The #MeToo movement turned whisper networks into digital lists, shaking up industries in its wake. In December, the attention turned to academia. “Sexual Harassment in the Academy,” a crowdsourced survey similar to the “Shitty Media Men” list, has collected over 2,300 responses and counting. This spreadsheet, which details incidents, institutional responses and the impact of harassment on the careers and mental health of contributors, was started by former anthropology professor Karen Kelsky in a bid to pave the way for “more frank conversations and more effective interventions.” Kelsky has written that she hopes this aggregation of personal stories will call attention to the “true scope and scale of this problem in academic settings.”
Sexual violence on campuses takes many forms, as the spreadsheet indicates. “I was told not to let it interfere with the research,” a graduate student who was raped while conducting fieldwork notes in one of the document’s entries. She was told not to speak or write about her sexual assault, and was given no institutional support. Another entry describes how “walk with a buddy” patrols were set up at Rice University in 1979 after a young woman was found raped and murdered near campus; in the midst of that program, a passerby interrupted the rape of an undergraduate by her so-called “buddy” under trees along the college’s main road. A literature professor at an elite college told his first-year graduate student he was no longer having sex with his wife, suggesting he was looking for her to fill that role.
With incidents ranging from harassment to violent assault, the length of the list underscores lack of institutional support as an important facet of sexual misconduct and violence. “Campus security” efforts tend to be focused on compliance with the federal rules and regulations as opposed to ensuring the sexual health and safety of students. “We forget the limit of Title IX: it is not concerned with justice; it is concerned with equity,” writes Jennifer Doyle in Campus Sex, Campus Security. “Have you been violated? Or was it your rights?”
Bastions of Privilege
Years ago, I accompanied NYU classmates to a conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik at New York City’s 92nd Street Y. One of the two made a joke about the American stereotype of college being the “best years of your life.” But the idea of college years as life’s very “best”—the most fun, the most formative—haunts conversations about campus security. These bastions of privilege have been set up to exact inordinate amounts of money from students, selling them at once the trappings of privilege (the income gap between college graduates and high school graduates is only increasing) and the promise of a good time.
Part and parcel of that image lies in the construction of “normal life” as separate from enhanced intra-campus social life. Within the latter’s unique environment, sexual violence is also treated as a “sex discrimination” issue. Title IX (currently under threat from the Betsy DeVos-led Department of Education) offers survivors a pathway to report sexual violence—after all, while only 25 percent of reported rape cases lead to an arrest, universities look into all reports. But the problem remains that those involved with these reports aren’t disinterested parties, they’re university employees. “I had a meeting with the professor, and a form he had to fill out,” a South Asian trans woman told me of her Ivy League experience. She had confided her sexual assault by another student to a professor, who was then mandated to report it. “Their main concern seemed to be checking whether I was assaulted by faculty or not.”
The Hunting Ground, a documentary examining campus sexual assault, highlights this national issue. Statistics show that female students are less likely than non-students to report sexual abuse. While 66 percent of sexual assault cases overall go unreported, college women do not report in 80 percent of cases. Rape, the most underreported crime in the U.S., is only reported 11 percent of the time by college women. Weighing this against the disputed statistic on college assault—either 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 female students are assaulted—we should be far more focused on looking at the elements that allow sexual violence to flourish on campuses.
The Frat Question
The toxic impact of frat life on campuses has been debated, defended and deconstructed. Fraternity “brothers” are three times more likely to be rapists than other college students, while sorority members are 74 percent more likely to be raped. Years ago, I transferred to Wesleyan University. My first weekend there, I was warned to stay away from “rape factory” Beta Theta Pi, a house on the corner of the main road of the campus. The university had started its reformation of fraternity life back in 2005, pressuring frats to offer residence to women in order to continue as university-approved program housing. Beta refused, “hew[ing] to the oldest of fraternity values: independence.” It ultimately lost program housing status, and Wesleyan public safety officers lost access to the building. A few years later, a young woman was raped while visiting a friend of a Beta brother, adding to the list of fraternity-related assaults and accidents on campus.
Possibly in an effort to civilize these boys' clubs founded in the 19th century, Wesleyan issued an ultimatum: Go co-ed, or get kicked out. That mandate virtually ended fraternity life on campus for a period (except for the university president’s own frat, which voluntarily went co-ed in the ’70s). However, Wesleyan recently lost a case to Delta Kappa Epsilon, and will have to reinstate DKE on campus in the fall.
The notion of co-education as a check on fraternal misbehavior alludes to the crux of the problem: All Greek life reifies privilege through exclusion and partiality. The origins of Greek life are racist and classist; its entitlement is therefore par for the course. Seventy-six percent of U.S. senators and congressmen, 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 80 percent of Fortune 500 executives, and every president since 1825 save for two belonged to a fraternity. Contrast this with the mere 2 percent of America’s population who are actually involved in a fraternity. This concentration of power extends far beyond college, and is handed down from bro to bro like a gilded baton, giving Greek life further sway over college politics. Even beyond donor money, these nebulous, nepotistic power networks simultaneously market college as “fun,” which is good for universities.
Women on Campus
Wesleyan has the distinction of being the only university to have reversed its coeducation “experiment.” The first (white) women were admitted in 1872, and quickly distinguished themselves, with the four female graduates earning honors and Phi Beta Kappa as members of class of 1876, according to the student newspaper. By 1898, the discrimination against them came to a head when several men staged a boycott to protest the women “taking their funds.” “To hell, to hell with coeducation is our yell!” was the group’s battlecry. At the time, women comprised 23 percent of the student body.
The university ended what it labeled an experiment in 1912, tacitly accepting the men’s contention that women in the classroom were “inconvenient, unpleasant, a hindrance to efficient work, and diminishing upper-class social life.” Connecticut College was founded as a direct result. It is unsurprising that when the university opened its doors to women again in 1970, well into the civil rights movement, they had to add seats. Men did not want to share or give up what they already had, highlighting the issues around concurrent efforts at integration and coeducation during the mid-20th century. Women of all races and people of color were seen as interlopers, inconveniences and invaders. Reaction to diversity is born of a sense of losing power and place—after all, men have not only fallen behind women in college enrollment, but in performance. Ironically, ignoring the most affirmative of actions, legacy admissions, the disingenuously named Project on Fair Representation has been especially effective at ginning up outrage and support for its anti-affirmative action fight.
This is the reality of higher education. America’s colleges were never meant for women or people of color. They embolden white nationalism, welcoming its most vocal proponents on campuses around the country, by promoting the notion as “diversity of thought.” They both allow and enable gendered sexual abuse by their very culture. These institutions, slowly hacking away at their most discriminatory facets, were predicated on exclusion to begin with.
We see incalculable violence against the other—women, people of color, LGBT folks—in spaces originally built exclusively to serve straight white men. Colleges and universities are no exception. Often, avoiding that violence unfairly saddles the most vulnerable with the task of risk management. (I mean this literally; sorority “risk management” chairs are “responsible for making sure that the girls... are safe and responsible while they are out mixing with a fraternity.”) Education represents mobility and thus access to the white man’s world. Marginalized students are forced to traverse campuses that are playgrounds for toxic masculinity, and complicit hosts in rape culture.