In Focus: Following allegations, students challenge IFC’s approach to teaching sexual assault prevention
May 15, 2017
Sharon Wang was one of more than 300 students who marched Feb. 10 to support survivors following allegations of druggings and sexual assaults at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Wang, who said she is a survivor of sexual assault, shared her story at the march in front of the crowd gathered outside the fraternity’s national headquarters.
But just a week later, the Weinberg junior said she saw the same students “brushing this issue off.”
“It was like, ‘Oh yeah, me and my frat bros showed up in solidarity; we’re not these kinds of people’,” Wang said. “But then a week later, they were back to, you know, being completely complicit in a culture (that) just promotes rape culture.”
The march followed a Feb. 6 announcement that the University had received reports alleging sexual assaults and druggings at SAE and another, unnamed fraternity. Though the investigations closed without sanction, SAE was suspended from campus for an unrelated charge of providing alcohol to minors, in violation of a disciplinary probation. The chapter has since filed an appeal, allowing its members to stay in the house through the end of the quarter.
But following the allegations, questions linger over how Interfraternity Council and other members of the student body can combat sexual assault at Northwestern. Since the University announced the reports of possible druggings and sexual assaults, students have led numerous calls to action, including the march to SAE headquarters and a letter signed by more than 250 students to “end the normalization of sexual assault.”
Several IFC members and organizations who have worked to fight sexual assault in their community have raised questions about the efficacy of their efforts and how they can improve.
A study conducted by Ohio University in 2005 found that men in fraternities were about three times more likely to commit sexual assault than non-affiliated male students. Among undergraduate women, 23.1 percent of women are sexually assaulted during their time in college, according to statistics from Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Wang said it can be easy for survivors to lose hope if they don’t feel their demands are being met by the University and when efforts to stop sexual assault prove ineffective. After protests, petitions and national news coverage, Wang said she and other survivors she knew felt drained by the lack of progress.
“When (the allegations) came out, everyone got really worked up over it and really passionate about it, but then a week later everyone had just forgotten about it,” Wang said. “For survivors, that’s not how that works. You live the experience every single day.”
Setting the standard
IFC president Rodney Orr said all new member classes must attend an educational program taught by Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault. The SESP junior said a universal policy “brings the standard up” by mandating each chapter learn about sexual assault.
Weinberg junior Kevin Pu, president of MARS, said the group branded the educational program as “MARS 101” this year. He said the presentation aims to teach other men how they can prevent sexual assault.
“We are not a group of men that says men suck,” Pu said. “We are a group of men that seeks to educate other men about healthy masculinity, and about how to combat the social influences that have socialized men in a certain way, including ourselves.”
But despite IFC mandating fraternities schedule the MARS 101 program for their new member classes, some doubt still remains about the policy’s efficacy. An IFC chapter president, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, said he feels doubtful MARS 101 will lead to “meaningful change.”
“IFC has given us very little direction,” the chapter president said. “I know that they’ve made this their signature program, but they haven’t really focused that much on it. They haven’t put that much emphasis on it, so I just don’t really know what to do.”
The chapter president said educational programming can help prevent sexual assault, but greater emphasis should be placed on recruiting and “weeding out” those “who commit these crimes.” He said his chapter has implemented effective risk management policies, so he doesn’t think MARS 101 training should be mandated.
IFC should engage specifically with chapters that have a history of sexual assault allegations, the chapter president said. He added that his chapter has never had a problem with sexual assault.
“Everyone knows not to do it,” the chapter president said. “(My chapter doesn’t) need to have these formal educations … It’s not my obligation to educate my chapter, (to) take it upon myself. IFC needs to lead that. It’s IFC’s problem.”
Out of 18 IFC chapter presidents, five declined to comment for this story. Three presidents deferred comment to members of IFC’s executive board or staffers at the Center for Awareness, Response and Education. Nine presidents did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Communication junior Lucy Godinez said every chapter must learn about sexual assault because it affects all chapters.
Godinez, who said she was sexually assaulted and shared her story at the Feb. 10 march, said asserting sexual assault education to be IFC’s problem takes away the responsibility of education from individual chapters.
“That’s the mindset that I think men teaching other men about assault breeds,” Godinez said. “‘My fraternity’s fine, we don’t have this problem here’ is bulls–t. It’s absolute garbage.”
Orr said although he understands some fraternities feel like they might not need the MARS presentation because it could be “difficult to implement,” it should still be mandatory for all chapters. He said there is a possibility a chapter could be sent to IFC’s Standards Board for not completing it.
“Obviously there are going to be some chapters that might not feel that certain requirements are necessary, or might not feel that their chapter might need those things,” Orr said. “As a former president, I can definitely understand the sentiment. It’s just making sure that we try to create that standard.”
Erin Clark, assistant director of CARE — which oversees MARS — said it has been expected that fraternities educate new members about sexual assault.
She said additional programming about sexual assault will benefit fraternities because multiple exposures can increase awareness.
“MARS 101 is a first conversation in community, presented by peers, about challenging sexual violence and norms that support rape culture,” Clark told The Daily in an email. “By having that conversation presented by peers with similar identities and community experiences, conversations about social norm changes within shared spaces can be more impactful and relatable.”
Pu said MARS is developing a new course called MARS 201, which aims to continue the conversation about sexual assault on a more in-depth level. He said the group gave the MARS 101 presentation to every new member class soon after recruitment this year except SAE, which was under a “cease-and-desist” order by its national headquarters, barring MARS from presenting to the chapter.
Orr said even though sexual assault education programming has been “very decentralized” in the past, he believes education programs should be standardized. He said MARS 201 is not currently mandated for each fraternity, but the goal is to have fraternity men complete some programming each quarter about sexual assault.
Survivors of sexual assault are the “most important” and must be heard the “loudest,” Orr added.
Wang, the events chair for Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators, said to be better allies, fraternity men should additionally attend educational sessions led by CARE and continue to learn about sexual assault.
She said survivors need allies to more actively mobilize and fight to end sexual assault.
“Please keep working to help eradicate this problem because we, as survivors, cannot do it alone,” Wang said. “The more people who are actively contributing to eradicating this issue and to taking apart rape culture, the easier it makes our lives.”
Some debate still remains over who should be responsible for educating fraternity men about sexual assault. Pu said men educating other men about sexual violence is effective, as fraternity men can be more receptive to their peers. He said MARS aims to change attitudes and enable men to see sexual assault as a problem every person can prevent.
Pu said it could be easy for men to be defensive if they don’t see sexual assault happening within their own community, but peer education can help change these attitudes.
“Spreading awareness is no longer the problem,” Pu said. “It’s about internalizing that awareness and making it a part of your lifestyle. … The debatable topic is: Do I have agency in changing this culture, or can I be a part of making this place safer for people? And that’s a question that we’re trying to help people answer.”
Godinez said MARS should teach fraternities a broad overview of what sexual assault is, but shouldn’t offer any counseling. She said the group feels too insular and that it would be more productive to have someone other than fraternity men talking about toxic masculinity.
Instead, she said SHAPE should present on sexual assault and toxic masculinity to bring an outside perspective. Godinez said because many members of MARS are also in fraternities, it seemed “incestuous” for them to teach other fraternity men about assault.
“MARS has good intentions, (but) I would never trust MARS to lead any type of training,” Godinez said.
Pu, a member of Delta Chi fraternity, said a majority of MARS members are in IFC fraternities.
Former SHAPE executive director Molly Benedict said the group and IFC have not had much of a working relationship until recently, when a few fraternity men requested SHAPE presentations. The Weinberg senior said there has been a “barrier” between the two groups.
Any individual can request a SHAPE presentation for their organization, so fraternities can request them at any time, Benedict said. SHAPE’s perspective has been “left out” out of the conversation, she said.
“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it came to be the idea that SHAPE dealt with women’s issues, even though we are a group that’s open to all genders, and MARS handles men’s issues,” Benedict said. “You lose a lot when you don’t have someone there who’s representing survivors, or speaking from a survivor experience, or someone who’s not in an IFC fraternity.”
Benedict said a coalition between SHAPE and MARS may be most effective to combine survivor stories and engage fraternity men in difficult conversations.
Asha Sawhney, SHAPE’s current executive director, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Graphic by Max Schuman/Daily Senior Staffer
Taking it into their own hands
Liam White said IFC could feel “bureaucratic” and “distant,” so he wanted to organize a new educational program about sexual assault for his fraternity himself.
White, a member of Sigma Chi fraternity, said he had “qualms” about Greek life and only rushed his sophomore year after joining the MARS executive board. He said one of his goals when joining Sigma Chi, besides expanding his social circle, was to “normalize” conversations about sexual assault in his chapter house.
The Weinberg junior said he noticed some men expressed interest in fighting sexual assault but didn’t know how to mobilize. He said he saw an opportunity to combine his experience giving MARS educational presentations with his friendships made in Greek life to create opportunities for IFC fraternity members to talk about sexual assault.
White said he reached out to multiple sorority women and has created a survey asking people to share their experiences at Sigma Chi events so he can lead a discussion with his fraternity about the responses. Students may choose to submit responses anonymously.
“I’ve experienced frustration in my membership in MARS of having us be passive in creating spaces to have dialogue and plan events,” White said. “Often times, we just sort of say, ‘We should get SHAPE’s input on this,’ and then it becomes SHAPE’s problem.”
Orr said White had a “great idea” that affirmed IFC’s encouragement of the “grassroots approach” to prevent sexual assault. He added that he saw why a fraternity member could feel IFC was distant.
“It can seem pretty difficult to engage with all 1,500 of those members,” Orr said. “The sentiment is understandable, but I think it’s also easily fixable.”
Cate Ettinger, a student activist and member of Gamma Phi Beta sorority, said sexual assault education programming led by men cannot be as effective as if it were led by women. Ettinger, a former Daily columnist, said SHAPE would be the best student group to lead discussions because its members could recount their experiences.
Though Ettinger said IFC men may be more receptive to their peers, she said it’s vital to hear from survivors.
“No matter how good their intentions and how good MARS can be, it’s not going to be as honest and open as women talking about sexual assault on this campus because women are largely the victims of sexual assault,” the SESP sophomore said.
Ettinger and White both said individual IFC chapters could take extra measures to hold their own sexual assault education programming.
Though White is still a member of MARS, he said the most engaging programming will come from within a chapter. He said younger members could benefit from learning from older ones, and that fraternities should reach out to sororities to hear their perspectives as attendees at their social events.
“It’s one thing to just see a problem and call it out, and then it’s an extra step of bravery to go and try and make it better,” White said. “For real dialogues that don’t feel forced, but feel genuine and feel meaningful, I think it’s going to take individual chapters doing that.”
Orr said some students overestimate IFC executive board’s power. Orr sees the board’s role more as a facilitator than an “authoritarian speaker,” he said.
“Chapters are very autonomous,” Orr said. “Our approach is more upholding what the presidents decide.”
Pu, the MARS president, said IFC can help by stressing the importance of sexual assault education programming so members take it seriously. Otherwise, he said, if fraternity men feel obligated to sit through presentations but then disregard their message, the presentations will have been a waste.
Pu said IFC should “admit flaws” and “internalize” sexual assault education. He said IFC should work to build understanding and empathy, which he said was an attainable goal.
Godinez said IFC should mandate a SHAPE presentation so chapter members can hear different perspectives.
“The masculinity that (IFC men) breed is toxic,” Godinez said. “IFC’s responsibility is to be open to listening and to know the space that they take up. … Just listen. Let people outside of your organization come inside and help and just educate you.”
Though Orr said he is still “not convinced on Greek life,” he said he became involved because he wanted to see a difference made in issues surrounding mental health and financial accessibility, and ultimately found “safety” in Greek life.
“But what I am convinced of is that if the people who really see these issues … and are willing to come forward and become a part of the community in order to combat it further, then we can really, really make these changes,” Orr said.
Outside of MARS, SHAPE and IFC, Panhellenic Association leadership has made efforts to improve education among IFC members.
Erin Freeman, PHA’s vice president of membership development, said there has been an urgency in the PHA community to create “action-oriented” programming following the assault allegations, though the need has always existed.
“There is a strong validity to having multiple perspectives and inputs into IFC’s education, so in that sense PHA and SHAPE I think 100 percent do need to be involved in some sense in IFC education, in the creation of the education,” Freeman, a McCormick junior, said. “I don’t think they should be the ones actually educating IFC because that’s not on them.”
PHA president Karalyn Berman deferred comment to Freeman.
Freeman said PHA has partnered with IFC and CARE to create trainings called “Support Starts Here,” first to leadership within the two councils and then to their general membership. The program aims to teach about bystander intervention, the Title IX process and support for survivors, according to a May 7 email Freeman sent to PHA members.
Godinez, a member of Alpha Phi sorority, said the responsibility to educate IFC men should ultimately fall on SHAPE.
“IFC’s not going to deal with it,” Godinez said. “They can talk about dealing with it … I don’t trust them to deal with it as a survivor, as a woman, as a woman in a sorority … I would trust SHAPE. I wouldn’t even trust PHA to deal with it.”
Ettinger, the Gamma Phi member, said she probably wouldn’t be in a sorority if she had attended any other university.
Because NU is a relatively small campus of about 8,000 undergraduates, Ettinger said it’s easier for students to know their peers. The campus size makes it more “conducive to change,” she said.
Gamma Phi has made Ettinger more confident to speak out, she added.
“It’s made me more of a feminist,” Ettinger said. “It is difficult, sometimes, being a part of an institution that is very patriarchal and sexist in many foundational ways. … For me, it’s a way to try and work to change a lot of the dangerous parts of Greek life.”
Communication sophomore Ziare Paul-Emile, who said she first publicly shared her story of sexual assault at the Feb. 10 march, also emphasized the importance her sorority played in coming to terms with her story. Paul-Emile, who is a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority, said though she was initially nervous to tell her sorority sisters her story, their help has been “life-changing.”
Paul-Emile said she’s been impressed with how the other members talk about sexual assault. She said it was a “rush” to tell her story, which years before she had tried to block from her memory, at the march.
“Everyone’s so supportive and we want each other to succeed, and it’s such an amazing group of women that I feel so comfortable around,” Paul-Emile said. “Hearing everyone talk about knowing the signals and looking out for each other, I knew that I was in good hands.”
Administrators as partners
Administrators said they can work with NU students to connect them to resources on campus and act as their partners.
Assistant vice president for student engagement Kelly Schaefer said despite this year’s allegations, the importance of sexual assault education programming has always existed.
Schaefer said she sees her role as an administrator to assist students in creating programs.
“There’s a great opportunity to continue to focus on it with what’s been the conversation on campus,” Schaefer said. “From an administrative perspective, we are always open and willing to have those conversations and to be willing and helpful partners and educators in this process.”
An assistant to Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president for student affairs, said Telles-Irvin deferred comment to Schaefer and other administrators.
Besides IFC partnering with CARE and other groups on campus, IFC chapters should emphasize their values during recruitment, Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life director Travis Martin said.
Martin said he encourages IFC chapters to think about addressing “real, perceived cultural issues” while still promoting philanthropic activities and brotherhood.
“Right now, we know that there were allegedly two chapters involved with, you know, a pretty gruesome incident,” Martin said. “How do we leverage the … other chapters, right, in some of the good work we’re doing?”
Martin said he tells chapters to continue promoting charitable and social events while being “self-reflective” about how to improve education. His office aims to help connect chapters to resources on campus, Martin added.
Schaefer said she also wants to help connect students to offices or people on campus to enact educational programming.
“Sometimes, there’s a problem, or something happens, and there’s a call to me as an administrator to help fix that, or to intervene, or to help out,” Schaefer said.
Between Sept. 1, 2015 and Aug. 31, 2016, Northwestern received 65 reports against students for sexual misconduct, according to the Sexual Misconduct Data Report. Fifteen complainants chose to proceed with the formal resolution process.
In the 2015-16 year, 17 cases were resolved. Of them, seven resulted in expulsion or exclusion. Six resulted in disciplinary probation, and one resulted in suspension. Three respondents were found not responsible.
This year, Godinez said she has witnessed increased awareness of sexual assault in her community.
She said she’s been able to heal because she has surrounded herself with people she loves. A strong support system, Godinez said, has been crucial to her healing. She urged other survivors to tell people they trust about their assault so they can begin to cope.
Godinez also stressed the importance of including survivors in educational programs so students can see that sexual assault has a real impact on their peers.
“Any type of education and awareness needs to be survivor-centered, or else it’s useless and it’s just as toxic as no education,” Godinez said. “If you can put a face (to the statistic) … that makes it a lot more tangible and that’s what’s ultimately going to effect the most change.”