Caitlin Flanagan is a National Magazine Award winner and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, where she recently completed a deep investigation of fraternity culture. She is also bestselling author of Girl Land and To Hell With All That.
Almost every aspect of college life has changed dramatically for young women since I was a student over thirty years ago. The subjects they study, the sports they play, the careers and lives they envision for themselves – all have undergone a sea change, and the underlying theme is this: equality. But one element of the experience remains shockingly unchanged: today’s young women are still told, as my friends and I were told a generation ago, to be wary of fraternities because they are places where sexual assaults happen.
These enduring warnings about fraternity rape are dire, and they prompt an important question: are they rooted in reality? Are fraternities actually more dangerous for young women than other campus locations? The truth is impossible to discover. The Clery Act requires schools to report only whether a crime took place on or off campus, not its exact location. Colleges routinely impose sanctions on fraternity chapters in which a sexual assault has taken place, but very few institutions then make public the reason those sanctions were levied, so the process rarely provides students with useful information.
Clearly, some fraternity houses are much better than others; many, in fact, are filled with young men who don’t need anyone to teach them about “bystander intervention.” But just as obviously, there are houses where assaults happens over and over again, where the culture is ingrained, and where like calls out to like during rush, so that a thuggish membership replicates itself year after year.
What can young women rely on when making decisions about which fraternities to visit and which to avoid? And how can we – as bystanders, weighing an intervention strategy of our own – ever hope to know the true scale of fraternity-related assaults? Unfortunately, the new guidelines from Washington won’t help; they provide no mechanism for revealing to students the locations of assaults, so vitally important information continues to remain secret from those who need it most.
We do know this: of the many thousands of insurance claims that are made against fraternities each year, those for sexual assault are the second most common, so predictable, in fact, that the related expenses are built into annual budgets. This fact alone suggests young women would be well-served – as, perhaps, would the Greek letter organizations themselves, if they are somehow victims of a bad rap, as they repeatedly claim – by greater campus transparency on the issue of fraternity rape.
(You can read more opinions in TIME’s special report: Ending Campus Sexual Assault)