Earlier this week, the Burlington Free Press broke the story about the circulation of a provocative online survey among members of Sigma Phi Epsilon — the largest fraternity at the University of Vermont — which included the question: "If I could rape someone, who would it be?"
On the questionnaire, fraternity members were asked to respond to questions ranging from the benign (“Who’s my favorite artist?”) to the debauched (“Where in public would I want to have sex?”) But it was “Personal Question #3” — the hypothetical rape question — that drove the university to put the fraternity on suspension.
The University of Vermont’s chapter is under investigation by Sigma Phi Epsilon's national office. Women’s and other human rights groups in the Burlington area circulated petitions, gathered for protests on campus, and have called on the university to terminate the fraternity once and for all.
This isn't the first time the men of University of Vermont’s Sigma Phi Epsilon aka “SigEp” – a fraternity founded on the principals of “Virtue, Diligence, and Brotherly Love” – have gotten themselves in trouble. A few years ago, SigEp’s national office temporarily revoked the school’s charter, stating that the house’s hazing rituals and other risky behaviors made the organization vulnerable to lawsuits.
Last fall, the house was placed on probation because of underage drinking. Potential new members have been have been asked to tell racist jokes and to describe, “What they would do with a stripper” in filmed interviews.
(What was that about “virtue”?)
In any other week, it might be easy to dismiss the story as repugnant, but hardly shocking. Don’t most Frat Boys engage in hazing and illegal alcohol consumption? Isn’t it even typical that they make the occasional racist or misogynistic joke? Behaving badly is eponymous to Greek culture on campus, right? What’s going to surprise us next? “Mathletes” wearing pocket protectors? Police officers hanging out at donut shops? Canadians playing hockey?
But, no, it’s impossible to ignore the significance of the most recent SigEp transgression in light of a very different survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the day after the Vermont story broke.
The CDC study found that nearly 1 in 5 American women have been raped.
ONE IN FIVE!
The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey is based on phone interviews with 16,507 people conducted last year and also found that 1 in 4 women have experienced violence from an intimate partner, and 1 in 6 women here have been stalked. (One in 71 men say they, too, have experienced rape.)
The CDC study is groundbreaking; it’s the first to examine not only the prevalence of rape and other sexual crimes in our country, but also to detail the lifelong adverse consequences of such violence.
Victims of sexual assault, rape, and stalking – in comparison to those who have not experienced such violations – live with an increased incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), headaches, chronic pain, sleeping difficulties, activity limitation, and compromised mental health.
(Gentlemen, rape is not a joke.)
Sadly, although the CDC findings come as a terrible shock to some of us, what they expose is that, like the rest of the world, the United States has an epidemic of gender-based violence.
We’ve read statistics for years about gender-based violence in other parts of the world. In South Africa, for instance, a woman has a better chance of being raped than of learning to read.
We may have even come across United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reports such as the one that details how almost all women in Azerbaijan (99 percent) have been physically abused.
And, sure, news stories on violence against Palestinian women in occupied territories grabs our attention from time to time, but often those people and those places can seem so…far away.
Sometimes we are tempted to think there are cultural norms we may not be privy to that help to explain sexual violence in other parts of the world. And when we think that way, our compassion becomes anemic, faltering.
So, what’s to be done now that we have hard evidence to demonstrate that those vociferous women’s studies professors weren’t overreacting after all when they coined the phrase “rape culture” to describe our society’s toleration of violence against women?
Should we make an example of University of Vermont’s SigEp chapter?
Ban all fraternities on college campuses?
Do we paint men as violent aggressors who victimize women?
Or do we wish we didn’t know and just go back to shrugging our shoulders, fatigued as we are with our too often damaged culture?
Is our society just “going to hell in a hand basket,” or can we work to affect change?
Indeed, in light of news related to both the SigEp and the CDC surveys this week, there are things we can do to.
We can work to:
The CDC study revealed that youth itself is a risk factor for sexual violence.
Among the men who had been victims of rape, most often were first victimized when they were younger than eleven years old. The recent sex scandal at Penn State tragically illustrates this kind of abuse of boys.
Among female rape victims, only 12 percent were assaulted when they were 10 years old or younger, but almost half reported having been raped before they turned 18.
To protect children, parents can:
- Know our children and listen to them. We can be aware of common signs that children exhibit after they have suffered abuse, such as radical behavioral changes or a child just acting in ways that seem “out of character.”
- Repeat the message to our children that we are always available to talk, even about difficult or uncomfortable matters. We can let them know that part of our jobs as parents is to protect them from harm and that it is our joy and responsibility to do so.
- Teach children about appropriate touch. We shouldn’t force our children to hug and kiss our friends. A good general rule is to let children know that no one should touch them on parts of their bodies that a swimming suit would cover.
- Speak up and expose any kind of abuse we witness, no matter what the personal cost might be.
Remember Jesus’ tender care of children when he embraced them, welcomed them, and said that his kingdom belonged to them.
TREAT OTHERS WITH RESPECT AND COMPASSION
If you read the history of Sigma Phi Epsilon, you’ll find that Carter Ashton Jenkens, the son of a Baptist minister, founded the fraternity in 1901. Jenkens had a spiritual mission for the group and tried to follow Jesus’ words to love God and love his neighbors.
But we don’t love a person when we objectify them — either as a sexual commodity or as an evil predator.
Perhaps the young men on campus in Burlington can explore those foundational values Jenkens chose so many years ago and ask themselves how they can explore virtue, diligence, and brotherly love in new ways.
KEEP GENDER ON THE AGENDA
A report from the Irish Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence states, “Gender based violence needs to remain high on the political and development agenda at all times including during periods of economic hardship.”
Maybe as Americans realize that we suffer from an epidemic of sexual violence, just as our brothers and sisters in resource-poor parts of the world do, we will seek to uplift others by supporting human rights organizations that promote equity and justice for all people.
The Irish consortium recommends that the international community “continue to highlight gender-based violence in international fora as a fundamental human rights violation.”
It’s painful to educate ourselves about the sex trafficking and other gender-based violence that exists in our country and our world, but as we seek to serve Christ in those who are abused and enslaved, we must make the uncomfortable choice to do so.
We must choose to read books such asGod in a Brothel and to tell the truth about the relationship between sexual violence and pornography and prostitution. A study conducted in Boston earlier this year, for instance, showed that men who buy sex, in the form of purchasing prostitutes or pornography, were far more likely than “non-buyers” to commit violent crimes, such as rape, against women.
Remember that God has always asked people of strength to come to the assistance of those who are oppressed.
Jennifer Grantis a journalist, poet, mother of four and author of the new memoir, Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughterand the forthcoming MOMumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family. Visit Jen online at jennifergrant.com or follow her on Twitter @JenniferCGrant.