UVA unveils new fraternity rules: Is curbing alcohol a key to combating sexual assault?

The university’s  fraternities and sororities have until Friday to decide whether they will sign on to a new set of rules designed to combat the issue of sexual assault on campus. While some observers believe the new rules are a positive step forward, critics claim they fail to address the root of the problem.

Steve Helber/AP/File
This photo, shows the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Greek organizations at the school have until Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, to agree to new drinking rules as a condition for ending a temporary ban on social activities, which UVa. President Teresa A. Sullivan imposed following a November Rolling Stone article describing a campus culture that fosters violence against women. The article was later discredited by the magazine's editors.

On Monday, the University of Virginia reinstated the fraternity at the heart of a now-discredited Rolling Stone article, after a police investigation failed to find any “substantive basis” of an alleged gang rape described in the article.

Meanwhile, the university’s other fraternities and sororities have until Friday to decide whether they will sign on to a new set of rules outlined by the administration that are designed to combat the issue of sexual assault on campus.

While some observers believe the new rules are a positive step forward that demonstrates the university’s commitment to preventing sexual assault on campus, critics claim they fail to address the root of the problem.

The rules, detailed in a two-page document that each society must sign before resuming its activities, include strict guidelines for alcohol consumption. Beer must be served in closed cans and hard liquor may not be served unless the fraternity hires a bartender. University officials said this will make it more difficult for students to binge drink or have their beverages spiked with date rape drugs.

However, some sexual assault activists question whether reducing alcohol consumption on campus can, by itself, really prevent sexual violence. And other observers question whether students are really likely to follow the new guidelines.

“We should monitor activities more, but it’s misplaced to think this is going to stop sexual assault. These may be good ideas, but they aren’t a silver bullet solution,” says Annie Clark, co-founder of the organization End Rape on Campus.

Other researchers, however, see evidence that curbing alcohol usage could help decrease the risk of sexual assault. According to a report by the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, half of all sexual assaults occur when the perpetrator is under the influence of alcohol. While correlation does not equal causation, similar findings have led university officials to believe that modified social norms could reduce risks on campus.

“Prevention efforts aimed at reducing women's heavy episodic drinking within social settings can have a significant impact on reducing rates of sexual victimization among college students,” write Maria Testa and Jennifer Livingstone in their article, “Alcohol Consumption and Women’s Vulnerability to Sexual Victimization: Can Reducing Women's Drinking Prevent Rape?”


Given decades of rape victims’ behavior being put on trial in the court of public opinion, though, some sexual-assault activists view with great suspicion anything that might smack of victim-blaming. Some have expressed concern that efforts to focus on college students’ alcohol consumption might fall into that category.

"Rapists are rapists, regardless, and it's dangerous to focus on telling potential victims what not to do rather than focusing on punishments for rapists,” Jasmine Lester, founder of Arizona State University's Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault told CNN.

Starting this semester, all Greek social events must be attended by a minimum of three fraternity or sorority members who are “sober and lucid” at all times, according to the new guidelines, which were drafted by the administration and members of UVA Inter-Fraternity Council. At least one sober monitor must be present at the point of alcohol distribution, and another at the stairs leading to residential areas. And fraternity leaders were also anxious to demonstrate their commitment to improving the situation at their social events.

"I believe the new safety measures recommended by the student leaders in the Greek community will help provide a safer environment for their members and guests," Ms. Sullivan said in a statement.

Others question whether the rules – however well-intended – will be properly implemented or enforced. Some UVA students interviewed by reporters have said they expect that the party culture on campus will simply move underground.

“Students already routinely flout a much more serious alcohol-related requirement: the drinking age of 21. Breaking the law carries more serious risk than breaking some university dictate, but that hardly seems to deter teenagers,” wrote staff editor Robby Soave on the site reason.com.

For her part, Ms. Clark believes that education is the key to ending sexual violence.

“There is a culture of rape that allows this to happen and controlling drinking won’t solve that. Instead, we need to talk to young people about these issues from any early age,” says Clark. “If students are hearing about sexual assault for the first time when they reach college, that is a big problem.”

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