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Monday, November 24, 2014

From U of P, 1980, to UVA, 2014

Rolling Stone reports the story of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.  UVA, having essentially done nothing about the allegations before learning of the impending publicity storm, now reacts with crocodile tears, feigned outrage, and the suspension of fraternities.  

As my high school history teacher was fond of saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In September 1980, I arrived on campus at the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman after a gap year abroad. On my very first day, a high school friend who had started the previous year took me on a tour around campus.

We walked down Locust Walk, the heart of the university, lined with beautiful old buildings, many of them fraternity houses.

“Stay out of that one,” my friend said. “They rape women there. And that one. That one too. And definitely that one.”

I thought maybe she was exaggerating, but our shared history of burgeoning teenage feminism made me take mental notes of the houses she pointed out.  I wasn’t the frat party type anyway, but this seemed information worth filing away for future reference.

It wasn’t long before I realized my friend wasn’t crazy. There was something seriously wrong on Locust Walk.

Starting around 5:00 that first Friday -- the end of my very first week on campus -- and every Friday thereafter for as long as the nice weather lasted, the brothers of most of those Locust Walk frats rolled out a keg, sat on their porches and hung out of open windows, catcalling every woman who went by. Dozens and dozens of young men lined that walk right in the middle of campus, hooting and whistling and yelling some of the most offensive shit I’ve ever heard. Right there for everyone to see. It was the most appalling, threatening public display of misogyny I’ve ever experienced, before or since. I found it really depressing that many girls responded flirtatiously, stopping to engage in banter, accepting invitations to come on in. I couldn’t believe how many of my peers saw compliments where I saw attacks.

I went to only one frat party Freshman year. It was a loud, drunken, unappealing affair that confirmed what I already knew: I wasn’t the frat party type. My friends and I soon left. But as the year went on, I heard the stories – we all did – from young women who’d gone to frat parties, gotten “too drunk,” and “done things.” One evening, an African-American woman in my dorm [one of the very few who chose not to live in Du Bois House – if I remember correctly, there were all of two African-Americans living in the Quad that year] told me about all the white boys who’d picked her up at frat parties and slept with her, only to ignore her the next day; one boy actually came out and told her that he’d just wanted to be able to tell his friends he’d slept with a black girl. “You don’t think I’m a slut, do you?” she drunkenly asked me over and over. “Of course not,” I replied. And I didn’t. But I didn’t yet have the insight to understand just how badly she must have been hurting, or why she blamed herself. Another evening, a close friend who was the classic college binge drinker, and who frequented frat parties mostly for the free beer, confided that she had passed out the night before at a party and woken up with a guy on top of her. "I was too drunk," she said sadly.

We didn't think to report these things; we didn't think of it as rape.

Sophomore year brought some new twists. I moved off-campus and almost completely avoided the on-campus scene, and especially the frats. But there was more unpleasantness in store. I’d become friends with a woman who was overweight, and walking around campus with her opened up a whole new world of horrible. Instead of the whistles and sexual remarks that thin women heard regularly, she was routinely insulted. Over and over.  Once, while we waited on line for an on-campus midnight  movie, we were surrounded by a pack of drunk young men who called her names like “fat pig” and “ugly cow,” told her how offensive and disgusting she was, and that she should go home so they wouldn’t have to look at her.  No, we didn’t report these incidents, either. They happened in very public spaces, sometimes a stone’s throw from the university president’s and campus security offices. I guess we figured that everyone knew this went on; if someone was going to do something about it, they would have already.

I spent my Junior year in London. That’s where the news reached me of the gang rape at ATO [Alpha Tao Omega]. Someone – it turned out she was a friend of a friend – had been very high [on acid, I was told] at an ATO party, and she was raped by 5 or 6 frat boys. My friends back home were attending rallies demanding justice. The frat crowd [lots of them, not just at ATO] were blaming the victim for being too shitfaced. The story hit the national news. The university, embarrassed, booted ATO out. The rapists were sent to sensitivity training; not one was expelled. No criminal charges were brought. The victim wound up in a psych ward for a while, I heard from our mutual friend.  I don’t know if she ever returned to Penn.

By the time I returned to Penn for my Senior year, the campus seemed to have settled into multiple personalities: Feminist students staged protests and marched for women’s safety, while the frats partied on as if nothing had happened.

When I read the Rolling Stone story this week [and I confess, I only read part of it – I didn’t have the stomach for the whole thing], all I could think was, my daughter will go to college in two years, and nothing will have changed.


I really have no words for how sad and afraid this makes me. I feel just as helpless as I did 34 years ago, walking down Locust Walk while a bunch of privileged brats hurled filthy insults at me within sight of College Hall.

American universities, I am begging you: Close the frats down NOW. The Greek system is a breeding ground for abusers. Do NOT give us some shit about how it wouldn’t be fair to punish them all for the offenses of a few. When a system promotes a problem, the system must be changed. Just as we all knew what went on in those houses when I was an undergraduate, we also know the universities protect the frats because they are centers of power and privilege, and the institutions are loathe to piss off rich frat alumni. But as long as you protect them, you, the universities, share their guilt. You are still sweeping the problem under the rug, sacrificing students for money.

And yes, I know that plenty of campus sexual abuse goes on outside the frat system. By all means, deal with that too. Educate boys not to be rapists. Bring criminal charges where they’re warranted. Educate girls to recognize threats [no, it is not blaming the victim to tell young women the truth about rape culture]. Beef up resources and support on campus. Crack down on any behavior that makes the campus a hostile environment for young women.

But CLOSE DOWN THE FRATS. If you don’t, we will know that universities still put the almighty dollar above the safety of their female students. We’ll know that anything else you say or do is utter bullshit.

In the meantime, if you’re an upperclasswoman, take a freshwoman on a campus tour. Show her the places she should avoid, whether they be frats, dorms or off-campus houses. Don’t beat around the bush. Tell her, “They rape women there.” You know the places I’m talking about. We all do. It won’t prevent every rape, or even most. But forewarned is forearmed and knowledge is power. Basically, the least we can do is tell each other the truth: The university does NOT have your best interest at heart, and that’s why we’re still talking about frat rape.

ETA: Some info and opinions from around the Internet:

  U.Va. not the only university with a Greek problem - USA Today 
"...But Virginia isn't the only university dealing with Greek life dilemmas surrounding both sexual violence and student safety more generally.... 
"For years, [Douglas Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in representing victims of school violence] says, universities 'have decided to buy, hook line and sinker, the premise that fraternities can effectively self-manage,' putting students at risk. When violence or injuries happen at frat houses, neither the fraternity nor the university 'tells the public in any significant way,' he says. '`You don't call it an 'incident' if it's murder. You don't call it a 'risk' if it's rape.'... 
"'Fraternities have presented unique risks to women across the country for decades and neither they nor universities have been honest about the problem or properly managed the risks so that women would be safe,' Fierberg says. 'Neither tells the truth.'
He noted one risk-management association's observation that, as far back as the mid-1980s, fraternities were ranked as the sixth worst risk in the insurance industry — the seventh was the hazardous waste disposal industry."
End Fraternities - Gawker
"The right time to bring back the fraternities is never... 
"The events reported in that story are an especially gruesome version of an act that is far too common at America's fraternities—according to a 2007 study, men who enter fraternities are three times as likely to commit rape as their fellow students who do not. It is past time for the country's colleges and universities to shut down their fraternity systems, entirely and forever.... 
"Phi Kappa Psi, like all fraternities, exists to teach bad values to developing young men. Sent off to campus to educate themselves as individuals, fraternity members instead learn to subordinate their values and plans to a collective. After a torturous and dehumanizing selection process, fraternity members are able to write a check and purchase 30 new friends; it's not surprising that they would see sex—pour a drink, girl is yours—as similarly transactional."
Why the University of Virginia Should Ban Fraternities Permanently - Bustle
"And then, beyond my fury, there was guilt. I know that these crimes come as a surprise to a lot of the university’s alumni, to those who were not personally affected by sexual assault during their time at UVA, and had no reason to look into the statistics. But I knew. Everyone in my Gender and Violence class knew. It is heartening to see the people at the university rallying for change now, but what about last year, or the year before that, or the year before that? 
"We’d all been silent. And in our discomfort, in our silence, we had all let this happen for far too long."
Horrific Gang Rape At UVA Reopens The Debate About Whether We Should Ban Frats - ThinkProgress
"Indeed, frats across the country have become infamous for fostering a culture that allows sexual violence and misogyny to thrive. Just last month, the Texas Tech chapter of the international fraternity Phi Delta Theta was stripped of its charter after displaying a banner reading 'No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal' at one of its parties. There are countless other examples of colleges making national headlines for the bad behavior of their Greek members — everything from circulating emails about “how to lure your rapebait,” to printing T-shirts about 'roasting' fat girls, to being accused of so many sexual assaults that their frat house gets nicknamed the 'Rape Factory.'"

Friday, November 7, 2014

No gift, please. And screw Emily Post.

How about this: Next time you’re throwing a party for your kid – birthday, bar or bat mitzvah, sweet 16, graduation, whatever -- put these words on every invitation going to your kid’s friends: “No gift, please.”

 Just for their friends. Not for the adults, whose circumstances you probably know better. You might have to print up two different invitations – or you could hand write it on some – or you could add an insert in the envelope. “No gift, please.”

 I know Emily Post says it’s rude to mention gifts on the invitation, even if it’s to ask that people refrain from bringing them. Screw Emily Post.

 I’ve been meaning to write about this for the last couple of years, ever since my twins’ bar mitzvah. But what reminded me today was this article titled, "How I Realized Child Hunger Hits Everyone Close To Home”:

 “Child hunger in America is often something you don't ‘see’ or suspect is close to you, but there we were in an affluent area I knew quite well, interviewing hungry kids who live just blocks away from million dollar homes. I realized for the first time, 'If child hunger can exist here, it can exist anywhere.'” 

 Those words brought me right back to the bar mitzvah – or rather, one particular incident.

 We were lucky enough to be able to throw a big shindig for our twins – not big by some standards, but still big: buffet luncheon after the service Saturday, and a kids-only all-day trip to an indoor water park on Sunday. As one does in preparation for these things, I asked the kids to give me a list of the friends they wanted to invite. After much prodding, they did; the list included kids from their public school, summer camp, and Hebrew school. I had invitations printed and sent them out to everyone on my list and theirs. Simple.

 A couple of weeks before the event, one of my kids came home from school and told me that a girl he’d invited, M., had asked him what kind of gift she was “supposed” to give. I gave him the standard easy answer: Any gift is fine, but many people give money in multiples of $18 [the value of the word “chai,” or “life,” in Hebrew numerology]. I just figured the kid wasn’t Jewish, so neither she nor her parents had any idea how this whole bar mitzvah thing worked.

Sure enough, when the time came, this sweet kid showed up with an $18 gift and seemed to have a blast with her friends.

 And that would have been that…except it wasn’t.

 Just a couple of weeks after the bar mitzvah, my kids came home from school breathless with excitement.

 “M. won a house!”

 “What? A house?”

 “And the TV news came to school!”

 “Wait…what do you mean she won a house?”

 The whole story soon came out. It was everywhere, including news reports. M. and her family had been living in homeless shelters and provisional housing for four years, ever since their home went into foreclosure. She was the oldest of four. Her mother was a single parent; two of the kids had health problems. Twelve-year-old M. had taken it upon herself to enter a TV "Dream Home Giveaway" contest, writing a letter explaining her family’s circumstances. “Our only dream is to have a house of our own where we can live together as a family,” M. wrote. Out of 10,000 entrants – she won.

 Had she not won, I probably never would have discovered my error: M. probably wasn’t clueless about bar mitzvahs. She was probably worried about the cost of the gift. I was the clueless one.

I had made a stupid, thoughtless assumption about my kids’ friends, and I had learned some really unpleasant things about my own subconscious prejudices, liberal pride be damned. [A question that has plagued me ever since: Had M. not been white, would I have stopped to think of her financial circumstances?]

 In the three years since all this occurred, I’ve kicked myself countless times. I’d thought I was being considerate, mentioning a paltry sum like $18. Paltry for us, maybe. I should have told my kid to tell M., “No gift needed. Just come and celebrate with us.” But I just didn’t think.

 How may times have other kids been placed in this awkward position? Countless, no doubt. How simple it would have been: “No gift required.”

 Next time.