Jeanne always felt comfortable with her "number." But it wasn't until she started telling people how many men she'd slept with that she began to feel self-conscious about her sexuality.
"I've had guys say, 'Are you kidding? I don't want to be involved with you anymore,' or, 'That's disgusting. How could you?' or, 'That number is ridiculously high; I've never heard of a girl sleeping with that many people,'" Jeanne said. "When I reversed that conversation, it didn't matter how many girls that man had slept with, so there's this ridiculous double standard that I've personally felt."
I first met Jeanne at a friend's birthday party during my freshman year at Wesleyan University, and we quickly became close friends. As an upperclassman, she seemed to be everywhere on campus, widely known and respected for her contributions to the Wesleyan community. She was a captain of the volleyball team and worked as a tour guide in the admissions office, all while maintaining a high GPA. But what was most important to Jeanne was her work as a peer health advocate, developing innovative health education programs for the Wesleyan community. I looked up to Jeanne for all that she achieved in her four years on campus and everything she gave back to the school through her thoughtfulness and work ethic.
But I hadn't realized what lay beneath the surface. As Jeanne, now a recent graduate, spoke candidly to me about her social life and the sexism she'd faced on campus, my mind turned to a vivid memory from my time as a fraternity brother. I was sitting in a basement room of Wesleyan’s student life center looking at a white board. On it was a "hookup family tree," showing how each of us was connected with other brothers through common flings or relationships. I can still see that diagram, the connections, in my mind's eye. This was bonding. Jeanne's full name does not appear in this article (out of respect for her privacy), but I still see the names of those women on that white board, and I cannot help but feel ashamed that I was in that room.
College Row at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Image Credit: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons
I wasn't planning on joining a fraternity when I arrived at Wesleyan in the fall of 2011. In fact, I chose to attend Wesleyan in spite of its small but active Greek culture; the presence of fraternities and sororities was not a prerequisite for my college experience. Yet after my freshman year, I realized I didn't have a close-knit group of male friends that so dominated my high school experience, and I missed that part of my new life in college.
After a bit of polite pestering from some of the guys who lived down the hall, I decided to attend an information session for a new fraternity on campus. These young men sold me on their maturity and their vision of creating an organization hoping to redefine how fraternities function and are perceived on campus. This vision resonated with me, and I quickly took on a leadership role within the organization. I was instantly welcomed into a group of guys I respected and admired. These were guys who, like me, had much to say about anything from fantasy football to last week's Game of Thrones. But they also cared deeply about their contribution to the Wesleyan community. Our fraternity was only established in the past few years, and despite our early struggles to gain legitimacy in the eyes of our peers and make an impact on campus life, I believed in this organization and my brothers.
But as we became more established, the fraternity seemed to lose sight of its early goals that had prompted me to join. Initially, I didn't see any tension between my involvement in a fraternity and my belief that men and women should be treated equally. Before I came to campus, I never explicitly considered myself a feminist because I simply didn't see gender issues as my problem: I tried to live the best I could, and to treat every person with respect and dignity, regardless of their gender. But I realize now that the minute I pledged myself to a band of brothers, I became a silent participant in the systematic denigration of women. When I spoke to Jeanne, one of my oldest and closest college friends, I caught a glimpse into the other side of the conversation for the first time, the one I'd been neglecting.
My conversation with Jeanne was not the reason why I left my fraternity. Rather, it marked the beginning of my recognition of my own culpability, the first step on my journey to become a better educated and vocal advocate for gender issues on campus. When I explained this to the leadership in my fraternity, they were both understanding and supportive. I urged them to return to their initial pledge to deviate from the norms of Greek life that predominate so many colleges and universities across the country. I joined my fraternity because of the people and their message. And I left my fraternity for people too. I left for those who were being excluded and the consequences that separation had across campus.
Jeanne's experiences are not unique, and they're considered by many to be old news. But today's advocates for gender equality call this experience by name: slut-shaming. She is but one of many women subjected to the cruelty of slut-shaming on a daily basis. Slut-shaming in all its forms is dangerous to gender equity because language is so entrenched in our cultural mores, and it reinforces a climate of fear and hostility that can give rise to forms of physical violence.
Even at Wesleyan, a prestigious university built on a history of political activism and civic engagement, students are susceptible to their own "socially acceptable" version of slut-shaming. Nearly 53% of students have admitted to being called a "slut," "whore" or some equivalent at some point in their lives, while 12% were uncertain if such language was ever directed at them. Words like "slut" and "whore" are being replaced by seemingly innocuous, culturally relevant terms like "biddy" and "ratchet."
"I think that irony is one of the greatest concealers of all kinds of isms ... because if you're being ironic, it sort of shows that you're in on it, and I think that's one of the most pernicious things about some of the ways I've heard women get talked about," says Sarah Mahurin, a Wesleyan professor who addressed this topic in a controversial Wesleyan Thinks Big talk.
While casually and even "ironically" sexist language might be specific to Wesleyan and liberal arts institutions, the most overt examples of misogyny and harassment are commonplace in fraternities across the country. An email chain leaked from USC called on brothers of Kappa Sigma to compile vulgar hook-up stories into a single report for the purpose of "know[ing] who fucks and who doesn't." This particular email chain is not an isolated incident. This past May, several emails sent by Snapchat founder and CEO Evan Spiegel during his time at Stanford were leaked to the public; they're not pretty. In April, the Phi Kappa Tau chapter at Georgia Tech was disbanded due to a second issue of leaked misconduct in as many years. One year after an email detailing how to hook up with girls was leaked to the public, the fraternity was finally disbanded.
This repulsive behavior can be (and often is) downplayed as harmless college hijinks that we have come to tolerate as part of a very specific collegiate culture in America. And despite its progressiveness, Wesleyan too is culpable for ignoring problematic language that permeates its fraternities and the broader campus community. The consequence of overlooking this language is inadvertently accepting it. Refusing to call out this language enables more violent actions in turn. "Rape and assault exist on one end of the spectrum of sexual violence, but on the other end is language that encourages [violent] behavior," according to Tanya Purdy, director of WesWell, Wesleyan's health education department.
The statistics on sexual violence on college campuses are sobering. One in 5 women who attend college will experience some form of sexual assault before they graduate, according to the College Sexual Assault Study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Despite this number, colleges and universities consistently underreport sexual assaults. More than 95% of sexual assaults that occur on campus go unreported, according to the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Many students are afraid to report their assault, fearing that they won't be believed or feeling responsible for what has happened to them. There were 24 reports of sexual assault on Wesleyan's campus between 2010 and 2012, according to Wesleyan's annual report as compiled by the Office of Public Safety.
Wesleyan has its own shameful history with sexual assault. On Halloween weekend of 2010, a Wesleyan freshman from Maryland (whose identity remains anonymous and is known through court documentation as Jane Doe) attended a party at Beta Theta Pi, a residential fraternity unrecognized by Wesleyan at the time. Jane Doe, who alleged she was raped by a high school lacrosse friend of one of the brothers of Beta, filed a lawsuit for $10 million in 2012, naming both the fraternity and Wesleyan as defendants and alleging that the university violated the federal gender equity law Title IX. The friend was sentenced to 15 months in prison, and in September 2013 both Wesleyan and Beta Theta Pi settled their lawsuit with Jane Doe, according to court documents. The incident was chronicled by Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan in her lengthy critique of the "dark power of fraternities" on college campuses.
This was the environment into which I matriculated. Perhaps I was busy adjusting to the changes that come with college, but the goings-on of the incident at Beta didn't seem to be at the center of campus conversation, despite the fact that Beta had been branded with the label of being a "rape factory" by the media. But in May 2013, a freshman at Wesleyan reported being sexually assaulted in front of fellow classmates at a pledge "strip show" at Psi Upsilon's house. In March, the student leveled a lawsuit against the XI Chapter of Psi Upsilon, 11 of its members and the assailant, who was promptly expelled from the university upon conducting its own disciplinary hearings. No criminal charges have been brought against the former student, and the investigation is ongoing. The fraternity was allegedly negligent by failing to provide security for the event, while the defendants allegedly failed to educate themselves on issues of safety and risk management.
Wesleyan President Michael Roth sent an email to the university community responding to the suit against Psi Upsilon, vowing discussion of this and other issues of gender inequality on campus. But real change cannot begin at the highest level, according to administrators on campus. "I don't know if there's a specific role for the administration beyond trying to facilitate dialogue on campus about this or any other sexist-based issues including sexual violence,” says Vice President for Student Affairs Mike Whaley. "I think it would have to start as a groundswell within the student community and … self-governance about language and behaviors," says Mahurin.
The 182nd Commencement Ceremony on Andrus Field at Wesleyan University. Image Credit: Rick Ciaburri/Wesleyan University
That groundswell is here. This past year, the Wesleyan community has been vocally debating the role that fraternity houses can and can't play at the 21st-century American university. I overheard students talking about the issue over lunch in the cafeteria and on the phone with parents walking to class. It seeped into classroom debates, no matter the subject matter the class was meant to cover.
Over the last few months, Wesleyan’s Student Assembly (WSA) hosted a series of open forums on Greek life's role in sexual violence on campus, eventually passing a resolution to co-educate all fraternities, beginning with the pledge classes of the spring of 2015. "While the fraternities have made it clear that they wish to be part of the solution, it's also clear that many students see fraternity houses as spaces where women enter with a different status than in any other building on campus, sometimes with terrible consequences," wrote Roth on his blog.
Wesleyan's fraternities are responding, albeit slowly. At the first WSA-hosted general assembly meeting, TJ Blackburn, a member of the Inter-Greek Council (IGC), stated that the IGC was "looking into policies to open up our spaces to make them safer and changing practices to make people feel more safe and enjoyable in these spaces." Gabriel Walt, a member of Chi Psi, argued that "more needs to be done in regards to sexual assault on campus and educating students on the issue." Blackburn later stated that the IGC voted to implement educational programs for all incoming pledges with the hope of reducing sexual assault in their houses starting in the fall of 2014. At the third general assembly meeting, WSA representative and Beta brother Scott Elias had a statement read on his behalf: "If Greek houses are to survive, we need to facilitate more forums and have an important dialogue as a community. This conversation must recognize that these parties occur at all spaces regardless of gender. Eradicating frat houses is not the solution."
This was the beginning of the end for me. Before my talk with Jeanne, I'd only recently begun to consider my complicity as a fraternity brother in the greater context of sexual violence in the American higher education system and how its corresponding language is deployed on college campuses across the country. Every time I sit silently when a brother describes his sexual encounter from the previous night, every time I laugh at a sexist joke a brother makes, I am participating in the preservation of an inequality ingrained in the DNA of these gender-specific institutions. And yet it took me the better part of three years and a spate of horrific incidents on campus to wise up to what was going on all around me.
As many on campus demanded immediate action from the administration to resolve the fraternity issue, I tried to separate myself from my own Greek affiliation. I started skipping my weekly fraternity meetings. I would receive email updates from brothers on the progress the Inter-Greek Council was making in its strategy to remain operational as single-sex institutions on campus. When I'd receive these emails, I'd hope for their progress to be stymied. The co-education of fraternity houses wouldn't affect my own organization (because we didn't have a house), but I already understood that this semester would be my last with the fraternity. I couldn't reconcile the brotherhood I'd developed with the crisis of sexual assault that was entrenched at Wesleyan and other universities across America. When I'd made my decision to leave my fraternity, I returned to meetings and waited for the proper moment to inform several founding members of my decision. That was that: I was a brother no longer.
Even if instances of physical sexual assault diminish, the presence of fraternities is seen as a threat to a safe campus, a vestige of misogyny and sexism from a bygone era. That misogyny and sexism could be as subtle as members of Beta sitting on their roof and observing pedestrians on the sidewalk. "Even though they don't scare me individually, there's something about [the group of Beta brothers] sitting on the roof, drinking, looking down at you, that's intimidating," says Julia Reed, a rising senior at Wesleyan. "[They] whistle and holler, and you never know if they're talking to you or talking about you. I just think it's kind of gross. And sometimes I'll walk home a different way to avoid that house."
It's unlikely that fraternities will disappear from American higher education. But one of the most effective ways that Wesleyan is working to ensure the safety of its students is through programs like those Jeanne developed during her time on campus, like a bystander intervention campaign designed to train students to act in situations where alcohol is misused or sexual violence occurs. The goal is to turn students into watchdogs, ready to intervene in potentially dangerous situations. It aims to turn people like me into advocates in order to change others' behavior. And with more advocates, the discussion on campus begins to change. I started attending bystander intervention programs in the final weeks before the summer break, and it was there that I learned more about other forms of slut-shaming and sexual violence prevalent all over campus and throughout our American society.
I struggle with my own deficiencies every day. I'm afraid to refer to myself as a feminist when I'm hanging out with my friends and former fraternity brothers out of the fear that somehow my outspokenness makes me less of a "man" in the eyes of my brothers and society at large. I feel courageous enough to express my feelings in my writing, but it's everyday moments among friends that silence me. And I'm frustrated that my courage disappears when I'm with the guys. Because nobody wants to hang out with the preacher. They want to drink beer and let loose and be themselves without worrying about attracting the ire of someone they once thought of as a friend. "Did you see her? In the tight jeans. What I would do if …"
I'm as susceptible as anyone to being drawn into conversations that undermine the choices of women. But I want to change. And while our culture wraps its head around how to reckon with the issue of slut-shaming, any groundswell movement starts with the first few words. So call me whatever you want — I'm a man, and I'm a feminist. And for me, this is just the beginning.