UVA women advised to avoid frat weekend. Appropriate?

UVA students have reacted with outrage to a letter from a national organization for sororities making the request. The controversy hints at some of the challenges as pressure mounts to do more to prevent campus sexual assault.

Steve Helber/AP
Students participating in rush pass by the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Jan. 15, 2015.

The University of Virginia is again facing controversy related to campus sexual assault – this time, sparked by national sorority organizations asking their members at UVA not to participate this weekend in Men’s Bid Night, the kickoff to the fraternity pledge season.

“We believe the activities on Men’s Bid Night present significant safety concerns for all of our members and we are united in our request that the sixteen NPC [National Panhellenic Conference] sororities not participate,” wrote Tammie Pinkston, the international president of Alpha Delta Pi, one member of NPC. NPC is an umbrella organization that includes the national sororities represented at UVA. [Editor's note: The original version of this story had the wrong affiliation for Ms. Pinkston.]

As word spread of the Jan. 20 letter, students reacted with outrage, calling the move sexist and saying it contributes to stereotypes instead of respecting women’s, as well as men’s, ability to make wise decisions. It was also frustrating for many because the campus is already taking steps to address concerns: Namely, it’s beginning to implement rules that were developed in recent months and are intended to improve safety at social events.

“Instead of addressing rape and sexual assault at UVa, this mandate perpetuates the idea that women are inferior, sexual objects. It is degrading to Greek women,” a woman posted in a Change.org petition demanding that the Bid Night prohibition be revoked. It had more than 2,200 signatures by midday Thursday.

The controversy hints at the challenges for officials of both colleges and student organizations as pressure mounts to do more to prevent rapes and other sexual assaults. It can be a difficult balance to create policies to minimize risk while at the same time avoiding overgeneralizations and mandates.

Several advocates of safer campuses say the national sororities’ approach sends the wrong signal. “I don’t doubt ... that they want safety, but I really question the choice of action,” says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women in Washington. “All this does is reinforce the victim-blaming ... by telling women if they just stayed home, everything would be OK.”

But this situation has been taken out of context and is no different from the many areas in which national chapters develop rules and policies, says Timothy Burke, an attorney for NPC and several sororities within it, and a member of Fraternal Law Partners, a division of Manley Burke in Cincinnati.

“NPC and its members have long had in place an agreement that discourages women’s groups from being involved in men’s recruitment activities,” he says. That’s one of several policies meant to preserve the single-sex status of the organizations.

NPC, as well as many fraternity organizations, has been actively engaged in broader efforts to prevent sexual assault on campuses, Mr. Burke says. NPC was one of the first groups to contact UVA in the fall to protest its blanket suspension of Greek life in response to the now-discredited Rolling Stone account of a gang rape at a UVA fraternity house.

While national sororities do have a right to set policies, this one comes across as saying to sorority women, “you need to police yourself to make sure sexual assaults aren’t happening,” says Tracey Vitchers, a spokeswoman for SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape). It would be better, she says, to see the national sororities “demanding that the national fraternities do more ... [and asking them], ‘What are you doing to train your brothers on how to prevent sexual assault?’ ”

Many campuses are relying on bystander training as a way to educate all students about sexual assault without pegging men as potential rapists or women as potential victims. But even some of that training is mostly risk-reduction strategies, she says. “There’s still not a holistic conversation on many campuses today about what can we do to have zero tolerance for sexual assaults,” she says.

UVA President Teresa Sullivan said in a statement that the university was not involved in the decision by the national sororities. “We have confidence in our students’ ability to use good judgment, be mindful of one another’s safety, and adhere to the new safety practices developed by them and outlined in the recently revised Fraternal Organization Agreements,” she said.

One thing that’s upsetting to a broad swath of students is that the national sororities’ mandate is “entirely disrespectful to all the work that’s been done” on campus in recent months to create a safer climate, says Abraham Axler, a UVA Student Council leader who sponsored a resolution that passed overwhelmingly on Tuesday.

The resolution notes that the national mandate came without any prior discussion or student input and says it “misconstrues sorority women as passive aggregates rather than active agents for change by eliminating their ability for self-governance.”

It also points out that sorority women have been trained in bystander intervention. When you take them “out of the equation, you’re creating a more dangerous environment,” says Mr. Axler, a second-year student.

The resolution calls on national chapter presidents to come to Charlottesville, Va., on Friday for a dialogue. Axler e-mailed it to all 16 national sorority groups represented at UVA, but as of Thursday afternoon had heard back from only two, which declined to send a representative. 

He said he’s heard that some of the national groups are talking with their chapters in the wake of the negative reaction, but he’s frustrated that the conversations are not more “transparent.”

The Monitor reached out to the president of UVA’s Inter-Sorority Council but did not get a response.

UVA is not the only campus that has undergone a sort of soul-searching over these issues in recent years. On Thursday, after months of work by various stakeholders, Dartmouth College unveiled the “Moving Dartmouth Forward Plan,” outlining steps to reduce everything from harmful consumption of alcohol to sexual misconduct.

In announcing the plan, Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon warned that the school would consider discontinuing Greek life if fraternities and sororities do no implement substantial reforms within several years.

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