© 2022 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How much will it take to change fraternity culture?

flickr user Arvind Grover


It’s a Saturday night, and I’m standing just across from the UC Berkeley campus on Piedmont Avenue, Berkeley’s fraternity row. Young women like TrixieScolari and Tara Harmon wander past: The two are deciding whether or not to go to a fraternity party that evening. I ask them if they feel safe when they go to these parties.

“I do!” says Scolari. “It’s your attitude...I go in and we’re really careful.”

Harmon says, “In general, I think we’re both pretty smart. And if we are drinking, we’re watching our drinks, and not drinking too much.”

Scolari says she’s met a lot of nice people at frat parties, and she’s not concerned about the individuals. Her worries are about the institution: “They do occasionally foster environments that are unsafe, for women especially,” Harmon says.

Here in the Bay Area, fraternities based at UC Berkeley have had their share of problems. According to the University of California Police Department, the majority of reported sexual assaults on campus since October of last year occurred at fraternity houses. At one of them, five people were allegedly drugged and assaulted -- all in the same weekend.

UC Berkeley has been under federal investigation in the past year, and it’s been working to address sexual assault issues with new mandatory workshops for students. Now, many of the school’s fraternities say they’re doing the same.

The problem

Of the half dozen or so women I talked to that night, few agreed to talk on the record. But I wanted to uncover more behind what Scolari said: about her impression that frats, and the parties they host, are unsafe for women.

Sophomore Tatiana Gospe thinks that at fraternity parties, “there’s pretty much only one goal, which is for the guys to hook up with the girls.”

“That’s why there’s no couches really to sit on, and there’s like loud music … The environment’s not meant for conversations. It’s meant for hooking up,” says Gospe.

Gospe’s friend Anna Mai says frat parties don’t exactly have the greatest reputation on campus: “People don’t know them for doing their national philanthropy or something,” Mai says.

Gospe thinks when women go to frat parties, they have to be responsible for their own welfare: “If you put yourself in that position, I’m not saying it’s right -- but you have to be smart about it too.”

Before now, rape prevention centered around Take Back The Night events, where women united against fear and violence -- but it was clearly on the women to protect themselves and prevent rapes.

Now, a new way of talking about sexual violence is emerging. Women shouldn’t have to “take back the night”  -- and it isn’t just women who are being assaulted.

The new logic goes like this: Perpetrators should be taught not to perpetrate. I asked Gospe if that new way of thinking -- that it’s not on women to prevent rape -- was evident on campus. “It’s not realistic at a frat party so much,” she said.

Some other women on campus say the same thing, that they feel they have to be careful at fraternities.

“They host parties, they put a lot of effort into decorating it, they buy lots of alcohol, and so they kind of expect something in return for that,” says student Sonja Hutson. She thinks that attitude “combined with not understanding what consent is -- leads to sexual assault a lot of times.”

A proposed solution

James Stewart is a junior at Cal, and the president of the Interfraternity Council, or IFC, at UC Berkeley. That means he’s in charge of leading 32 fraternities on campus -- it doesn’t account for all of those on campus, but covers the majority, about 1300 young men. Stewart says fraternities are very aware of the reputation that precedes them, exacerbated by the fact that “people think of the fraternity as this monolithic entity.”

At the end of last year, Stewart wrote an op-ed to the campus paper, The Daily Californian, announcing major changes to the IFC.

Those changes include mandatory education on consent and active bystander training for all IFC fraternities, each semester. The IFC also created a new executive position on the council: the vice president of health and wellness, in charge of programming opportunities to encourage more dialogue on the subject.

So, do these new programs mean frats have something to prove?

“Absolutely,” says Stewart. “And I think anybody you’ve talked to who’s done any work on the subject would acknowledge that forthright. We realize that, you know, the Greek system has issues.”

But what, exactly, are those issues?

Stewart says it’s impossible to drill down on what exactly the issue is.

“With a lot of reports coming out, some people are saying, it’s the Greek system and some are some people are saying it’s a national issue!” he says. “I don’t think it’s really my place to judge where this issue comes from, I think it’s really just handling the practical consequences of this issue in our community.”

It is a national issue, and one that’s impossible to ignore. But whether rape or sexual assault on campus is a product of Greek culture, or just culture in general, Stewart isn’t completely clear. Still, he says, he’s trying to change more than policy on campus -- he’s trying to change the conversation. And, he says, fraternities are the best place to start that shift.

“If we are successful in starting a conversation about consent, about these issues,” he says, “then that’s something that’s talked about at lunch, when you’re studying, while you’re at class, while you’re walking to class, while you’re living together.”

Is it still the status quo?

Ariana Naaseh is president of the Panhellenic Council of sororities on campus, which also implemented mandatory trainings for sorority sisters. She says even these new trainings aren’t enough, and they don’t change the old paradigm -- that women are asked, far more than men, to prevent rape.

“You can teach people about how not to litter,” says ArianaNaaseh, president of the Panhellenic Council. “Does that mean that they're not going to litter? I don't know.”

In the sororities, women are still taught to watch what they drink, to remain in control. “To us, it's pretty sad too, that we have to be like, ‘You have to constantly be watching yourself because somebody could do something to you at any given point.’”

And that’s not ideal. But Naaseh says for now, it’s practical. “Unfortunately we can't really figure out a better solution than being like, ‘Really, at this point, you are the biggest proponent of yourself.’”

But being your own biggest proponent isn’t always enough to protect you. Meghan Warner was assaulted her freshman year at a fraternity party -- now, she’s a junior and the co-chair of Greeks Against Sexual Assault.

Warner’s helped organize trainings and curriculum for workshops in both the IFC and Panhellenic Council. She thinks the system needs to take the issue more seriously.

She tells me of one chapter on this campus that “gives their fraternity men little mini shoutouts or awards at every meeting if they’ve hooked up with someone,” something she says a member of that fraternity told her.

“I don’t think they fully understand the implications of their actions,” says Warner.

James Stewart said he doesn’t think this story is true, though he has no way of verifying. He told me if they were, those fraternities would be severely punished.

Looking forward

For Warner, the biggest problem she sees is that many frats tend to look outward, rather than in. She says many fraternity members recognize that sexual assault is a larger societal problem, but they don’t see how they specifically contribute to it.

Warner, understandably, no longer goes to fraternity parties. But when asked, she says, she doesn’t know if she blames her own assault on fraternity culture. Warner says she'll never know if her assault was a direct result of attending a frat party.

“I can’t know. I have no way of knowing. I can’t predict what could’ve happened,” she says. “Lots of things could’ve happened differently.”

“But what I can say is that other members of the fraternity saw what was going on and didn’t intervene and didn’t do anything.”

And that is why there is this new emphasis on educating fraternity chapters to say something, to intervene, to learn about consent.

As of now, 15 of the 32 IFC chapters have finished their trainings. After all of them are completed, the next question for the fraternities will be: Did any of this make a difference?