Content warning: mentions of rape and sexual assault
Greek life is part of the university experience for many American and Canadian students. Sororities and fraternities are social and academic groups that are joined by like-minded people, and for many, these groups can offer a sense of belonging and community. They were originally established as “secret societies” for college-educated men and have been around since the 1800s.
These organizations have had major issues for as long as they’ve been around. There are consistent patterns of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and assault that appear to come up time and time again. While stories continue to surface, little is done to prevent assault or change the culture that encourages it. Consequently, many have called for Greek life to be abolished as these problems are so deeply systemic that reform will not be enough to fix them.
The Case of Max Helm
Max Helm, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI) fraternity at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, raped and assaulted a 17-year old girl on August 24th, 2021. This was not the first time Helm committed sexual assault, as he was also accused of assault in 2017. Due to the incident that occurred in 2017, Helm, as well as the FIJI fraternity, were suspended. The fraternity’s suspension from March 2017 to May 2020 occurred after the university opened an investigation into the fraternity due to its history of inappropriate behaviour and sexual misconduct. Helm is not the only perpetrator of violence in his fraternity, as other members were found to have also harassed Women’s March protesters in the past.
Many found out about what Helm had done through social media, and they organized protests outside of the FIJI fraternity house. They demanded the fraternity be shut down and chanted the anti-rape slogan “no means no.” A petition that demanded the fraternity be shut down also started to circulate, outlining the claims of women who said they had also been assaulted or raped at FIJI. Following the outcry, the fraternity was finally suspended by the university, but only temporarily.
The Fraternity Environment
The violent assault by Helm earlier this year at FIJI is not an isolated incident. Studies have shown that women who participate in Greek life are 74% more likely to experience rape or sexual assault than women who are not involved. Men who are members of fraternities are 3 times more likely to commit rape than men who are not involved. A study from 2019 found that 25.9% of undergraduate girls had experienced some form of non-consensual penetration, attempted penetration, use of force, or been in a position where they were unable to give consent.
Experts report that the fraternity environment can encourage violent behaviour. Fraternity culture is largely fueled by alcohol, drugs, and large parties, which is where most incidents take place. Fraternities are also said to be competitive and high testosterone environments, with studies showing that “spending time with peers who are accepting of sexual violence leads men to be accepting of sexual violence themselves.” Other studies have also revealed that individuals interested in fraternities scored higher on their tendency to perpetrate sexual aggression and rape myths than those not in fraternities. Further, organizations like fraternities can provoke feelings of dominance and controlling behaviour, and are largely popular among rich white men. The fraternity environment has been described as “steeped in this white male masculinity stereotype.”
Victims often do not report the assaults and rapes they experience in fear of retaliation. Fraternities value social standing as well as a strong sense of loyalty between members, and many partake in an “oath of silence” when an assault occurs. Remaining silent proves their commitment to their fraternity and they feel as if they are protecting their brotherhood.
There is also an increasing problem of racism, homophobia, and sexism within fraternities. In 2019, two fraternities at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania voluntarily disbanded after documents in which members had written racist and homophobic jokes were leaked. At Oklahoma University, a video was released of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members singing a racist chant, and an investigation revealed that this chant was ingrained into the fraternity’s culture as it was taught to pledges as a part of the initiation process.
The Role of Universities
With the many issues that Greek life hosts, it is surprising as to why universities do not take a harder stance against them. However, universities and fraternities are often deeply intertwined, especially financially. For example, many of these organizations have been a part of universities for decades, so they have many alumni who invest money into the schools. Many of these alumni hold positions within administration and on trustee boards and also fund housing for fraternities and sororities. As such, it would not be in the interest of universities to alienate these wealthy donors. It is largely due to these financial interests that universities do not take effective action against fraternities when an incident occurs. Universities also want to preserve their reputation and this is often done at the expense of victims.
The issues surrounding Greek life are deeply ingrained in its structure and culture, and thus cannot be easily reformed. Stories of rape and sexual assault have been prevalent for many years, and the problem will only continue as long as not much is done to address and prevent it. Nevertheless, while most universities have yet to take a decisive stand against the toxic culture ingrained in fraternities, many students have taken the initiative and have started an “abolish Greek life” movement. This movement aims to abolish fraternities and sororities due to their problematic nature. As this is an issue that is so widespread, many students feel passionate about creating change for their own safety and that of their peers.
Universities must hold perpetrators accountable and ensure that survivors can seek justice. While too many universities overlook these issues in order to preserve their reputation and funding from donors, this only allows perpetrators to get away with the crimes they commit without repercussions, and fuels the cycle of violence.