The evergreen machine of assault and social toxicity, otherwise known as the North-American Interfraternity Conference, struck again. This time, the UC San Diego chapter of Sigma Chi is under investigation for allegations of sexual violence against members of several sororities. Despite the gravity of the accusations at hand, a culture of silence perpetuated by Greek life has kept the whole situation under wraps. From the national organizations down to the individuals on this campus, the moratorium on speaking out against sexual violence within these organizations harms not only the sorority sisters but also the rest of the campus community. By creating open secrets that exclude unaffiliated women, they are increasing the possibility that unaffiliates will find themselves in dangerous situations when attending open parties or even in unaffiliated life. Although the responsibility here is two-fold, fraternities have proven themselves unable to successfully prevent heinous behaviors from their members, so to say that they should step up in protecting the women of the campus seems closer to wishful thinking. Sororities need to reconsider their approach to fraternity-perpetrated abuse and act in the spirit of true sisterhood, regardless of the affiliated status of the people involved.
Far from speaking out against these problems in the public forum, sororities asked their members to avoid engaging with news outlets. The impression left on many Greek life members was that they just “aren’t supposed to” give out information about the incident with Sigma Chi, and the narrative that echoed across chapters on this campus was that to speak out about this issue would be telling the survivors story for them. When the news article regarding this incident got leaked, the President of the sorority one of our anonymous sources belongs to went as far as to demand that this person reveal themselves to her, citing the matter as “urgent.” To order that anonymous sources reveal themselves under the guise of urgency goes beyond just asking their members to refrain from speaking to the press and it demonstrates a deeper problem with these organizations. Although the post has since been deleted, the message was clear: speaking out about these issues is not okay in the eyes of the chapter.
Placing the burden of speaking out on survivors, and to absolve bystanders of any responsibility, only helps to reinforce the secrecy and the stigma surrounding abuse on campus. Whether or not the survivors wish to share their story, creating a public conversation regarding the problems inherent to fraternities, and to Greek life as a whole, is imperative to change the culture. Instead, this incident furthers the notion that speaking out about sexual harassment is in some way a betrayal. Societies that claim to be champions for sisterhood placing the wishes of a national entity over the security of the women of this campus is hypocritical to say the least, and it is even worse to frame it as a betrayal. The national organizations would love to sweep incidents like these under the rug because their membership numbers are contingent on women feeling safe in their organizations. By following their policies and continuing the circle of silence, the UC San Diego chapters inadvertently are catering to the interests of these groups over the safety of the women they live and work with everyday.
The national organizations run with policies that prevent their members from publicly holding the accused accountable. The chapters’ advisors, who offer counsel that trends towards containment, perpetuate the blanket of silence that already exists regarding sexual assault. Members themselves, however, are also to blame as they follow these guidelines and refuse to speak out and engage with this publicly, instead of trusting the executive board to deal with it privately. This is not a private conversation but a matter of public safety, and by trusting a system that has consistently failed its members in matters of harassment and sexual violence, these sisters are doing a disservice to the missions of their organizations. With this, I am not placing the blame on the survivors. Survivors of sexual assault have a right to their stories and to speak when they want to, if they want to, on their terms and in their time. That being said, the situation was being kept quiet, and in doing so all of the other members of the organization become complicit in protecting the alleged perpetrators of sexual violence crimes and in rape culture as a whole. Despite the fact that these chapters are imposing laws and playing a narrative that paints silence as the moral high road, members should evaluate the impact their silence plays into the larger campus and into the safety of their fellow sisters. It is understandable to think that one is doing the right thing when everyone in the organization reinforces that this is for the survivors. But the incident is also about the men of this fraternity allegedly committing a crime. In this manner, keeping quiet becomes less about speaking on someone else’s experience and more about trying to put a lid on the conversation of sexual assault in Greek life.
By remaining in silence, by demanding silence, not only do these chapters protect the perpetrators but they place the burden on survivors to speak out against these problems. Rape culture is systemic and societal, even more so in Greek life which is notorious for their patriarchal social dynamics. Silence is not just preventing the dismantling of rape culture, it also allows rapists to continue harming women because they suffer no consequences in the public eye. The reality is that by not exposing these criminals for what they are, there is no real deterrent to prevent them or others to continue inflicting harm. In a criminal justice system that leans in favor of rapists every day and as UC San Diego consistently brushes incidents of sexual violence aside for the sake of the school’s image, the court of public opinion is one of the strongest defenses we have. This incident is not isolated, the survivors are not alone and the silence these chapters are demanding and these women are complying with creates a false sense of the magnitude of the problems. There is no doubt that a survivor’s story is their own, but this story is one in an ocean of assaults against the peace of mind and bodily autonomy of women across college campuses. By not discussing the larger situation, we force survivors to stand at the forefront of the fight against rape culture and sexual harassment. This conversation involves the entire Greek-life community, whether or not they want to acknowledge it.
Sorority silence or neutrality in the face of sexual assault, whether imposed or chosen, is a phenomenon that crops up every time a case of fraternity-perpetrated sexual violence occurs on a college campus. Thanks to national policies that care more about reputation than their own members there is a very troubling trend across these institutions of open secrets and of which fraternities are “the bad ones.” Unfortunately, in this case “respecting survivor stories” is actually closer to expecting them to do the heavy-lifting in a conversation that is actually about a larger societal problem. It is time for Greek-life organizations to step-up and actively work against sexual violence instead of trying to cache problems for the sake of saving face. They owe that much to their members, to the survivors, and to every woman on this campus.