UVA, Greek Life, and Institutionalized Inequality

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On Wednesday, Rolling Stone (the article is quite disturbing, so proceed with caution) published an exposé on the gang rape of an undergraduate student by fraternity members at the University of Virginia.

Then the sh*t hit the fan: the frat house involved was vandalized on Wednesday night, professors organized protests, students organized a slutwalk, and the President released several (mostly inadequately forceful) statements before finally shutting down Greek activities for the remainder of the fall semester.

When someone is violently sexually assaulted and told by her peers (and potentially by the administration) that it’s not okay to report it, there is no easy fix because the blame doesn’t fall on one person. The particular students involved must be held accountable, but so should the fraternities, sororities, administration, local police force, and the (far less tangible) culture at large. 30% of UVA students are members of Greek organizations and a significant number of undergraduates attend frat parties as their primary source of socializing on the weekends. Students here may study hard, but they party harder, and many of them come from money and privilege that shelter them from significant repercussions.

This extreme entitlement paired with Type A perfectionism and reputation above all else has created a perfect storm for persistent, unpunished sexual violence. Greek life is inherently, fundamentally discriminatory and exclusionary; the system preys on the lonely, desperate, and inexperienced. And, though the administration may know something needs to change, they are limited either by pride or by fear of legal action. As a result, they are part of the problem.

My experience with undergraduate students here is that they’re often ill equipped to properly respond to violence or injustice in the lives of their friends and peers. They seem to lack a sense of self-reflection and independence that would allow them to speak up when it’s necessary. To add insult to injury, their support networks are often superficial and therefore unable to withstand the type of vulnerability that comes with admitting you or a friend has been harassed or assaulted. Though I’m sure emotionally mature, justice-oriented undergraduates exist here, they don’t exist in large enough numbers to change the culture.

But I believe the culture can change. I believe it is my responsibility to listen to the concerns of the undergraduates I interact with on a regular basis and to help them find a way to take a stand against unjust sorority codes, biased administrators, and the implicit expectations of the rape culture that exists here. I believe that change means more than just talking things out until we feel better, and I know we have to work together – and risk being disliked – for real and lasting progress to be made.

The important thing is that we don’t just allow news like this to blow over. We don’t get to forget it. We must remember: for the sake of assault survivors and for the sake of prevention. No one should live in the hopelessness of feeling that their trauma has gone or will go unnoticed.

Update 11/24: Students, faculty, and community members have started a group called Alliance for Social Change. If you live in the area and are interested in participating in local events, feel free to like the page. You can also sign a petition to permanently suspend Phi Kappa Psi from UVA’s campus. Personally, I believe that it would better to suspend all Greek programs on a temporary basis during which the university can dramatically restructure them (e.g. require them to move to on-campus housing, change policies, make rush more inclusive, affirmative action, etc.). I don’t know that a permanent removal of one fraternity will change things long term.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. I hesitated posting it in this space, but I'm glad I did. Justice and dignity are pertinent everywhere.

  2. Catherine Kowalik Harper

    This is a really powerful post. I'm pretty removed from the college setting these days, but there have been some disturbing stories about football players at UT recently. It seems like the university here is taking a tougher stance when students are accused of assault, but this is obviously a nation-wide problem that needs to be addressed. Thank you for sharing your insight.

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