Schwalb: IFC members must move beyond symbolism, commit to tangible reform

Jessica Schwalb, Columnist

There seems to be confusion about what Interfraternity Council members are to do in response to rampant sexual assault on our campus. When faced with criticism for not publicly showing up for survivors at events like the Take Back the Night march this year, some responded that they had been encouraged not to attend, or at least to do so without donning fraternity apparel.

I see how this might be confusing. But to clarify:

Fraternity men are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than non-affiliated men. To ask that members of an institution disproportionately complicit in the perpetuation of assault on our campus publicly pledge to support survivors does not seem unreasonable. To also ask these same members to be cognizant of the often-triggering nature of their presence in survivor-centric spaces also does not seem unreasonable. And to still be frustrated at fraternity men who show up, as well as those who don’t, reveals the deep distrust on our campus because fraternities’ symbolic displays of support are rarely accompanied by much institutional change.

There is certainly value in symbolism: Statements, marches, banners, even, have their value in raising awareness. But the frustration to which many IFC members are responding with confusion or disbelief has never been about symbolism. It has always been about the lack of action to go alongside it. Adam Davies’ brilliant op-ed perfectly captures this sentiment; he writes, “Fraternity men on this campus have a responsibility to speak up, show up and shut up. It’s their job to speak up when someone is committing an act of sexual assault. They need to go out of their way to protect people who could potentially be taken advantage of, even if that means going up against friends or brothers.” We are frustrated because it seems as though this conversation treats a march or banner as if that is the highest possible aim toward which IFC men can strive.

Other confusion, or resistance to structural criticism of IFC, seems to represent a frustration with lumping fraternity men together as wholly complicit in the rape culture their organizations perpetuate. To be clear: Organizations are made up of individuals, and it is fully within their capacity to expel members who have committed assault, to call out and intervene in unsafe situations at parties and to make time to deeply reflect on practices that might make others on campus feel unsafe in their spaces. Further, it is not the responsibility of survivors to explain why fraternity control over alcohol in party spaces makes them feel unsafe, but they have continuously done so regardless; it continues to be the job of women on campus to explain to fraternity men when they fall short. Internal education, including singular and lukewarm Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault presentations, if they occur at all, is clearly not enough these presentations do not happen frequently or effectively enough to change fraternity culture. Yet it seems many are still confused as to why marching and bannering would not solve structural inequalities that make IFC spaces so unsafe for many on our campus.

To conclude that the much-needed conversation about symbols and showing up is merely “a means to further polarize the campus into two sects,” Greek and non-Greek, is highly reductive. Moving the conversation into a debate about the merits of IFC continuing to exist on our campus obfuscates the focus away from survivors, focusing instead on hurt-feelings and “campus rifts.” This should firstly and always be about how we support survivors of assault.

The defensiveness with which many fraternity members approach conversations about sexual assault is unproductive I would much rather hear about the ways their organizations are taking steps to make their spaces safer. And, there is absolutely room for criticism of historical racism, transphobia and exclusivity, among other ills, embedded in white Greek life. These criticisms should exist alongside calls for structural reforms (more female-hosted parties, mandatory bystander intervention training) which make NU students safer while these organizations continue to exist. Instead of lamenting the confusing nature of what to do during a march, fraternity men would do well to lobby NU administrators to stop unrealistic and unsafe “dry” campus policies which push drinking off campus and into less regulated territories. They might also consider teach-ins on sexual assault for other chapters on campus, or a continuous commitment to asking non-fraternity members for feedback and advice about how to make parties more comfortable for all.

This is no coddled cry for greater fraternity sensitivity in messaging or marching. It is instead an ask for awareness, beyond the month of April, of the ways fraternity men fall short of showing up with action. This should be least confusing of all: Words don’t cut it anymore.

Jessica Schwalb is a Weinberg sophomore. 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.