Twenty-two point seven percent of college female seniors have reported experiencing some form of unwanted sexual contact since their freshman year, according to a 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities, which included the findings from 27 participating universities. That’s a little over one in four.
According to the National Institute of Justice, that one in four was a member of a sorority nearly 25 percent of the time.
The prominence of greek life at The University of Alabama is no secret. The UA Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life website states greek students account for over 33 percent of the student body in 2015 and pledge classes grow each year. Its size alone gives the greek community an ability to influence its members, and one of the most important areas of influence is how the community elects to address sexual assault.
The greek system has taken a very forward stance this academic year in regard to sexual assault, a fact demonstrated in its collective and outspoken support for the SGA’s “It’s On Us” campaign, in addition to a joint editorial by sorority representatives published in The Crimson White to denounce the Safe Campus Act, which limits sexual assault reporting routes by requiring the involvement of police officers.
Despite this, there are some pervasive ideas and rumors that are expressed specifically within the greek community that could serve to damage its overall efforts to combat sexual assault.
Beth Howard, The University of Alabama Title IX coordinator, and Zoe Winston, the peer education programs coordinator at the Women and Gender Resource Center, sat down with The Crimson White to address and dispel some of these myths.
Myth 1: There is a fine to file charges.
“That is simply false,” Howard said.
Howard said she believes there are a variety of facets in the reporting process from which this myth could have originated, mostly entailing legal fees, and reiterated that there is no charge to file a police report.
“The only fine that I can think of, though it’s not even a fine, is if you want to file a restraining order,” Howard said. “However, in an instance of interpersonal violence, you would file what is called a protection from abuse order and there is no filing fee for that. But that’s not a police report; that’s asking for a court order.”
Hospital fees, specifically for forensic exams following a rape, should also not be a financial concern, Winston said.
“That is something that is supposed to be covered by the Victims of Crime Act, victims are never supposed to pay for that,” she said. “Sometimes, there can be filing mishaps at the hospitals and someone’s insurance gets charged, or if they don’t have insurance, they will be billed. If that happens, they need to come to the Women and Gender Resource Center, and we will take care of it.”
Howard also pointed out that the initial fees incurred to retain an attorney could also be misconstrued as being a fine to file charges, but that attorneys are purely optional for victims seeking criminal charges.
“If a victim wants an attorney, they can have one, but they don’t have to have one to proceed with the police report,” she said. “If it proceeds to a trial, the prosecutor becomes their attorney.”
Winston added that the Domestic Violence Law Clinic at The University of Alabama School of Law will help with any legal questions a victim may have, and everything is free and confidential.
Myth 2: A sorority member reporting a sexual assault against a fraternity hurts the sorority’s social standing.
Winston said it was easy when she was a sorority member at Alabama to recognize the hierarchy that perpetuated the mentality that sororities would fall out of favor with fraternities by reporting sexual misconduct.
“I had even heard that myth as an undergraduate,” she said. “That whole thing that if someone comes forward, that they’ll ‘be signing the death warrant of that sorority,’ especially in regard to social standing … Women in a sorority would feel afraid to come forward against a perpetrator in a specific fraternity because they were afraid if it got out, they would face social repercussions for doing that.”
While it’s hard to gauge the rise and fall of sorority social standings, Howard said she sees progress in the ways that fraternities continually make an effort to take sexual assault more seriously.
“[Fraternities] don’t want this to happen,” she said. “They are taking more proactive measures. They’re doing things to ensure that it doesn’t happen in their group. They don’t accept it.”
Howard said one such method is by offering non-alcoholic options at parties, like water, and more substantial food options to keep attendees from getting too drunk too quickly. More importantly, Howard added that fraternities are working harder to educate themselves on sexual assault.
“Most of my Wednesdays are full with people who want me to come talk to them at their chapter meetings,” she said.
Fraternity leadership, Winston said, is working to better convey the image they wish to have associated with their house through their actions and education, education that the Title IX Office and WGRC provide regularly.
“When we ask [fraternity men], ‘How do you want your fraternity to be viewed? What are the words you want people to describe your organization with?’ They say honorable, trustworthy, gentlemanly,” she said. “Of course, there will always be some outliers, but from what I’ve seen, the greek community is working to eliminate that from their chapters.”
When there are outliers, Howard said the best option, regardless of its impact on social standing, is always to report.
“I would say that if there is some thought that if you report something against a particular fraternity, and you don’t swap with them anymore, then good,” Howard said. “Don’t swap with them anymore. If no one swaps with them, then maybe that will change the mindset.”
Myth 3: Greek members shouldn’t report the things they see for fear of consequences.
Many greek alumni, including Winston, can recall when the University forbade sororities and fraternities from engaging in a swap activity known as bumping. Bumping began as an innocent icebreaker, where men and women would be paired up back to back, unaware of who their partner was, and they would turn around to face their partner and get to know them. In the modern era, the game has repeatedly turned into a more explicit exhibition, where sorority members are lined up and subject to forced sexual contact with fraternity men, ranging from kissing to fondling.
“I was actually fortunate to be in a sorority that eliminated bumping and made that decision while bumping was still something that wasn’t explicitly banned,” Winston said. “We made a rule that if you’re going to swap with us, we won’t have bumping.”
Not all sororities were like Winston’s, though. The phenomenon went unreported for years before the University condemned it, and Howard said she doesn’t doubt that these things still occur and go unreported, despite the University’s interference. Winston attributed the lack of reports to fear of retaliation.
“If someone feels like they’re facing repercussions from their organization because they reported a sexual assault or sexual misconduct, I believe that’s something we should address,” Winston said. “I think sometimes students feel afraid because they think that they don’t have any choices or if they do this, they will be retaliated against. That’s something we want to make sure doesn’t happen.”
Retaliation, Howard said, is any repercussion enacted on a reporter by their organization in response to the report, which is illegal. The University offers protection against retaliation for reporters through its retaliation policy.
“What our retaliation policy says is someone should feel free to make good faith reports of sexual misconduct, or any of the protective categories, without having organizational repercussion,” Howard said.
Howard added that this protective measure should encourage more people to come forward, and that the only way for the University to institute change is for people to speak up when they see something wrong.
“It shouldn’t happen,” she said. “And if it does happen, we want people to let us know. These are things we have actually been working hard to try to stop, but it’s hard to when we don’t know about it.”
“Whether it’s coming to [Howard], coming to the WGRC … say, ‘Hey, this is something that happened, and I don’t feel comfortable with it,’ ” Winston said. “Sorority judicial boards should not hold that against a chapter member for reporting.”
Fraternity men should also speak out against these things, Howard said, as some loosely-termed hazing activities in fraternities can also be considered sexual misconduct.
“It can be both,” Howard said. “First of all, hazing is bad. And potentially a Class C Misdemeanor … If [a student] also believes that it is sexual misconduct, it’s not one or the other. You can get charged with both.”
Just because a fraternity member reports the act, however, it doesn’t mean that they are exempt from consequences.
“[Hazing] is not an excuse,” Howard said. “If you make the choice to violate someone else, there will be repercussions for that. There might be extenuating circumstances as to the reason you made that choice, and we will deal with those extenuating circumstances – but you still made that choice. That doesn’t make that person who was violated feel any better. It still happened to them.”
Winston said despite repercussions, fraternity men have to understand that there is an importance to them speaking out, realizing that these things can happen to them as well and that hazing can also be sexual assault.
“There is that stigma of being a man and saying, ‘Well, I can’t be sexually assaulted, I’m a man,’ ” Winston said. “It definitely can be both.”
Both Howard and Winston agreed that no student, greek or independent, should ever fear retaliation or consequences when it comes to an issue like sexual assault and that every student should feel comfortable raising concerns because they know they’ll be protected.
“If there’s ever something that is widespread that’s going on, and someone wants to come to my office and say, ‘This is anonymous, I don’t want you using my name,’ that helps,” Howard said. “At least then, we know, and we might be able to take some steps without ever identifying that person. But those are things we need to know about so we can make these things stop.”
For more information on reporting and sexual assault, visit the Title IX website or the WGRC website.