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Don't Blame the Frats

Resources - Compilation

Don't Blame the Frats

Mike Roupas

By PEG TYRE December 15, 2014 (Originally published by Politico)


This year’s monster: Fraternities. As Gawker put it, “No fraternity, no gang rape.” As the Guardian said, “It’s time to talk about banning fraternities.” Bloomberg View decided: “On balance, most campuses would be better off without [them].”

To hear some tell it, fraternities are filled with gangs of leering, entitled deviants who have traded their individual morality for the opportunity to engage in a frenzy of wanton assault. They lie in wait, red plastic cups in hand, preying on defenseless young women. To read the commentary about sexual assault on campus, we’ve never encountered anything quite this bad. The victims are “everywoman”—young, bright-eyed ambitious female students. The evil-doers are made all the more insidious because they hide in plain sight—masquerading as sexually inexperienced 19 years olds.

Actually, we have encountered this before. Just ask comic book writers—the victims of a crusade in the 1940s and 50s that blamed comic books for everything from juvenile delinquency to teen homosexuality. Spurred by Congressional hearings and comic book burnings, the panic upended an industry.

Just ask the operators of the McMartin pre-school in California, who, in the middle 1980s, were accused of performing satanic rituals with their young charges. Or revisit some of the fear mongering journalism about “wolf packs” circa late 1980s New York City. In a crime ridden city, groups of young African-American men were the object of great fear and intense law enforcement scrutiny. Now, you can now add fraternity members to the list. We’ve seen moral panics before. And we are seeing one again.

Moral panics all follow a similar trend: There are controversies that speak to an emerging social tension—in this case, the changing set of expectations around connection and relationships between affluent young men and women. The media operates as an agent of moral indignation. Politicians thunder. Good data about the problem is slippery or non-existent—and never mind that. Our fear becomes the reason why we should be even more afraid. And so we grow more afraid. We blindly demonize a particular group—literature on moral panics refers to them as “folk devils”—whose capacity for harming the innocent seems limitless. Sometimes, laws are enacted. Sometimes, jail sentences are meted out. Most always, in the moment, it feels so right. And then comes the slow reckoning.

It’s playing out in bold strokes in front of our eyes. First there was the outcry about a generalized threat—in this case, “rape culture.” We are told that college women, far from being empowered by the experience of higher education, one that is likely to keep them from poverty, are living in a state of terror. For good reason, it seems. The White House announced that “one in five women is a victim of sexual assault”—a number that even some advocates presciently warned was so inflated it would detract from the seriousness of the issue. (That statistic has now been debunked.)

Then came Rolling Stone’s wrenching piece on sexual assault at the University of Virginia. Under the hot glare of public scrutiny, many crucial facts turned out to be either wrong or unsubstantiated. A few days ago, we learned the fist-in-the-gut graphic purported to show the extent to which college-going young women are in danger of sex assault has been discredited.

Then, we had fury over the plot line of a fictional television show that had the temerity to break out of the confines of a simple morality play.

We are being told that the danger of sexual assault is so great that careful fact finding no longer matters. Activist writer Zerlina Maxwell in her now notorious missive published on the Washington Post website wrote this: “Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.” Which must be cold comfort to the scores of men who describe being drummed out of college in the face of sexual assault accusations.

Concerns about due process and equal protection under the law, concepts enshrined in our justice system, are being dismissed as efforts to “silence victims.” The problem is so great, the commentators say, that the impact on the lives of the accused, even the wrongly accused, cannot be our concern.

Julia Horowitz, a journalist at University of Virginia’s own school newspaper inadvertently summed up moral panic almost perfectly, writing that while the Rolling Stone story may be false, “from where I sit in Charlottesville, to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake.”

Since we don’t know what is actually happening, let’s stick with what we feel might be happening? That would be a huge mistake.

Let’s not forget that that’s pretty much how justice worked in the Jim Crow south for African Americans. Does anyone remember the nine young men from Scottsboro, Alabama whose lives were upended—and who barely escaped hanging—because their juries went with their gut, instead of the facts?

The Rolling Stone story has veered off into the truly bizarre, with many of the characters cited in the original story taking issue with most of the facts. And I’m hoping that this might calm the panic. I’m hoping in a few days, we can begin to reassert—calmly and clearly—just how cloudy and complicated these issues can be.

As a former firebrand college feminist who went on to cover cops and courts for a daily newspaper, that is something I am familiar with. Here’s are a few valuable lessons I learned:

1. There is a broad range of conduct that falls in the category of sexual misconduct: everything from poor decision-making, impaired judgment, and coercion to violent serial predation.

2. Some police forces are terrible at investigating these crimes. Some, like in New York City, are extraordinarily professional. The most sensitive and dedicated sex crimes investigators operate under the assumption that the greatest respect you can show a sex assault victim is to go over his/her story with a fine tooth comb with the goal of arresting the assailant, if indeed there is one. Then, with enough evidence to prosecute the assailant, send him to prison and melt the key.

3. Some allegations are true. Some are discovered to be false. And sometimes, even with a thorough investigation, the facts are just not clear. Not every variant of bad behavior is criminal. And sometimes people whom police and prosecutors believe are guilty as sin will not get their day in court. It’s not like TV. 

These days, I write about education. College administrators, while asking that their institutions not be named, share with me that from their vantage point, the issue has become a top priority. But they also share with me that the way forward is unclear: Many campus assault cases are a big fat mess. College administrators aren’t trained sex crime investigators. They don’t have subpoena power. Sexual misconduct can be a product of poor communication, unskillful expression of desire. Both parties can be guilty of boorish behavior and post-coital reconsideration—sometimes long after the fact. And even in the first telling, alcohol abuse is nearly always a big part of the story. Consent seems to require the kind of higher order thinking that is dampened by too much booze.

In the same conversations, those same college officials also recount cases of campus sex assault that would make the hair on your neck stand up: Female undergraduates who test positive for date rape drugs. Sexual acts when one party is passed out. Serial assailants who, even when confronted with evidence of their crimes, are slow to understand the gravity of their own actions.

But for now, moral panic reigns. We are participating in the creation of widespread fear. And we are fearful. (In the last two weeks, more than a handful of loving, level-headed parents have told me they are terrified for their soon-to-be-freshman daughters. And parents of young male undergraduates are expressing discomfort, too.) We are seeking to silence those who would suggest that a more nuanced approached is in order.

At UVA, the fraternities have been shut down. But this is a problem that is going to take more than a few quiet weekends to solve. College administrators are going to find it hard to come up with policies that respond to the perception of UVA as a dangerous place for young woman and provide guidelines for the Greek system—all without tarring them as perpetrators of a crime no one seems sure actually happened.  Activists groups are going to have to show some restraint. It could hardly be considered “blaming the victim” to point out that a confusing or even upsetting sexual encounter isn’t always rape and doesn’t necessarily make your sex partner an assailant.

We all have a role to play: Administrators, the police, parents, young men and young women. But in order to move the discussion about sexual assault forward we need to deal with reality. Let’s not become blind to the policies that would actually protect our vulnerable college students—women and men.