It’s a man’s world: Does Northwestern party culture put women at risk?
    Photo by Kamya Bijawat / North by Northwestern

    It's not enough.

    The public responses to the recent slew of high-profile sexual assaults in fraternities have been wholly inadequate. When a real, honest reflection on how the culture of fraternity parties facilitates assault is needed, universities have instead applied half-hearted solutions that completely miss the point. It is not enough to ban hard alcohol at Dartmouth, or to ban sorority women from fraternity bid night parties at the University of Virginia. We must go beyond superficial policy changes to understand how we can prevent fraternity-related assaults in the future.

    On Northwestern’s campus, fraternities dominate the social scene, and the power dynamic that creates makes women feel inferior. In most fraternity parties, men provide the alcohol and the space in addition to deciding who is let in, creating an environment where women are expected to play along. In return, women can enjoy the convenience and cost-efficiency of the location and free alcohol. At this point, fraternity parties are an expected, often appreciated, aspect of the college party culture – many people don’t want to spend more or go farther out of their way to have a good time.

    However, there’s a darker side to this deal: Women are intoxicated, and therefore more vulnerable, in an environment controlled by men. The social pressure to accept this as the status quo is very strong because so many students attend fraternity parties. 

    “I don’t think fraternities realize how much they control by giving out alcohol,” said Leigha Banks, Weinberg sophomore and member of the Greek community. “Even if they’re letting you pour your own drink, they don’t realize you’re still in their house consuming their alcohol, and you’re still going to be drunk in their house.”

    Of course, not all fraternity members should be blamed for sexual assault, nor is sexual assault only a problem in the Greek community. It is, however, more likely to occur in fraternities than elsewhere because of the readily available alcohol and the predominance of men in a fraternity party situation.

    Sororities operate under national policies that prevent them from buying alcohol with chapter funds or hosting parties, not to mention the logistical concerns associated with house directors living in sororities. While this may have made sense when sororities were founded, it is now outdated. It is true that fraternities are also not allowed to host parties or have alcohol in their houses per University rules, yet parties still happen. The spotty enforcement of these rules support a strict double standard for men and women in Greek organizations. It is a failing of sororities nationwide to update their policies in keeping with the times.

    If sorority alcohol policies were more lenient, sorority-hosted parties could potentially be a more neutral and safer environment for everyone. Changing the settings of parties could remove the archaic idea of men as providers and decrease the sexual undertones of the provider-recipient relationship. It could empower women to take greater control of how and when they choose to party. Right now, sororities host their own events off-campus such as crush parties and formals, but these events are less frequent and more closely monitored than fraternity parties, and are attended by a smaller portion of the Northwestern community.

    “Just by having guys control all the alcohol, there’s just a natural power shift there,” said Zachary Lochmueller, a McCormick sophomore and member of the Greek community. “I did agree with having sororities throw their own things. I think they’d have a lot more control.”

    However, since changing sorority alcohol policy on a national level isn’t completely in our control, we need to look for more immediate solutions at Northwestern, beginning with increased discussion and regulation by the University. In the eyes of the student body, Northwestern’s response to Greek-related incidents is highly reactive. Fraternities are put on probation and suspended after something happens, which pushes parties off-campus. Otherwise, visible change is minimal and there is little transparency about what Northwestern is doing proactively to prevent sexual assault. The University treats incidents at fraternity parties as if they’re isolated events, rather than flare-ups of a chronic condition that they fail to treat.

    “The idea of people going to parties and being assaulted is often associated with Greek parties or Greek organizations," said Medill sophomore Aditi Bhandari. “I generally feel a lot safer at parties in people’s apartments because it’s a smaller crowd.”

    Northwestern does have a strong foundational program of education on sexual assault, as all freshmen go through the Sexual Assault ENU and all new members of Greek organizations attend a mandatory seminar on sexual assault. SHAPE also runs an annual event for sororities called Supporting Our Sisters, which focuses on sexual assault in the Greek community and alcohol consumption. However, some believe there is little apparent collaboration between Northwestern and the Greek community on sexual assault prevention.

    “I just think that the time and energy would be better spent holding fraternities to the same standards as sororities,” said Weinberg senior and member of the Greek community Kayla Hammersmith, “and doing much more training about alcohol and sexual assault in the Greek community and on campus generally.”

    Northwestern needs to take ownership of sexual assault prevention because this is not just a Greek issue. While Northwestern bans alcohol in all university buildings, in practice the University seems to turn a blind eye to all but the wildest fraternity parties. Though many students are grateful for this tolerance of key party spots, the governing bodies of Greek life must take more responsibility to make the on-campus party culture safer.

    Within and outside of the Greek community, the University should increase its oversight of training and discussions about sexual assault and safe party behavior. At the very least, the University should create annual mandatory training for all Northwestern students on sexual assault and alcohol. If we as a community aim to move toward open dialogue, we need open forums and committees that include both Greek and non-Greek students to continually address these issues.

    Members of Greek life also needs to take more ownership of sexual assault prevention, perhaps through Greek-wide sexual assault education for executive boards. These chapter leaders then need to convey that knowledge to members, so that they will more actively consider the choices they make about partying.

    The Greek community also has the power to emphasize more neutral partying spaces for all students – starting with a reflection on why restricting parties to men only in the fraternity can create a threatening dynamic. In theory, it is to keep out unknown or unaffiliated men. In practice, the high female-to-male ratio can seem as if women are there as part of a “field of options” for the fraternity men, as Hammersmith put it. A possible solution could be more events co-hosted by fraternities and sororities, where both organizations are responsible for costs and risk.

    “We stress creating a safe space in our house so much,” said Josh Schwartz, School of Communication senior and Greek community member. “It’s something that when one of these articles comes up, every sorority and fraternity talk about this.”

    While it is important to facilitate open discussions amongst members of Greek life when issues arise, we must push ourselves further and challenge our way of thinking before incidents occur. We need to stop addressing sexual assault in the frame of what could have been done and start focusing on education and prevention.


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