissolving the gender divide between fraternities and sororities, the question persists: How do we fight deeply rooted misogyny and power imbalances within the system to properly address the perpetual recurrence of sexual violence?

The first step, according to Interfraternity Council, or IFC, Vice President of Risk Management EJ Moreno, involves fraternities listening and responding to the voices and concerns of the Panhellenic Council, or PHC.

“I think if we can focus more on (the) positive aspects of community, it can go a long way towards hopefully equalizing the roles between IFC and PHC with regards to hosting events,” Moreno said.

He explained that this semester, they hope to have PHC risk managers and social chairs meet with fraternities prior to large events involving multiple Greek organizations, such as invites or exchanges. This would give PHC representatives an opportunity to voice their possible concerns about anything from the theme to how the organization plans to host the event.

And while he recognizes that most PHC women are often not legally allowed to bartend, he hopes that they can still take a more active role in the party scene by giving consent talks, passing out water and serving as sober monitors.

He explained that creating active risk management roles for women at parties can help mitigate the gender imbalance these events often create.

“At the end of the day, I feel like it comes down to the fraternities and IFC,” Moreno said. “We need to sit down (with PHC) and ask, ‘What can we do for you?’”

Moreno also mentioned the recent use of “safe words” used to indicate when someone feels they are in danger. At some fraternities, individuals are told to ask the bartender if a specific individual is pledging there if they ever feel unsafe or notice behavior they feel should be addressed.

“(We ask ourselves,) what are small incremental changes we can make so that way we can change everyone’s perception of what is our reality and norm?” Moreno said, explaining the way PHC’s and IFC’s risk management teams try to approach the issue. He hopes that these small changes will quickly become normalized as simply a part of the party experience.

But many are convinced that when facing an issue as serious as sexual violence, small changes are not enough.

“Stricter bids/admission to social events and extra security outside of a house aren’t solutions – they’re deflections,” Sebastian said in an email.

Sebastian argues that fraternities should also be held accountable when evidence points to a sexual assault having taken place within their organization. And although Greek organizations are often put on social or disciplinary probation in these circumstances, she believes what the system lacks is transparency.

“I, as a sorority woman and student on this campus, would feel more comfortable if I knew which homes were on probation at what time,” she said. “That way I would be able to recognize not only which homes are potentially unsafe, but also if they were breaking rules by throwing parties when they weren’t supposed to – something that happens more than you’d think actually.”

Moreno said much of the problem stems from fraternities prioritizing their own experience before thinking seriously about their role as hosts of events.

“When you’re hosting an event … you should be focused on the fun, safety and well-being of your guests,” Moreno said. “That’s what should matter.”

“We need to sit down (with PHC) and ask, ‘What can we do for you?'”

– EJ Moreno

Sebastian also suggests creating distance from the idea of parties serving alcohol as “agents of socialization,” and instead normalize sober events within the Greek system.

“Fun in the Greek system doesn’t always have to revolve around alcohol,” she said.

In addition to promoting changes in the social dynamic, PHC and IFC hope to reform the risk education requirements within the Greek system. This not only means offering new information in risk management presentations but also ensuring that presentations address issues relevant to specific individuals based on how long they have been a part of their organization. Moreno explained that fraternity members are more likely to ignore and undervalue presentations given by groups such as GASA if they hear the same information presented every semester.

Moreno also hopes to open discussions about issues that are addressed less frequently within fraternities, such as gender and power dynamics and rape culture.

“If we don’t acknowledge that it’s an issue, then there’s no way it can be addressed,” he said.

Another important tool in addressing the issue of sexual violence is vocalization. According to Sebastian, speaking up about concerns within the system is vital to promote positive change. She also advocates for joining organizations that work to promote safety in the Greek system, such as GASA and CalGreeks Alcohol Taskforce.

“Don’t be afraid to call out members of any community when an issue occurs or if it isn’t well handled,” she said. “Pressure on the system and vocalization of concerns are very important.”

Moreno similarly mentioned the importance of remaining vocal when problems occur. He explained that if individuals are expressive about their concerns related to the system, PHC and IFC will have a better understanding of what steps need to be taken and what changes should be made.

“It doesn’t matter how small it is. … We want to hear everything,” he said. “If you’re at a frat party and a bunch of dudes are coming up behind you and grinding on you without your consent, that’s an issue, because those are the types of things that lead to bigger issues of rape and sexual assault.”

“Pressure on the system and vocalization of concerns are very important”

– Lubna Sebastian

Many believe previous reforms made by IFC and PHC to address sexual violence have been counterproductive, exacerbating the issue and placing students more at risk. The ban on hard liquor in public spaces was passed with the intention of curbing the effects of excess alcohol consumption, however it counterintuitively increased the likelihood of individuals being drawn upstairs to private rooms, creating private environments that could potentially harbor instances of sexual assault.  Consent talks given outside parties are frequently ignored, as party-goers blow past fraternity members attempting to remind individuals of the conditions of affirmative consent.

“We have to think realistic,” said Moreno in response to the many comments about the ineffectiveness of PHC and IFC’s efforts to address sexual assault in the Greek community. “If I think something can stop one individual from being raped or assaulted, that makes all the difference.”

If the short-term goal is to increase communication and cohesive efforts between men and women in relation to risk management, the long-term goal, according to Moreno, involves mutual understanding between all four Greek councils at UC Berkeley to work toward the common good of the community. That includes increasing diversity, inclusion and accessibility.

“The real essence of what we’re doing is we’re trying to change hearts and minds,” he said.

Whether or not the community is successful in its efforts to overcome the dangerous social dynamic that seems to lie at the core of the issue of sexual violence within its organizations, it is clear that what stands in the way of eliminating the problem as a whole is a lack of solidarity and mutual respect. Moreno hopes that over time, individuals in these communities will change their perspectives for the safety and public interest of their fellow members.

“I would like to see the Greek community … be able to affirmatively answer, ‘I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper,’” he said. “If we can realize that we are a community … I think we’ll be able to solve a lot of our issues.”

Contact Molly Nolan at [email protected].

APRIL 16, 2017