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Can Co-Ed Fraternities Solve the Campus Rape Problem?

The main green of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. on May 6, 2009. George Ruhe / AP, file

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — On a rainy Homecoming Weekend in mid-October, the scene at Wesleyan University’s three all-male fraternities was subdued. A handful of recent alums from Beta Theta Pi, which was suspended in early September after a sophomore fell from a three-story window, nervously chain-smoked and sipped Bud Lights on the porch and inside the now-empty fraternity house. Earlier that day, a plane had flown a banner over the football game that read “WES PICKS OUR BROS? FASCISM. LOOK IT UP.” The façade of Delta Kappa Epsilon bore a red-and-black spray-painted sign that said “Frats, Not Fiction,” echoing a campaign earlier that week to dispel myths about fraternity culture.

The impetus for the campaign? Wesleyan President Michael Roth’s decision in late September to require all fraternities to become co-ed over the next three years.

The change comes at the tail end of a rough few years for Wesleyan. (Disclosure: I am a Wesleyan graduate.) Before the recent incident at Beta, there were two lawsuits filed by students saying they were raped there, one of which was described in excruciating detail by The Atlantic earlier this year. Another Wesleyan fraternity, Psi Upsilon, faces a lawsuit over an alleged sexual assault. Roth’s decision is also the latest wrinkle in a national conversation about sexual assault on campus, wherein activists have applied pressure on universities to properly tackle the issue. But can banning same-sex Greek life actually solve the problem of campus rape?

Although the university won’t confirm the decision was meant to address sexual assault, instead citing “gender equity,” university president Michael Roth has made the connection several times over the past year in blog posts on Wesleyan’s website. “Although it is obvious that not all sexual assaults happen in fraternities,” he wrote on April 30, “there are strong questions raised about fraternity culture and what researchers call ‘proclivity’ to discrimination and violence.” On September 22, he and Joshua Boger, chair of the board of trustees, wrote an email that “with equity and inclusion in mind,” they had decided to implement the co-ed policy.

Policy angers fraternity alums

The administration framed the decision as a compromise between the status quo and abolishing Greek life, although many on campus believe this approach was meant to preserve connections with (and donations from) powerful alumni. The decision has angered fraternity alums anyway. In interviews during homecoming weekend, several asserted their beliefs that the policy was not a compromise at all, but more a circuitous method to do away with fraternities altogether.

“The university knows very well that the national charters do not allow for co-education,” said Scott Karsten, class of ’74 and a DKE alum. “If we allowed women to live here, they wouldn’t be insured by [our] policy.”

Dave Thomas—also a DKE alum, class of ’77—called fraternity life an “easy target” and the co-ed decision “a needless distraction,” something that’s “likely to have a negative impact on the ability to attract donors from former athletes and fraternity members,” two groups who often overlap on campus.

None of the Beta brothers or alums present that day would agree to go on the record with NBC News, and neither the president of Wesleyan’s chapter nor the national charter provided comment. But a handful of the fraternity’s recent graduates, along with other Greek alums, de-emphasized the importance of fraternity life on Wesleyan’s campus. “Only 10 percent of us are even involved,” one said. (It’s actually more like 4 percent.) “The Wesleyan administration should head to a non-liberal arts school if they want to see…animal house behavior,” another said. “Total chaos.”

Wesleyan’s Greek life may indeed be tame compared to a giant state school. But nationally, the numbers are not on the side of fraternities. A 2007 study found that fraternity members are three times more likely to commit rape than non-members. A 2009 study in the NASPA Journal found that 86 percent of fraternity house residents binge-drank, as opposed to 45 percent of non-fraternity men.

Forty-seven percent of Wesleyan students felt fraternities were less safe than other party spaces.

Roth made clear that the discussions about co-ed frats were sparked by a student survey finding that 47 percent of Wesleyan students felt fraternities were less safe than other party spaces. Sixty-one percent said fraternities had a negative impact on “gender relations and gender equality.” Sexual assault prevention was the central reason the Wesleyan Student Assembly advocated for co-ed fraternities last year. About 500 people, including 75 professors, signed a “call to action” backing the fraternity integration.

“I don’t think frats create rape culture,” said Tess Altman, a Wesleyan sophomore and founder of a group called Feminist Underground. “But they do create spaces for rape culture to exist…I realize we do need social spaces on campus, but those spaces not being male-dominated is a good thing.”

Not every fraternity brother is vehemently against the decision. Unlike DKE or Beta, Psi U’s national charter does allow for female pledges, and the fraternity has promised to facilitate the transition to co-education.

Daniel Wittenberg, Psi U’s president at Wesleyan, is choosing to take Roth’s co-education statement at face value.

“It’s really more about giving women opportunities for Greek life,” he said. “In making this decision rather than eliminating fraternities, Wesleyan is asserting the importance of having Greek life on campus.”

When and if women do join, “I don’t think it needs to fundamentally change our dynamic.”

Altman thinks that’s exactly the problem, citing hazing and other elements of fraternity culture she believes foster an unsafe environment. In some ways, she said, “co-education feels like a Band-aid or a delay. Like, how many bad things have to happen before the next step, [which is] the end of the frats?”

Co-ed frats less likely at bigger schools

Indeed, the transition has been difficult at campuses that have attempted to co-educate their fraternities. Trinity College in Hartford, a small liberal arts school 30 minutes from Wesleyan, faced an uproar from students and alumni alike after it announced that fraternities must admit women. More than 4,000 people signed a Change.org petition protesting the decision, and the fraternities tried with no success to recruit women the next year, effectively shutting them down (for now).

Banning fraternities altogether would be a nearly insurmountable task at frat-heavy state schools like University of Alabama or Ivy Leagues like Dartmouth, where almost two-thirds of the student body belongs to Greek organizations. But many other schools, such as Middlebury and Williams, decided to outright ban their frats decades ago. After a student accused Amherst of mishandling her sexual assault case, the college banned even underground fraternity organizations (they were previously allowed to exist off-campus).

Some Wesleyan fraternity alums emphasized that the rates of sexual assault at these frat-free schools haven’t proved that those colleges are safer. Others conceded that even if fraternities were “enabling environments” for sexual assault and other dangerous behavior making them co-ed or shutting them down is simply “a game of Whack-a-Mole” rather than a cure-all for sexual violence. Wittenberg doesn’t think “any space on campus will be safe from this culture and the risk of sexual assault until we change the way students are approaching going out…they want to get drunk and hook up and that creates a dangerous situation.”

On that recent soggy Saturday, the Beta brothers seemed invested in preserving the institution. They were, as one alum who was not at homecoming later joked, “F--k Wesleyan, Beta-til-I-die.” But in interviews with former Wesleyan students, from Beta and otherwise, many were willing to accept their former fraternity’s demise if it means their alma mater will be safer.

"Like, how many bad things have to happen before the next step, [which is] the end of the frats?"

Connor Wilson, a former Beta brother and class of ‘04 grad, distanced himself from Beta shortly after the 2012 rape case, because he found the response from other alums to be offensive. The email chains were full of “snide comments about Take Back the Night rallies and how people don’t appreciate the free beer we give out,” he said. “If there’s a chance that male-only societies contribute to misogyny and sexual violence, is that really something we need to perpetuate in the name of tradition?”

One female alumna, class of ’04, who had many friends at Beta, threw her 21st birthday at the frat house, and was as close as one could come to a Beta sister, said she’s “not married to the preservation of fraternity culture” if it promotes misogyny. “I’m comfortable with the idea that some institutions don’t get to keep existing forever in American society,” she said. “Especially at Wesleyan.”

To alumni, “especially at Wesleyan” is shorthand for the college’s (perhaps tenuous) reputation: progressive, envelope-pushing, gender-bending, and confrontational. Nina Gurak, a junior who works with Students for Consent and Communication, called Wesleyan students “more intentional than most” and taking a holistic approach to sexual violence prevention.

“It would be very easy for [Roth] to say, ‘Oh now we’re done here,’ and I don’t think that’s the case,” she said. “For me, it’s how we integrate this policy with other strategies” like creating a support network for survivors of sexual assault and pushing bystander education, which Gurak says they’ve been teaching “since before it was a big thing.” Wittenberg says Psi U has created an external social committee, where non-brothers can help plan events, and are “playing around with lighting” to make the house feel safer.

One alum—the same one that mentioned a game of Whack-A-Mole—says this will only work if students hold Roth accountable. “I hope this isn’t the entirety of the solution,” he said, “but the very beginning.”

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