From foolishness, a hope for change

 

Five weeks ago, the revelation that a member, or members, of the Sigma Phi Epsilon created and allegedly circulated a survey asking about sexual violence, which subsequently resulted in closure of the fraternity, generated one of the most divisive controversies at UVM in recent memory.

I cannot and will not indict the entire Greek system at UVM. But, by the same token, I cannot fathom how anyone can blanketly support it. Like any part of the University, the Greek system has flaws that can and need to be addressed. 

There is a distinction between supporting a group or organization while acknowledging that it has erred, and refusing to accept that anyone has done anything wrong. What happened at Sig Ep was not only incredibly demeaning toward women, but a national embarrassment for the University — gracing the front page of CNN’s website for several days.

I cannot support Sig Ep when its former president called the closing of the chapter a “social injustice.” There are very few times a white man can toss around the phrase “social injustice.” This ain’t one of them.

In a Dec. 20 interview with Vermont Public Radio, former Sig Ep president Alex Haller refused to name anyone involved with the survey. While others may be enamored by his solidarity, I am not. 

If it was only one or a few members involved, why not force them to take responsibility, instead of allowing judgment to be cast on the fraternity as a whole?

Perhaps scholars Patricia Martin and Rubert Hummer have the answer — in an essay entitled “Fraternities and Rape on Campus,” they assert, “Protection of the fraternity often takes precedence over what is procedurally, ethically or legally correct.”

When reports of the survey surfaced, Sig Ep was not forthcoming with details. According to the Burlington Free Press, members of the fraternity declined to answer questions and refused to answer the door for a reporter; at no point has any member of Sig Ep taken responsibility or apologized for the survey.

For the second time, Sig Ep’s charter was revoked for violations of policy. In 1993, the national chapter revoked Sig Ep’s charter for four years after incidents of hazing were captured on video.

Interestingly, the same day the Sig Ep story broke, The New York Times published a story discussing a new report that found that 1 in 5 women in the U.S. reported that they have been sexually assaulted — a number far higher than previously thought. 

Rape is not something funny to joke about. I originally started that sentence with the words “needless to say,” but it is apparent that, in no uncertain terms, someone needs to say it.

The survey question that generated the controversy — “If you could rape someone, who would it be?” could have been posed less offensively as “If you could have sex with someone, who would it be?” 

A conscious decision was made to use the word “rape” — changing the connotation of the question from being a presumably consensual act to one that willfully ignores someone else’s wishes.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are good men and women in Greek life at UVM. But I also have no doubt that Greeks and UVM students as a whole could greatly benefit from a better understanding of rape culture. 

In his interview with VPR, Haller makes a good point — that the members involved in the incident need sensitivity training. I think we could all benefit from that.

Hopefully, the University and the Greek institutions on campus will take this offensive, embarrassing incident as a spark to reform how we think about sexual violence and redouble our efforts to combat rape culture.

It would be a shame if the only consequences of this incident were negative. The closure of a fraternity, though justified, does not bring about change — only a commitment to a continuing dialogue and plan for action does.