More Sorority Parties Could Mean Less Campus Rape

"As guests, women cede control of turf, transportation, and liquor," researchers say
Photographer: Thai Nguyen/Flickr

Last week, a New York Times article pitched a simple proposal for stemming campus rape: Let sororities throw parties. If women weren’t relying on fraternity members to serve booze, screen guests, and get them safely home, the thinking goes, they'd be better able to look after themselves and their party guests. 

It turns out that researchers have been looking into this idea for years. Those unacquainted with the Greek system might be surprised to hear that sororities are so carefully guarded, but the vast majority of national sororities are barred from hosting parties on their own turf. Their members attend fraternity parties, which research suggests can be particularly dangerous places for women. The Times cited a 2007 study (PDF) by the U.S. Department of Justice that found that women who attended fraternity parties were more likely to be assaulted than those who didn't. And, despite research that suggests women are at heightened risk of rape during the "Red Zone" in the first few months of their freshman year (PDF), the study found that whether a woman went to fraternity parties was a much stronger predictor of sexual assault than whether she was a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior. 

So what, besides the obvious—a steady supply of alcohol—explains why fraternities are the sites of so many attacks? It comes down to how such parties are organized. A confluence of seemingly unrelated factors, from costume themes to transportation arrangements, can combine to create a dangerous atmosphere for women, found three Indiana University researchers who studied (PDF) students at a large, Midwestern public university during the 2004-05 academic year. 

"Fraternities control every aspect of parties at their houses: themes, music, transportation, admission, access to alcohol, and movement of guests," the researchers wrote in the study, published in Social Problems in 2006. "Party themes usually require women to wear scant, sexy clothing and place women in subordinate positions to men." Men often had so much control over how and where partying happened, down to responsibility for driving women back to their dorms, that they could coerce female partygoers into sex without guns, knives, or fists, researchers said. "This systematic and effective method of extracting non-consensual sex is largely invisible, which makes it difficult for victims to convince anyone—even themselves—that a crime occurred."

The houses that host parties where women believe they're more likely to be sexually assaulted tend to share several distinct characteristics, Lehigh University researchers found in a 1996 study published in Gender and Society. At "high-risk" fraternities—which researchers asked 40 female students at a small, academically competitive school to identify in a survey, and then observed for themselves—party attendees were heavily skewed toward one gender. The bathrooms were typically filthy. Women and men rarely talked one-on-one with each other, except when they appeared to be flirting. And it was rare to see groups of men and women together talking.

The scene was different at the low-risk fraternities. "Coed groups engaged in conversations at many of these houses ... giving the impression that they knew each other well," researchers wrote. "Respect for women extended to the women's bathrooms, which were clean and well supplied." As one student told researchers: Many of the men in these houses had girlfriends. Parties were usually fairly balanced between men and women.

That's not to suggest all fraternities with dirty bathrooms are high-risk sites for sexual assault. What both the Lehigh study and the Indiana study suggest is that sexual assaults on college campuses, far from being random, tend to be more likely to happen in certain environments—especially the male-controlled parties common to campuses with bustling Greek systems. "It’s a social organization that produces a lot of fun. It also predictably produces negative consequences, like sexual assault," says Elizabeth Armstrong, one of the researchers behind the Indiana study.

Colleges grappling with whether they should teach students to say yes to sex, or eliminate drinking, might want to consider the question of whether the main gatekeepers of a Friday night out should be exclusively members of one gender. Researchers have been doing so for nearly two decades.

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