U of M Students are breaking the silence on campus rape culture, starting with fraternity life
On an uncharacteristically beautiful Saturday afternoon in early March, a thick silence hung on University Avenue, a street more infamously known as Frat Row. The street’s usual weekend scene—a plethora of people on fraternity front porches, blaring music, and the occasional inflatable pool—was notably absent, though the eerie quiet didn’t last long. Soon, chanting protesters, commanding signs, and a mess of cameras and press lined the sidewalks.
A crowd of a couple hundred students, advocates, and Minneapolis community members held large, painted signs, reading, “Hold your brothers accountable,” “Commit to the values behind your letters,” and “Our bodies aren’t included in your fraternity dues.”
Behind partially closed blinds, clusters of eyes peered out from fraternity house windows to watch the protesters march by. A few bolder, or perhaps oblivious members, lounged outside on their porches with beer in hand, entirely unaffected. Some groups of fraternity members joined the march in solidarity with survivors. Most, however, were noticeably nowhere in sight.
“Standing with Survivors: A March on Frat Row” started as a small Facebook event and quickly grew into a campus movement, making headlines across the Twin Cities. “I started Break the Silence in the wake of my own rape two years ago,” said march organizer Sarah Super. “I want to make a public statement and shift our social understanding of what sexual violence is and how it happens and where it happens and who commits these crimes. This [march] is just one piece in that direction.”
At the march, I talked with some fraternity members that came to show their solidarity, though “talk” is a generous term. Our conversation lasted no more than two minutes. The group of fraternity members I approached was closed off in a circle, talking amongst themselves amidst a crowd of protesters. I asked what compelled them to come out to the march, and we shared a deeply uncomfortable, sustained silence. Finally, one of them caved and stumbled over an explanation that they “couldn’t really talk,” and I’d have to “contact their national organization” for an official response. Though I anticipated a rehearsed dodge to that question, I still found myself taken aback at their response—or lack thereof. I hadn’t realized joining a brotherhood meant giving up your individual voice as well.
Their fear of confrontational discussion, though deeply problematic, is somewhat understandable. At the march, Dawson Kimyon, a former Delta Upsilon member who exposed his fraternity’s sexual assault scandals, spoke openly about the moral crossroads at which he found himself during his time as a fraternity member. “We had this fear that if the truth were to get out, we’d all be cast as perpetrators even if we were the ones coming forward and exposing it. That’s a backwards mentality, but that’s also the mentality we were up against.”
Fraternities are under the microscope of an entire nation right now. Any public misstep has the power to further taint their public images. The solution: Forward all inquiries on the topic of sexual assault to the top. Let the national organizations formulate a response for the sum of the whole. This presents a deeply ironic problem within itself: If every fraternity member is so worried about what they can or cannot say on the topic of sexual assault that they won’t speak on it at all, how can we begin to engage in authentic conversation? How can we bridge this growing disparity of common ground? At the foundation of any true systemic change is transparency and open conversation, both of which are still alarmingly absent within the Interfraternity Council.
A fundamental key to understanding rape culture on college campuses is the understanding that fraternities aren’t the source of normalized sexual violence, rather they perpetuate it—an act far more insidious. At the root of rape culture is toxic masculinity. The two work in tandem, and unfortunately, they’re prevalent in society well after you receive your diploma and well outside of universities. Toxic masculinity is the product of socially constructed gender roles that enforce the idea that men should be strong, assertive, unemotional, and sexually aggressive. That dangerously rigid mentality festers in every group collective where hyper-masculinity is lauded: Greek fraternities, male athletic teams, even our nation’s military.
I rushed at the beginning of my freshman year, and what ultimately deterred me from Greek life wasn’t the girls I met during the experience, but the fraternity members. One instance from that grueling, weeklong recruitment process still sears in the forefront of my memory: the image of a string of fraternity members lounging in beach chairs on their house’s front lawn. They yelled out “6! … 9.5! … 3!” at girls rushing to and from sorority houses. The group, shielded behind sunglasses, baseball caps, and the unspoken power of the letters across their chests, numerically objectified girls passing by as if it were commonplace, and with no one holding them accountable, perhaps it was.
After the march, I posted a video of protesters chanting, “Rape culture’s gotta go!” on my Instagram account. One particular follower—a current fraternity member at his respective college—commented, “How is protesting rape culture going to fix anything?”
It’s an excellent question. Obviously, a march alone is not going to dismantle an ideal or “fix” an entire problematic culture. The purpose of the march was to stand in solidarity with the survivors and break the suffocating silence on frat row, refusing to let this issue subside. The Instagram inquiry is further proof that despite the march on frat row being specific to the University of Minnesota, this issue spans much broader than our Twin Cities campus. It’s a national issue that stems from an organizational presence on nearly all college campuses, many of which are still refusing to acknowledge it’s here or even worse — actively silencing the issue.
“When you’re faced with the criminal justice system or just trying to get justice within your university and you’ve got the courage to come forward, yet you’re still not given that justice, it’s disheartening and contributes enormously to rape culture as a whole,” Deneen Hanzlik, a student, survivor, and Aurora Center advocate at the march said.
There’s a tendency to assume that if the press is continuously breaking news on the multitude of sexual assault cases involving fraternities and the university administration is engaging in more conversation on campus rape culture more than ever before, the problem must be subsiding, right? That assumption, though comforting, is terribly misguided and further hinders progress toward true systemic change within the Greek community.
Organizations like The Aurora Center and The Minnesota Daily have been tirelessly and unabashedly working toward creating a campus that holds the Greek community accountable. Ultimately, however, the main inciting force of campus change relies on the voices of students who see a Greek system on their campus in desperate need of social reform and want to do something about it.
In an op-ed published in The Minnesota Daily titled, “It’s Time To Dismantle Greek Life at UMN,” students Cameron Gray and Drew Honson penned their frustrations with fraternity life. “Remember, greek life is only 11 percent of the student population and is responsible for a disproportionate number of reported sexual assaults on campus.” They call for a more radical approach: dismantle Greek life entirely. “If you are greek, you are responsible for furthering the toxic ideologies and unapologetic criminality of the greek system.”
The recent flood of sexual assault scandals on frat row has also incited the formation of another anti-fraternity collective. The intriguing aspect of this organization is its location: it’s based out of the student cooperative house, which sits on University Avenue in the heart of frat row, elbow to elbow with the very catalysts of its mission. In spite of the group’s name being a mouthful—the Fraternity Row Allied Cooperative Against Sexual Violence—its mission is short. “We want to end sexual violence and fraternities are the first target,” the group bluntly said. Now, nearly a month after the march, its front lawn is still covered in signs, demanding justice from the surrounding fraternities despite multiple requests to take them down.
A crucial key in dismantling campus rape culture, especially within Greek life, is accountability from within. One of the draws of Greek life is that it emulates a “home away from home” or a family. While a familial culture can be beneficial, it’s also instinctively protective, and sometimes, for the wrong reasons. Unwavering loyalty doesn’t always come with a moral compass. Yes, not all Greek members are perpetrators—in fact, many aren’t—but that doesn’t excuse an entire campus culture. If you are a part of a community that is continuously under siege for sexual assault, having the courage to recognize that is far more important than arguing on behalf of exceptions to the rule. The U of M’s Greek community needs to put time and effort into serious and long-needed introspective work if they want to truly change.
“We’re going to need true allies on the inside because you guys have the privilege to demand that change from the inside out,” Dawson Kimyon said, evoking a thunderous applause from the marchers. His former fraternity, Delta Upsilon, now suspended for multiple sexual assault charges, taped a small sign on its house’s bay window to express its solidarity with the marchers. It read, “We must do better. We can do better. We will do better.”
“We’ll all have to get over the ego of our images in order to pursue what’s right,” Kimyon added.
Less than 20 minutes after the march’s end, I passed Delta Upsilon once more on my walk home. Its blinds were now drawn back and its sign in solidarity with the marchers was nowhere in sight. Frat row soon roared back to life—another normal Saturday afternoon.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Advocacy and educational events will be hosted around campus in support of survivors as well as fundraising efforts for The Aurora Center. Details regarding all events can be found on Facebook. You can donate to The Aurora Center through the month of April at z.umn.edu/fundaurora.