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Incidents like Cornell frat's 'pig roast' harder to police after Title IX rollbacks, experts say

by Kalhan Rosenblatt /  / Updated 
Image: Library and McGraw bell tower on the Cornell University campus
Library and McGraw bell tower on the Cornell University campus.John Greim / LightRocket via Getty Images

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A Cornell University fraternity has been placed on two-year probation after some of its members took part in a competition to see how many women the brothers could sleep with, according to the school.

The competition, which was allegedly called a "pig roast," was discovered after an investigation, which concluded last month, was launched following multiple reports against the university's Zeta Beta Tau chapter last year.

Men earned "points" for sleeping with women — and in the event of a tie, more points were awarded to the member who had sex with the woman who "weighed the most," according to the statement. Members were allegedly instructed not to tell the women about the contest.

"The behavior that Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) fraternity was recently found responsible for is abhorrent to me and antithetical to our values as a community. Behavior that degrades and dehumanizes women contributes to a climate and culture of tolerance for sexual violence," Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, said in a statement.

In an apology from the fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau said the women's feelings were "legitimate and appropriate," and that they share "mutual disgust" with those who were victimized.

"The Kappa Chapter of Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity is horrified at the notion of the degradation and/or objectification of women, and the impact it has had on men and women across the United States, and at Cornell," the Zeta Beta Tau apology said in part.

Related: What's at Stake as DeVos Weighs Campus Sex Assault Guidance?

But experts noted that fraternity members objectifying women (or, in other cases, harassing or assaulting women) is nothing new — but has actually become harder to police after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently rolled back Obama-era Title IX protections.

"I think with appointment of Betsy DeVos and her rolling back Title IX, it increases attention on the rights of those who have been accused of some kind of sexual violence," said Angela Esquivel, CEO of the As One Project, an organization that provides support for survivors of sexual assault.

Related: Education Official Apologizes for Sex Assault Comments

In September, DeVos overhauled the Obama-era Title IX federal rules on campus sexual assault, opting to instead use interim guidance while the Education Department crafts a new policy. Among other changes, her guidance allows schools to use a higher standard of evidence for reviewing complaints than the previous rules allowed.

Image: Library and McGraw bell tower on the Cornell University campus
Library and McGraw bell tower on the Cornell University campus.John Greim / LightRocket via Getty Images

A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman said Wednesday night that DeVos wants survivors to feel empowered to come forward.

"The secretary’s heart goes out to every victim of campus sexual assault and wants every survivor to be empowered to come forward," said DOE spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill in a statement to NBC News. "Nothing has changed about the reporting process for students. What the Department is working on is improving is the adjudication process so that it is fair to all parties involved and everyone can be confident in the outcome.”

John Hechinger, who has studied Greek life with an emphasis on hazing and authored the book “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities," said the Trump administration has increased the burden of proof for sexual assault, making it harder for colleges to investigate events from the outside. Because of this, in cases like Cornell's, Hechinger said it's on the fraternity to oversee itself if it is serious about changing the culture of the organization.

"It's on them to send a signal to every other chapter that men in this organization can't behave this way," he said.

Jaclyn Friedman, an activist, founder of Women, Action, & the Media, and author of “Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All," said that schools still have a legal obligation to ensure female students receive the same access to education as men and said that includes ensuring women aren't subject to abuse.

"It's absolutely in their capacity to do and it's the right thing to do," Friedman said of universities punishing or banning fraternities that engage in misconduct. "Otherwise, it says to other fraternities we'll slap you on the wrist but wink-wink, nudge-nudge, it's fine, which does create a hostile environment for women on campus."

Related: Cornell Shutters Fraternity Chapter of Psi Upsilon Indefinitely

It does not appear any of the women involved in the Zeta Beta Tau "competition" were victims of rape, but experts said the act still accounts for a form of non-consensual sex and reporting that type of violation is even more challenging since the rescinding of the Obama-era Title IX guidelines.

"It's not non-consensual in a legal sense, but how consensual is it when someone is playing a game and you're just a chip?" Friedman said. "I’m sure the women didn’t consent to be used in this way."

While the #MeToo movement has created a zero tolerance policy in many industries in the United States, Friedman said that change is slow-moving when it comes to universities and Greek life.

"While we have the #MeToo conversation taking off, we have the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos blatantly telling colleges not to worry about sexual assault on college campuses," she said.

And the chasm between fraternities and organizations with zero tolerance policies for sexual misconduct will reflect poorly on Greek life, Hechinger and Friendman said.

"It’s a powerful example of why so many people now are saying fraternities are out of step with the rest of college campuses," Hechinger said. "It’s also going to feed in to all the calls to abolish or extremely restrict their behavior."

Related: DeVos' Civil Rights Pick Once Claimed Anti-White Bias, Report Says

Zeta Beta Tau will be on probation at Cornell for two years, hire a live-in adviser, participate in educational programs, and participate in Cornell’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week among other requirements.

Esquivel, who also works in higher education, said that more and earlier education is key to preventing cases like this in the future.

She said although the Title IX guidelines have been rescinded, school's will still be looking for ways to continue the momentum gained during the Obama Administration.

"A lot of colleges aren’t planning on scaling back even though Title IX has been rolled back. There's still commitment to bring attention to these issue and addressing it in a proactive way, and I think that even though some of those guidelines are rolled back things aren't grinding to a halt," she said.

CORRECTION (Feb. 7, 2018 8 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated an action taken by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She rescinded Obama-era guidelines on Title IX, not Title IX itself.

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