Why the EI Problem At American University Raises Questions We ALL Need To Be Asking

In response to the ongoing scandal at American University, I wrote the following piece for the Feminist Campus blog.  This is an excerpt from the original blog post, “When Will the Administrators Act? What AU’s ‘Fratergate’ Teaches Us About Campus Sexual Assault”.

When Will the Administrators Act? What AU’s “Fratergate” Teaches Us About Campus Sexual Assault

Last week, 70 pages of leaked emails between members of Epsilon Iota, an unrecognized fraternity at American University, revealed a slew of “rape-y” and misogynistic conversations that have ignited outrage within the school’s community.

American University, like many schools, is acting now because public reaction is forcing their hands, but the problem of EI is not new – and neither is the problem of campus sexual assault.

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A little background on the situation: Epsilon Iota, or EI, was a chapter of Alpha Tau Omega – but lost its university and national recognition over ten years ago due to a slew of sexual assault scandals.  EI is considered to be a gang in the District of Columbia, and members are not supposed to be able to wear their letters on campus (a rule that the university often fails to enforce).  In 2010, the school paper ran an op-ed which specifically referenced EI with regards to the risk of sexual assault, and though the student body backlashed against the author, the reality remains that EI’s reputation and behavior have been well-known at the school for some time, with no real repercussions. The recently leaked emails, which are from 2012 onward, include comments which make light of sexual assault and rape, reference illegal activities, and show the brothers trying to deny or downplay the implications of a brother having sexually assaulted a woman at one of their parties.

As an American University student myself, I’ve come into contact with EI. In terms of the “scandal,” I’m sorry to say that it fits with the group’s reputation. But I think the problem is much bigger than EI, much bigger than this current scandal, much bigger than a “problem with Greek life,” as it’s so often painted.  Students are calling for the expulsion of EI members, but in a recent email to the student body, university president Neil Kerwin explained that the university is “bound by regulations and statues” regarding transparency, and no real indication seems to have been made as to what the university plans to do, aside from “taking this very seriously.”

The problem of neglecting consent education or mishandling sexual assault is not new or unique to any of the parties involved – not to EI, not to American University, not to the Greek system.  If one were to Google “universities mishandle sexual assault,” recent cases would pop up from the University of Michigan, the University of Missouri, and the University of California-Berkeley; further cases have been reported in the last year at Occidental College, Swarthmore College, and Columbia University.  In 2012, the University of Montana received significant negative attention after the administration attempted to punish a student for speaking out about being raped on campus.

1 in 4 women will be the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault over the course of her life, and 1 in 5 will have this happen while she is in college.  That’s a staggering statistic, and one we need to be doing more to change.  Every time universities try to shift the blame, to say that it is about sports or about Greek life, they further entrench the problem: the fear of reinforcing this belief often deters individuals who are harmed within those communities from reporting, and encourages friends to pressure them not to report. But on top of that, blaming particular institutions within universities shifts the discussion away from consent, which is what schools desperately need to force their students to talk about.  The aforementioned op-ed from American University highlights this exact problem: the author attempted to differentiate between “real rape” and argued that “hooking up is not rape,” a sentiment that was echoed by many college students who believe that just because someone has been drinking, they cannot be taken advantage of.

The reality is, of course, that if someone does not have the capacity to consent, they are not consenting, and even if the consumption of alcohol is voluntary, this does not negate this fact.  The recent emails released at American University, as well as years of conversations and cases regarding sexual assault and intoxication, reveal that this element of consent has been massively under-addressed by society, and people are getting hurt (and often blamed) as a result.  So why aren’t students being made to talk about this?  Why is it that, in 2014, consent is still treated as a gray area, so that people can continue to get away with things like sexual assault?

You can read the rest of the original piece here.

The reality is that as angry as I am that this happened, I am even angrier that I, like many college students around the country, attend a university that has come to really mishandle sexual assault.  The university’s decision to move Take Back the Night to the quad this year (it got rained out and moved inside, but that’s besides the point) indicates that the school truly does not understand the risks that survivors undertake in coming forward, and does not understand the challenges that survivors face in confronting their trauma.  At the same time, American University-~-like many universities-~-is still in many ways treating this as a PR problem, instead of a rights violation.  Let me be clear: sexual assault is a rights violation, and it is not just a student conduct matter, it is also a criminal one.  The sole advantage to handling it through student conduct as well is that schools need a lower burden of proof to enact disciplinary action than the state needs to take legal action.

That said, the university ALSO cannot condone the online harassment that has targeted the men mentioned in the emails.  Though the student body’s outrage is justified, if anyone from AU reads, this, I would urge them to remember that bad things have already happened, and further harms cannot facilitate healing.

I hope that this, as well as the current scandal at Brown University, spark meaningful dialogues about how we can work to reduce sexual assault on college campuses, as well as how universities can more effectively deal with these problems when they arise.  College students deserve better, and it’s time to start demanding campuses that are safe.

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~ by Randi Saunders on April 24, 2014.

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