Sexual assault is a gross act of violence which strips a victim of their right to autonomy over their body and sexual experiences. Sex and partying are at the centre of student life at college, especially in the United States. However, there is a large rape culture among fraternities. Over a 10-week academic term, between 11% to 28% of college women reported experiencing an unwanted sexual encounter, ranging from unwelcome sexual contact to rape. As sexual assault degrades victims, and strips them of the right to control their own bodies, it is important that the severity of this issue is realised, so that it can be dealt with legally and earn justice for those suffering from the repercussions of this act.
In February 1983, a student, “Laurel”, at the University of Pennsylvania was gang raped by multiple members of the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity. Laurel had consumed a mixture of beer and LSD before attending the party ATO was throwing. Partygoers later described Laurel as having behaved peculiarly; she was seen dancing off beat to her own rhythm and seemed disoriented and unaware of her surroundings. She was ignorant to the many men who danced with her throughout the party. As reported by numerous attendees and hearsay narratives, about half a dozen ATO brothers had sex with Laurel following the end of party. Another attendee, Anna, heard the young men boasting about the sexual encounter, and having noted Laurel’s behaviour the night before, presumed that the brothers had raped her. Anna believed that Laurel’s drug and alcohol induced condition made her powerless to give consent. In the ATO brother’s recollection of the events, they claimed that Laurel had lured them into the sexual encounter. The believed the event was an ‘interview’ for the “little sisters program” they ran in the house, and even proposed the name of “express”, due to the ongoing nature of the experience. These events would have destroyed Laurel’s dignity as the situation and her condition became known to more people. The drugs and alcohol Laurel had consumed stripped away her autonomy and allowed her to be taken advantage of by the ATO brothers.
This essay is divided into three main questions. Firstly, how does the control of college party culture by male fraternities create an environment in which sexual assault can occur? Secondly, how is consent established legally and how it can be blurred in the college party environment? And finally, what repercussions of sexual assault do victim-survivors experience? By focusing on college party and rape culture and the effects of sexual assault, the ways in which women are stripped of their autonomy and dignity will be highlighted.
Fraternities and College Party Culture: Creating an Environment for Sexual Assault
Fraternities and the male gender play a dominant role in the American College experience. In many universities, the fraternities are located along main walkways, or in areas of heavy student traffic, making them almost impossible to miss. This prime location has made it easy for the all-male fraternities to gain control over student life, leading to a party culture based on sex and sexual exploitation. As a result of their position in the social hierarchy, the sexual manner in which the ‘brothers’ act at parties can become important in shaping the expectations of male college students, and may influence their choice as to whether to join a fraternity. This behaviour incorporates lack of accepting responsibility for any sexual abuse that occurs at their parities or on college grounds, and shifting of blame onto the women who merely attend or participate to have fun. Fraternities advertise their parties with free entry for women, implying that they are provided with alcohol in exchange for sex.
The parties hosted by fraternities generally take place in a large living with dimmed lights, serving as a dance floor for the attendees. The low lighting and loud music make it very difficult for people to recognise who they may be talking to or dancing with, thus, providing the young men with an excuse to lead their ‘partner’ away for better hear and see each other. The ‘bar’ is the focus of the party, where attendees can be served with beer and punch mixed in extremely high ratios, aiding the fraternity brothers in finding a partner for the night. Many young men look to sleep with drunken women as they are less able to resist their advances, so often encourage female party goers to keep drinking.
The fraternity brothers, and other young men, spend their time “scoping” out a potential partner for the night. Common targets are blonde, curvaceous women, wearing heavy makeup and tight fitted, little clothing. The tight clothing acts as a ‘sneak peek’ into what the man may be able to enjoy if he chooses that girl. The choosing procedure takes place like so: he will decide on a woman who he deems worthy and willing. He will then “scope” her out by giving her a ‘look’ or “going on the prowl”. He will then make contact with her by dancing and talking, and if she still seems ‘interested’, he will then lead her away from the party in the hope of getting a ‘score’. This type of interaction highlights how one-night stands are a significant part of the sex culture at college. As such, none of the young fraternity brothers look for establishing relationships with the women they sleep with. In most cases at parties, the girl is expected to leave quickly, and the pair will only meet again if the boy chooses. The brothers often brag to each other about the conquests, and use derogatory terms, such as “bitches”, “swanks” and “wench”. This is extremely degrading to the woman’s image and purpose, as it suggests that they are made for sex and are ‘only good for one night’.
Female students have reported that in some fraternities, brothers leave the blinds open, or the door is left unlocked, so that other people can watch the two ‘in action’. Some fraternities even house an upper level balcony as some what of a ‘viewing area’ to the events taking place in the bedrooms. While easy to see into the rooms, from within it is difficult to see outside, and so most females do not know they are being watched. This is an invasion of the woman’s privacy as she has not given consent to anyone to watch, but the man she is participating in a sexual act with.
As more women at their specific college become aware of the party culture and the goings on within the fraternities, some fraternities will advertise parties to women at other campuses who have a ‘one-night stand’ reputation to achieve the goal of ‘getting laid’,. These women are depicted as ‘sleazy’, and ‘dress the part’ as someone looking for sex. ‘Sleazy’ is a term used to describe someone who displays a sexual attitude and looks “ready for action”. The fraternity brothers will describe these women ‘sluts’ and ‘fair game’. If she seems receptive to the male’s sexual advances, she “wants it” or is “asking for it”, and attends the party willingly, “because they want to fool around with frat men, and we’re glad to oblige.” The fact that these girls reside on different campuses provides the brothers with ‘easy’ sex with no emotional attachment, as there is little chance of running into each other after the ‘one-night stand’ takes place. Thus, these women’s dignity is reduced, as they are viewed as ‘easy sex’ to male students and lose control of their personal image.
Establishing Legal Consent, and the Factors That Blur It
A lack of consent to sexual intercourse from the victim is one of the main elements that constitutes sexual assault. In the college setting, many factors contribute to a victim being unable, or unwilling, to provide consent to a sexual partner; the two important factors discussed below being alcohol consumption and different interpretations of consent by each gender.
It has been found in a study that men are more likely to employ nonverbal methods to convey their consent to sexual activity, while women are more often verbal with their consent. The study also found that sexual encounters in the college environment often follow a conventional ‘sexual script’ where the male acts as the ‘initiator’ by asking for sexual intercourse, while the female acts as a ‘gatekeeper’ by reacting to the male’s requests. Sexual assault creates a stigma that when it comes to sexual intercourse and sexual activity, women do not have power or autonomy over their bodies or the situation altogether. This gives the impression that women are overpowered in sexual activity and merely follow along with the male’s desires. While this is true for sexual assaults, in consensual sexual activity, many women like to take charge of the act and express the autonomy they have over their own body.
Alcohol affects an individual’s cognitive functioning, thus, making it difficult for a person to interpret the environment surrounding them. When intoxicated, it is likely that a person will act differently to how they would sober, and potentially act in a more sexual manner. This sexual behaviour could lead a perpetrator to misinterpret the victim’s intentions, such that the perpetrator may think the victim is looking to engage in sexual activity, when they are actually just under the influence of alcohol, which is clouding their judgement and decision making. Conveying consent is difficult for intoxicated victim’s as alcohol also impedes an individual’s motor skills, therefore making it tougher for a victim to fight off advances from a perpetrator or to show resistance. Therefore, the impacts that alcohol has on an individuals mind and body, and the changes it can make to a person’s behaviour, it is easy for a perpetrator to mistake actions for consent, and difficult for the victim to fight off unwanted advances.
Most American states initially adopted the English common law requirement that to prove rape, there must be evidence of threat of force used on the victim. While multiple jurisdictions have removed this requirement, 16 states still expect evidence of force, 11 others require proof of force when dealing with sexual penetration offences, and nine states need either proof of force or proof of the victim’s inability to consent. The issue with needing to show force is that in situations where alcohol has been consumed, not much force is needed to overpower the victim. Therefore, it would be difficult to find a perpetrator guilty of sexual assault if evidence of force is needed for a conviction. When an offender is not found guilty, it can often lead people to believe the victim had lied about the situation, which would significantly diminish their image and they would feel a loss of dignity. Thus, much law reform is needed in the state which still require evidence of force so that there can be a higher level of sexual assault convictions and justice for victims.
Repercussions of Sexual Assault on Victim-Survivors
Being such a horrid act, sexual assault, has many negative repercussions for victim survivors. Drugs and alcohol play a significant role in many sexual assaults. When consumed before the assault, they are used as an excuse for the act, and when consumed after the assault, they are commonly used as a coping for survivors. Substances and alcohol strip their users of their autonomy in literal and metaphorical ways. When you are intoxicated or high on a substance, you literally lose control over your physical body, so you may not have the ability to remove yourself from harmful situations. In a more metaphorical sense, drugs and alcohol also impair your ability to think rationally and sensibly, thus you lose a sense of who you are. This characteristic of drug and alcohol use is why many victims may chose to abuse substances as a way to cope with their experiences, as it allows them to focus on the high the drugs provide and forget the events of the assault. The problem with sexual assault in college specifically, is that drugs and alcohol are easily available to students. As a result, victims could become stuck in a cycle where they continuously take drugs and use alcohol to relieve their pain and do not seek professional help to help with their trauma. Another result of their continuation with alcohol and drugs could be putting themselves at risk of another assault, as discussed above, they are becoming the type of girl a fraternity brother preys upon.
Notwithstanding the frequency of sexual assault occurring on college campuses, female students often do not report their experiences of rape and assault to college authorities or the police. Alternatively, they are more likely to confide their sexual assault experience with a trusted associate. However, in discussing with peers, both positive and negative “social reactions” can arise. “Negative social reactions” are the reactions from peers that; condemn the victim due to their behaviour, divert attention away from the issue, have such an extreme reaction that the victim is unable to focus on their personal needs, or try to influence the survivor’s choices. Negative social reactions often result in higher amounts of drinking to relieve the problem, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety for the victim. When a victim receives negative feedback when disclosing her experience, the victim may feel like her chosen support system is blaming her for the assault due to her behaviour. This is likely to make the victim feel like she has lost her dignity, as she is being told that the invasion of her sexual autonomy and privacy was a result of her own actions.
Victim PTSD is often associated with the level of physical violence in the assault. As alcohol makes a person more willing to accept invitations, there would usually be less physical violence in an alcohol-related sexual assault. Therefore, one could conclude that victims that had been intoxicated during the assault may experience less PTSD. However, as discussed above, alcohol-related assaults are often reacted to negatively, causing self-blame in the victim-survivor, and increase their level of PTSD associated with the assault.
A victim’s self-blame can be differentiated by two aspects: behavioural and characterological. Behavioural self-blame is limited to the actions of the victim only before and while the sexual assault was occurring, for example, drinking at the event where the assault happened. Behavioural self-blame is less severe to a victim’s recovery as they realise they can control their future actions and avoid become a victim for a second time. Alternatively, characterological self-blame is the beliefs of an individual’s character. These have much more of an impact on a survivor’s recovery as it suggests that a personality trait of the victim was the cause of the assault, or that the assault was warranted. For example, if an individual is an overly friendly person, she could be viewed as having “asked for it” and thus, her peers and assaulter(s) might pass the blame to her. Characterological self-blame targets a woman’s dignity and autonomy. As it is difficult to change your characteristics and personality traits, a victim might feel like she has no control over future situations and that her autonomy is lost to her, making it easier for her to become a victim again. Her image and dignity would also be somewhat tarnished as she is now viewed in a certain way. Thus, sexual assault has lasting effects on victim-survivors, who must deal with the tarnishing of their reputation and the loss of their personal autonomy during the events, along with a sense of helplessness they may continue to feel about their behaviour and actions during the assault.
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- Kristen N. Jozkowski and Jacquelyn D. Wiersma, ‘Does Drinking Alcohol Prior to Sexual Activity Influence College Students’ Consent?’ (2015) 27(2) International Journal of Sexual Health 156
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- Michele Cohen and KiKi Bochi, ‘College Horror Stories: Nation’s Campuses Struggling to Draw Line on Sexual Abuse’, SunSentinel South Florida (online at February 10 1985)
- Peggy R. Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus (New York University Press, 2nd edn, 2007)