Schwalb: Eliminating campus sexual assault requires more than just banners


Daniel Tian/Daniel Senior Staffer

Fraternities hung banners in support of sexual assault victims. April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Jessica Schwalb, Columnist

Northwestern buzzed this April with conversation about how sexual violence touches our campus — from Sex Week to the Take Back the Night March to last week’s statement at The Rock. Interfraternity Council chapters hung banners in the fraternity quad reading “(fraternity name) supports survivors” or “It’s everyone’s problem.”

Although perpetration of sexual assault is not limited to Greek men, a 2005 study by Ohio University found that men in fraternities were three times more likely to commit sexual assault than non-affiliated male students. These banners publicly project an image of solidarity, and some chapters made signs and marched with Take Back the Night. A congratulations is hardly in order, however. Conversations about sexual assault within fraternities must continue beyond a single month of awareness or solitary presentation from Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators or Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault. Fraternity men must hold friends accountable or else their banners are just cruel reminders that attempts to change sexual culture in fraternities are purely symbolic.

Although this is not an issue that holds importance only in April, it gained particular attention earlier this month when news came out that University Police received four reports of sexual assault in a nine-day span. (The frequency of underreporting makes this number a probable underestimate of actual assaults occurring on our campus.) Conversations about sexual assault are held during Wildcat Welcome Essential NUs, and some fraternity chapters host MARS presentations with new members in order to discuss bystander intervention. But more often than not these conversations are singular, with little emphasis on carrying dialogue onward.

Talking about sexual assault once does not excuse complicity in the ongoing violence on campus. Issues of consent are complex — even more so when alcohol is involved — and fraternities are hardly the only spaces where sexual violence occurs. However, nationally only around 40 percent of sexual assault cases result in an expulsion or suspension, according to a Washington Post analysis of 100 universities between 2012-2013. This leaves perpetrators on campus and often in their chapters. When, nationally, fraternity men disproportionately commit sexual misconduct, hanging banners is not enough.

In her book “Campus Sex, Campus Security” feminist scholar Jennifer Doyle asks what it would look like for a campus to be held accountable for its sexual culture. What would it look like for IFC chapters to be held accountable for the sexual culture they create at NU? What would it look like for Panhellenic Association as a national organization to be held accountable for the sexual culture it creates by limiting parties and alcohol to male-dominated spaces? What would it look like for conversations about sexual assault to be ongoing on campus, instead of simply occurring for the purpose of checking a box or reacting to demonstrations?

It looks like always keeping an eye on friends’ drinking and who they’re trying to take home. It looks like asking if a friend is interested in and capable of going home with someone. It looks like sororities hosting parties so that women on campus have control over who gets through the door and what they drink. It looks like a radical shift in our discourse about sexually active women — toward support instead of shame.

Holding ourselves accountable to our role in shaping NU’s sexual culture, the parts both good and bad, requires conversations that continue beyond April. It requires more than a banner.

Jessica Schwalb is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.