Last week, 70 pages of leaked emails between members of Epsilon Iota, an unrecognized fraternity at American University, revealed a slew of “rape-y” and misogynistic conversations that have ignited outrage within the school’s community.
American University, like many schools, is acting now because public reaction is forcing their hands, but the problem of EI is not new – and neither is the problem of campus sexual assault.
A little background on the situation: Epsilon Iota, or EI, was a chapter of Alpha Tau Omega – but lost its university and national recognition over ten years ago due to a slew of sexual assault scandals. EI is considered to be a gang in the District of Columbia, and members are not supposed to be able to wear their letters on campus (a rule that the university often fails to enforce). In 2010, the school paper ran an op-ed which specifically referenced EI with regards to the risk of sexual assault, and though the student body backlashed against the author, the reality remains that EI’s reputation and behavior have been well-known at the school for some time, with no real repercussions. The recently leaked emails, which are from 2012 onward, include comments which make light of sexual assault and rape, reference illegal activities, and show the brothers trying to deny or downplay the implications of a brother having sexually assaulted a woman at one of their parties.
As an American University student myself, I’ve come into contact with EI. In terms of the “scandal,” I’m sorry to say that it fits with the group’s reputation. But I think the problem is much bigger than EI, much bigger than this current scandal, much bigger than a “problem with Greek life,” as it’s so often painted. Students are calling for the expulsion of EI members, but in a recent email to the student body, university president Neil Kerwin explained that the university is “bound by regulations and statues” regarding transparency, and no real indication seems to have been made as to what the university plans to do, aside from “taking this very seriously.”
The problem of neglecting consent education or mishandling sexual assault is not new or unique to any of the parties involved – not to EI, not to American University, not to the Greek system. If one were to Google “universities mishandle sexual assault,” recent cases would pop up from the University of Michigan, the University of Missouri, and the University of California-Berkeley; further cases have been reported in the last year at Occidental College, Swarthmore College, and Columbia University. In 2012, the University of Montana received significant negative attention after the administration attempted to punish a student for speaking out about being raped on campus.
1 in 4 women will be the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault over the course of her life, and 1 in 5 will have this happen while she is in college. That’s a staggering statistic, and one we need to be doing more to change. Every time universities try to shift the blame, to say that it is about sports or about Greek life, they further entrench the problem: the fear of reinforcing this belief often deters individuals who are harmed within those communities from reporting, and encourages friends to pressure them not to report. But on top of that, blaming particular institutions within universities shifts the discussion away from consent, which is what schools desperately need to force their students to talk about. The aforementioned op-ed from American University highlights this exact problem: the author attempted to differentiate between “real rape” and argued that “hooking up is not rape,” a sentiment that was echoed by many college students who believe that just because someone has been drinking, they cannot be taken advantage of.
The reality is, of course, that if someone does not have the capacity to consent, they are not consenting, and even if the consumption of alcohol is voluntary, this does not negate this fact. The recent emails released at American University, as well as years of conversations and cases regarding sexual assault and intoxication, reveal that this element of consent has been massively under-addressed by society, and people are getting hurt (and often blamed) as a result. So why aren’t students being made to talk about this? Why is it that, in 2014, consent is still treated as a gray area, so that people can continue to get away with things like sexual assault?
The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (or SaVE Act), which recently went into effect as an extension of the new VAWA provisions, aims to target this exact problem. The law requires postsecondary educational institutions to require violence prevention programs that teach all incoming students and staff members about consent, risk reduction, reporting, and bystander intervention.
Though this is a good start, it is unclear if it has been implemented at all universities, and it can take many forms. Schools need to find ways to handle consent education such that it will actually be taken seriously, and which won’t let students get by with a bare minimum of engagement. Despite the fact that the SaVE Act will eventually result in the compilation of a best practices report, the reality is that it doesn’t provide a mechanism to control for how universities teach about consent, or how they truly handle reporting when it becomes an issue. Consent education needs to be both mandatory and meaningful, and universities need to stop pushing responsibility for student conduct onto other groups. Too many lives have been interrupted, and too many degrees have been put on hold, as college students encounter traumas that are socially stigmatized and institutionally mishandled.
Regardless of what happens with the American University EI scandal, the truth is that it is part of a much bigger story – one we can no longer try to distance ourselves from, and one we desperately need to change.