Shutter Fraternities for Young Women's Good
By CAITLIN FLANAGAN
In the fall of 1984, a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Virginia named Liz Seccuro was invited to a fraternity party. While there, she was given a tour of the historic house and offered a cup of the dark green cocktail that was its specialty. Within minutes she was incapacitated. She was carried into a bedroom and raped. She woke up wrapped in a bloody sheet (she had been a virgin) and watched as the rapist coldly packed his backpack and told her, "You ought to get out of here before someone sees you."
Liz Seccuro in March in Charlottesville, Va. Her new book, "Crash Into Me," tells of her sexual assault by fraternity members in 1984.
Alone, bruised and bleeding, she walked to the emergency room, waited for hours, was sent to Student Health and began a weeks-long ordeal. One school official suggested she take some time off or perhaps transfer. Many doubted her story. She realized she had no real hope for justice, and so she gave up trying to find it.
But 20 years later, something remarkable happened: Her rapist, who had joined Alcoholics Anonymous, sent her a letter of apology-or, as Liz came to see it, a handwritten confession. The story of his prosecution and ultimate imprisonment is detailed in her riveting new book, "Crash Into Me," which includes a horrifying revelation. She learned during the discovery process of the trial that she had been gang raped.
The Greek system is dedicated to quelling young men's anxiety about submitting themselves to four years of sissy-pants book learning by providing them with a variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women. A 2007 National Institute of Justice study found that about one in five women are victims of sexual assault in college; almost all of those incidents go unreported. It also noted that fraternity men-who tend to drink more heavily and frequently than nonmembers-are more likely to perpetrate sexual assault than nonfraternity men, according to previous studies. Over a quarter of sexual-assault victims who were incapacitated reported that the assailant was a fraternity member.
It is against this boorish cartel that 16 Yale students and recent alumni asserted themselves in a Title IX complaint brought against the institution last month-a complaint that could cost the university $500 million in federal funds.
The claim concerns both the ways that sexual assaults are handled by the university and also the effect that various fraternity "pranks" have had on its female students. The last straw for the complainants seems to have been a Delta Kappa Epsilon initiation last fall in which a mob of pledges chanted "No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!" and other enlightening slogans. (Yale officials have said they do not believe the university is in violation of Title IX; they have also said the university will cooperate with a federal investigation.)
Can the mere presence of slur-chanting fraternity men really create an environment that robs young women of equal opportunity to education? Yes, it can.
Two years before Liz Seccuro's rape, I enrolled at the University of Virginia. I had chosen the school for the same reason she would: its excellent English department, then the best in the country.
I had an advantage that Liz did not have. I was a transfer student, and so my new friends had already been at the university two years and were in possession of valuable information, much of it learned the hard way: I was never, ever to go upstairs at a fraternity house. To do so was to invite assault. That I could be raped by a fellow student and that the event would somehow be my fault was an idea I found alarming and intimidating.
My fourth night at school, I went with some friends to Rugby Road, where the fraternity houses are located. They are built of the same Jeffersonian architecture as the rest of the campus. At once august and moldering, they seemed sinister, to stand for male power at its most malevolent and institutionally condoned. I remember standing there thinking I'd made a terrible mistake. It wasn't worth it, I decided. The next day I withdrew from the university.
I had a miserable semester back at home, working in a department store and looking for somewhere else to go to school. But the truth was that I wanted to go to Virginia. I went back in the spring, and while few things have had as a profound an effect on my life as my UVA education, my deep mistrust of the fraternities limited the ways I engaged in life on campus and almost robbed me of the education itself.
If you want to improve women's lives on campus, if you want to give them a fair shot at living and learning as freely as men, the first thing you could do is close down the fraternities. The Yale complaint may finally do what no amount of female outrage and violation has accomplished. It just might shut them down for good.
Ms. Flanagan is author of "To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife." Her next book, "Girl Land," will be published in January.