by James A. Bacon
Suspending the social activities of University of Virginia’s sororities and fraternities is a violation of student rights, said the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) earlier this week in a statement to the Washington Post. The suspension, put into place by UVa President Teresa Sullivan in response to now-discredited allegations of a gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi, is scheduled to last until January 9.
While stressing the organization’s commitment to combat sexual assault and improve campus safety for women, NPC protested the indiscriminate nature of the shut-down: “The sanctions imposed on the sorority and fraternity system, particularly at U-Va., have punished all members with no cited wrongdoing and their rights have been violated.”
Admittedly, the ban is largely symbolic. Greek-system organizations hold few social functions during exams and the Christmas holidays. But the symbolism is important. It’s a sign that the UVa administration holds sororities and fraternities collectively accountable for a presumed epidemic of sexual assault. The administration is effectively saying that the Greek system, as opposed to specific fraternities, is responsible in whole or in part for the problem.
The university’s persistence in sanctioning sororities and fraternities is all the more remarkable given the fact that the Rolling Stone gang rape story that ignited the controversy has been thoroughly discredited. While it remains possible that the young woman, “Jackie,” who told the story may have experienced some kind of traumatic event, there is almost no way at this point of knowing what happened, where it took place or who was responsible. The evidence suggests that Phi Kappa Psi, where the gang rape allegedly occurred, was not involved at all.
There is a generalized upwelling of angst and concern at UVa about unhappy sexual encounters, some of which may legitimately be called “rape” but some of which may not. Many women have told stories of being coerced into sex, usually in the context of binge drinking and hook-ups. Undoubtedly there is a very real problem that needs to be addressed — women should not be coerced into having sex under any circumstances, period, end of story — but there is much that we don’t know. We don’t know how many of these incidents occurred while both participants were drunk, and we don’t know whether consent was given or implied, and we don’t know how many episodes constitute “regret sex” — women waking up in the morning and going, ewwww, I did what? or waking up in the morning and being shabbily treated by the man she’d just slept with.
We don’t know how many of these incidents took place in fraternities, as opposed to sororities, dormitories or off-campus housing. We don’t know how many incidents involved physical coercion by males or how many involved social coercion — women engaging in sexual activity solely to avoid ridicule by their peers. I don’t know the answers to those questions, and neither does anybody else.
But who needs facts? At UVa, anti-rape activists are imposing an ideological template that conflates every form of sexual transgression — from pinching fannies to stalking, raping and murdering someone — as “sexual assault.” We also have a prevalent mindset, that extends into the faculty and administration, that views issues through the prism of gender, race and class and is primed to blame “white male privilege” for every evil under the sun.
Perhaps an unbiased investigation will show that some UVa fraternities are dens of orgiastic depravity. Anything’s possible. Even so, we must hew to the fundamental American principle that we don’t punish the collective for the sins of an individual. Insofar as sexual assaults occur at particular fraternity houses and it can be demonstrated that the fraternities knowingly created an atmosphere of permissiveness that allowed the assaults to occur, the University is arguably within its rights to shut them down. But the idea of punishing innocent fraternities for the sins of the guilty ones is reprehensible. The idea of punishing sororities is beyond reprehensible, it’s ludicrous. Has there been a single documented incident of rape at a sorority house?
A century ago, white segregationists dealt with rape — especially if a black man allegedly raped a white woman — by stringing up a rope and hanging the guy on the spot. Who needs facts? Who needs a court of law? Thankfully, no one is being lynched in the literal sense anymore. But we still have mob rule energized by emotion and prejudice. University administrators need to to address the problem of sexual assault within their community, but it should not be part of the mob.