Every September, fraternities hang explicit, sexually-themed banners targeting female students. Variations of “Thank you, fathers, for your freshman daughters” and “21 to drink, 18-ish to spend the night” banners have been used for decades. Recently, an Ohio State University fraternity advertised “Daughter Day Care” and a West Virginia University frat deployed a syntactically confusing “She called you daddy for 18 years, now our turn” sign.
But that tradition (if we may call it that) is now coming under attack. Recently, when Old Dominion University’s Sigma Nu chapter hung offensive banners from their balconies, it generated widespread—and, many would argue, long-overdue—debate across a wide range of topics, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, what constitutes sexism, hazing scandals, and the appropriate management of wayward fraternities.
Outraged by banners? Or behavior?
Some may argue this is all in good fun, just another example of “boys being boys.” But there’s a darker side. A 2014 University of Oregon study found that one out of every two sorority members on that campus were victims of nonconsensual sexual contact. And the problem is not limited to specific institutions. The Department of Education is investigating 85 separate colleges for rape cases, as well as how those colleges responded to these cases.
What appears to fraternity culture as “exaggerated outrage” at the banners, and yet another attack on their freedom of speech is perhaps not so outrageous given the reality of sexual assault in the Greek system.
Fraternities and rape culture
Fraternities are not only frequently associated with sexual assaults, but some could reasonably be accused of cultivating a “rape culture”—meaning that rape is not only tolerated, but encouraged. For example, in 2013, the Georgia Tech chapter of Phi Kappa Tau sent an e-mail advising its brothers how to “lure your rapebait.” Sure enough, that chapter was eventually suspended for multiple cases of sexual assault.
Rape culture is also reflected in the way some institutions choose to handle their assault cases. In a recent example, after a sexual assault of a woman at Beta Theta Pi at Wesleyan University, the university chose to incriminate the plaintiff in her $10 million lawsuit. In fact, during its defense, the university went so far as to blame her for not taking “reasonable care for her own safety” to avoid what she, apparently, should have known would be an inevitable attack. And Wesleyan is widely considered one of the most progressive, outspoken universities in America in terms of gender equality and campus policies regarding rape. The university recently settled with the victim, only to face another $10 million lawsuit over a sexual assault case involving Xi Chapter of Psi Upsilon in 2014.
Why are fraternities like this?
Alcohol is the primary suspect responsible for turning fraternities from the social clubs of the past to the out-of-control Bacchanals we see today. The modern fraternity industry—a megalith of insurance brokers, fraternity councils, and lawyers that insure and oversee the estimated $3 billion in fraternity housing—was primarily conceived in 1984, when the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act pushed the drinking age from 18 to 21.
Because students could no longer drink at campus events overseen by colleges or at bars, they were forced to find parties off campus. Fraternities quickly filled this need, and the nationwide Greek system came back with a vengeance after its near demise in the 1970s.
Freedom of speech or harassment?
Given the level of sexual assault at fraternities, female students are more than justified in demanding they be held accountable for their behavior toward women. But as far as those banners are concerned, is it a violation of free speech rights to force fraternities to remove them?
If a drunk 18-year-old can draw national attention with a spray-painted bedsheet, he most certainly will. Universities might consider putting policies in place that punish frats for displaying signage that violates hate speech or sexual harassment policies. But suspensions of entire chapter houses for displaying offensive signs may not be the best mechanism for reducing sexual assault on campuses, especially as it tends to empower those who wish to sidetrack the dialog with arguments over what constitutes free expression.
Policies alone won’t bring true and lasting change. Courts will have to decide if taking down a banner actually mitigates the factors that lead to sexual assault, or if it merely amounts to enforced political correctness.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.
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