If you read this blog regularly, or at all, I think you may also already have heard of the “Rape Survey” story at the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity Chapter on UVM’s (University of Vermont) campus in Burlington, Vermont. In case you haven’t, here’s a rundown of what’s going on: last weekend, a student went to university campus life administrators with information about a survey that originated in and was circulating through the frat house - one of the questions on the survey blankly asked “If you could rape someone, who would it be?”. University administrators subsequently notified Sigma Phi Epsilon’s national representatives (the fraternity has 240 chapters nationwide) and campus police, suspended the UVM campus chapter and launched an investigation into the origins of the survey and whether or not it is linked with any criminal acts on campus.
It’s rare that such an explicit symptom of deeply embedded rape culture surfaces in such a public way, but I have to say that I’m not surprised that this happened, especially on a college campus and behind the walls of a fraternity. Due to the newness of this investigation, it’s difficult to determine the context of the specific question - whether it was asked with specific, criminal intent or in the spirit of the “rape is funny” attitude that permeates everyday exchanges, sitcom banter, and woefully ignorant/insensitive/cheap/unfunny online humor forums. Either way, consider the facts: this “rape survey” was created by young people during a time in which:
- one in five women at college will be sexually assaulted;
- a victim-blaming lens continues to frame dominant discourse on sexual violence in the media - take, for instance, the Pennsylvania Control Liquor Board’s newest ad targeting teen drinking (TRIGGER WARNING);
- the language used to describe sexual violence and survivors across media frequently omits the use of the word “rape” or “assault” and is often confounded with language used to described consensual sexual encounters;
- law enforcement officials feel it’s excusable to neglect to investigate over 400 cases of alleged sexual assault to focus on enforcing other laws; and
- college students riot when a beloved football coach is fired for his role in not preventing child rape.
This list could go on for miles, of course. The point is, this specific incident is but one highly visible tree on a broader cultural landscape that tolerates, and even encourages, the act of rape.
With all of that being said - and hear me now, rape culture is still alive and thriving - I am surprised by the gravity of the consequences for the Sigma Phi men thus far, and how this deplorable act is being handled by university administrators, law enforcement, and the national headquarters for the fraternity. We’ve all heard about the tepid, inadequate responses college administrators have had to allegations of sexual assault on their campuses in the past. So, the fact that the UVM Sigma Phi Epsilon members have been indefinitely suspended by UVM administrators and subjected to investigations of the university, campus police and the fraternity’s headquarters is, to me, an important first step and one that defies my conditioned expectations of how these institutions normally deal with rape culture on campus. Additionally, it’s important to note that a student felt empowered to come forward with this information to college administrators, and that this survey, in and of itself, was deemed enough of a threat to campus life and security to require redress. Beyond the UVM campus, this story has also quickly generated a firestorm of media coverage and pushback, echoing across national headlines and prompting a number of responses from UVM professors, students and even a petition created by “Feminists at UVM” to shut down the UVM Chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon.
I’m sort of in awe of how much attention this survey has generated I can’t help but feel like the visibility of anti-rape activism and dialogue throughout 2011, from the NPR investigation of rape on college campuses that spurred a response from the Obama administration, to conversations for and against SlutWalk, drew enough attention to assault on college campuses to at least keep these UVM administrators vigilant and ready to act quickly. I think that suspending these fraternity members and launching an investigation about the origins and intent of the survey is a crucial first step in addressing such a heinous symptom of deeply embedded rape culture within fraternities, and on college campuses more generally. However, it’s definitely not a 100% “win” for the anti-rape movement, and I’d argue that all the collective steps that it took for the rape survey backlash to get to this point - the courage of a student to come forward, how this information was received by UVM administrators, the proportionate media coverage it’s generated, and the fervor with which the investigation is being carried out - would not be possible without consistent, vigilant, mindful advocacy, activism, and pushback. This is why it’s critical to continue to demand accountability - not only when someone is raped or assaulted, but when there are elements of rape culture staring us squarely in the eye.
Written by: Tierney, Development Associate