Opinion: Ole Miss must address Greek life sexual assaults

Posted on Nov 16 2017 - 7:57am by Daniel Payne

Florida State University indefinitely suspended all Greek activities after a student died in a hazing incident in his fraternity earlier this month. A similar alcohol-related death at a Penn State fraternity earlier this year resulted in sweeping reforms throughout its Greek programs, with strict new rules about their behavior and operation.

Yet, on this campus, the problems of the Greek system are considered normal — expected, even. We have become numb to it. Though not cited in Florida State’s suspension or Penn State’s reforms, sexual assault is chief among these problems, but it’s discussed even less.

The acceptance of the status quo is not a response to an unprecedented reduction of sexual assaults. On the contrary, Ole Miss has experienced a sharp increase in sexual assaults since 2013.

Sexual assault is a problem across campus, but not uniformly — men make up the vast majority of perpetrators.

Fraternity brothers, particularly, are three times more likely to sexually assault someone than college men not in fraternities are. Experts link the increase to male-dominated cultures that objectify women to achieve goals, as found in many fraternities.

Ole Miss fraternities are no exception.

“No, fraternities aren’t safe,” Gita Viswanathan, who frequently attends fraternity parties, said. “I think they take stopping sexual assault seriously, but not seriously enough.

“I was at a party with my friend when a guy was trying to get on her. We went to the bathroom to get away from him, but he stood outside the door and waited. There was no one around to help out,” she said.

The university does have policies about events hosted by registered student organizations, such as fraternity parties, but it lacks policies meant to prevent sexual assaults.

The requirements for an event restrict alcohol and require the organization to provide “adequate security personnel as recommended by the UPD” and sober observers from within its organization, but none of these specifically address the risk of sexual assault. The burden falls on fraternities to make their own rules to protect guests, even though they are more likely to sexually assault than any other group at the university.

This system of self-governance isn’t working. The university needs to act.

It is deeply troubling that a death at Florida State resulted in the suspension of more than 50 Greek life programs, while Ole Miss seems to think the system described above needs no reform.

My emails asking the Violence Prevention Office about measures to prevent more sexual assaults in the future and general statistics about sexual violence on campus were left unanswered. Ole Miss websites indicate that victim support is the primary focus of its programs to stop assault.

Victim support, while vital, isn’t enough.

Individual responsibility to be an active bystander has also been an important part of preventing sexual assault on campus through educational materials, but far more can be done.

A CDC guide to preventing sexual assault on campus outlines four levels of education to change the culture of a campus. Individual responsibility is only one of the four levels.

The second is relationship responsibilities, in which individual associations dedicate time to educate and encourage one another to end sexual assault. Some fraternities have alumni speak on the problems and solutions surrounding sexual assault every semester. There is no reason for this not to be a requirement of every fraternity at the university.

The third level of prevention is community, in which campus leaders are encouraged to continually promote a culture of consent and respect and inform the student population of hot spots for sexual assault. Social marketing campaigns are widely generic at Ole Miss, and most messages directly naming issues surrounding sexual assault come from student organizations, like Rebels Against Sexual Assault.

“If the university can help bring awareness and help educate, then we can only hope that it will make a big difference on campus,” Sam Cox, the public relations manager of RASA, said.

­­Cox makes an excellent point: The university should be active in raising awareness around campus through leaders, social marketing campaigns and openness of information. Though the university is doing some of these things, it isn’t doing enough to justify complacency in the face of a dysfunctional system.

If strategies to stop sexual assault fail, as proven by the statistics and stories, the university needs to step up to the problems.

In a letter to students about the policies on sexual assault, the university charges students in bold print: “Stand up, Don’t stand by.” I hope we take this exhortation seriously.

The University of Mississippi should, too.

Daniel Payne is a sophomore integrated marketing communications major from Collierville, Tennessee.