Part V: The Cost of Sexual Assault at USC: The Greek Problem
By Nathaniel Haas
This is Part V (and the final part) of our series "The Price of Sex at USC."
I have a chart…somewhere in the appendix, that basically showed that the more high status a frat is, the more creepy girls rated it," Hernandez told to me on the phone.
The charts (there are two of them, published on the last page of his study) are even more eerie than he remembers. As part of the survey, women and men were asked to rank each fraternity by number, with 1 going to the "top house" and 22 going to "the bottom house." The women respondents were also asked to name how many "sexually aggressive experiences" they encountered at each house, which Sean labeled "creepiness frequency."
Assuming that fraternity status is influenced at least partly by the amount of financial resources funneled into parties, the chart on the left shows that higher status fraternities, and thus, those who spent more on parties, had a higher reported-creepiness frequency. Add in the chart on the right, and the logical result is that despite having a higher creepiness frequency, the top (and more creepy) frats with the most expensive parties also had more collective hookups.
The stat that really hammers those charts home is that only 76 of the 477 survey participants were men, and only females were asked to rate fraternities in terms of creepiness, so the sliding scale between top and bottom houses is mostly based on input from women, as are the hookups garnered by each fraternity. If the creepiest fraternities also throw the most expensive parties and hook up with the most women, one has to wonder: how many of those hookups are consensual?
“People should be baffled by sexual economics,” Hernandez said. “The fact that universities don’t take more steps to ban fraternity parties in cases where this [meaning a correlation between status, money spent, sex, and creepiness] can be made clear is tremendously confusing.”
Armstrong put it simply: “Fraternities have a domination of the party resources, which basically contributes to sexual assault.”
Several studies have confirmed the Greek system’s disproportionate role in sexual assault. In 2008, a study of USC students found that a higher percentage of Greek students experienced sexual touching, attempted penetration and penetration against their will in greater percentages than non-Greek students who lived in university housing.
These findings were confirmed by a study at the University of Oregon in 2014, which found that 48.1 percent of Greek females experienced nonconsensual sexual contact, compared to 33.1 percent of non-Greek females. The study found that Greek females (38 percent) were two times more likely than non-Greek females (15.3 percent) to experience rape or attempted rape.
The only other question I asked in the conference call with Dr. Carry was about those statistics, and whether or not they were indicative of the need for a Greek system-specific focus in the coming months. Despite the evidence, Dr. Carry said the Greek system at USC is a problem undeserving of extra scrutiny.
“The data doesn’t indicate to us that the Greek community is the only community we need to dive into,” he said. Instead, he suggested more important data sets, such as “On what days of the week do we see more alcohol consumption than other days of the week?”
At USC, scrutinizing what days students do their binge drinking is more important to campus officials than ramping up restrictions on a community that a wealth of research suggests is disproportionately responsible for creating environments where sexual assault occurs.
In the span of seven months, the fraternity I joined my freshman year was broken up and banned — justifiably — after several sexual assaults took place at our parties. It was an eye-opening, shocking event for a college freshman, but it was just the beginning at USC. Since then, two more fraternities at USC — Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Alpha Tau Omega — have been given the axe. Studying what days they did the most drinking wouldn’t have changed that.
Dartmouth University chose to do more than study drinking habits. Incoming freshman in Hanover next year will find a ban on hard alcohol for any student, of any age, on campus, take yearly sexual assault training for the duration of their academic career, and be unable to “pledge” fraternities due to a rash of hazing incidents (California State University Northridge alsobanned the practice). Students can still join fraternities, but Dartmouth also designed several alternative social programs to deter freshman entirely. Rutgers University banned all fraternity and sorority parties for the spring 2014 semester after a rash of alcohol-related disasters.
As the number of party bans continues to rise, the invention of the modern fraternity party is worth mentioning, because it began when fraternities were in their steepest decline in support.
“The fascinating point that one author makes is that the Animal House frat party is a recent invention — something created to save Greek life from its spiral toward oblivion that has occurring in the wake of the 1960s student movements, when students were rejecting the classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and overall conventionality of these organizations,” Armstrong told me. “The argument here is — and more research needs to be done — is that the frat party in its new contemporary blow-out form, revived a dying organizational form.”
Just what level of blowout are the parties today? I gathered some eye-popping numbers.
Jacob (not his real name), who served as a Vice President for his USC fraternity — I’ll call it ‘I Felta Thigh’ — was happy to clue me in. As it turns out, while frats used to pay for individual parties, new companies with names like “Moment Entertainment” and the hilariously oxymoronic “Extreme Greeks” and “Powerhouse” will hire security, bartenders, and DJ’s for semester-long “package deals.”
“We pay a certain fee, $34,000 for the semester, and they will provide security for all of our events,” Jacob bubbles over the phone with excitement. “This includes an exchange with a sorority, an invite, 2 date dashes, and a register including a DJ. It’s different for everyone, and it depends on what you ask for.”
Just for curiosity’s sake, I asked Jacob how much his frat used to pay per party back in the glory days. He said it wouldn’t be unheard of to shell out $10,000 for each registered party, a party where professional security admits guys who are on the fraternity’s guest list, while any girls who want to attend are funneled en masse through a separate entrance. Jacob added that each DJ, depending on the cost, could add another 10 grand to the total, but the package deal has reduced that.
With dues at $2,100 per semester for people who don’t live in the house, Jacob’s math reveals that each member forks over roughly $310 per month for social and national fraternity fees, which Jacob described as “really fucking hefty.” Jacob said his fraternity has around 140 people, which, subtracting the money paid to lease the house, means $43,400 washes through his fraternity each semester.
It’s an unspoken dogma of the fraternity hierarchy at USC that the more money a fraternity has, the more popular it is on campus.
I talked to another guy, Gus (again, not his real name), who served as the Social Chair for another fraternity, which we’ll call “I Tappa Kegga.” Instead of a package deal, Gus’s fraternity still uses the entertainment companies, but hires them on a per-party basis. Gus told me, like Jacob, that a “typical registered party will cost $13,000,” which he described as a “reasonable amount for a register.” Frats, who purchase their own booze separately shell out over $1500 on alcohol for their biggest parties, according to Gus.
He said his monthly dues (which don’t include paying to live in the house), were $400 per month last year, which includes lunch and dinner five days a week for all members. Not expecting much, I called one of the entertainment companies — Extreme Greeks — for a quote. I was correct to keep expectations low.
“We’re not interested in discussing our client’s rates or budgets,” I was told by a deep voice far too official for a frat party planner. “They guard their budgets very closely…we don’t publicize anything because they don’t want anything getting out.”
But in Sean’s study, three fraternities (those ranked 18, 19, and 20) responded with detailed numbers about their budget that lined up pretty well with what Gus and Jacob told me about their fraternities. Live-out dues for those fraternities for the fall semester preceding the survey were $1875, $1700, and $1400 respectively, with a mean of $1699 — roughly $425 dollars per month. The social budgets for each were $10,000, $45,000, and $17,000 — for a single semester.
In addition to cost and creepiness, a third issue compounding the problem with the price of parties is the massive insurance rates that national fraternity organizations build into their dues structure, something all of the fraternities I talked to acknowledged. In “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” a 14,000-word essay in The Atlantic, author Caitlin Flanagan described the way these insurance premiums are used to protect fraternities –using massive legal forces, and confidential settlements if the plaintiffs even make it that far — from negative publicity when someone gets injured at their house.
So what’s to be done? So far, we know modern fraternity party is firstly, creepy, secondly, expensive, and thirdly, protected from public scrutiny in the case of wrongdoing. Is the task impossible?
First, sororities should purchase alcohol insurance that allows them to have parties.
Sororities don’t have large insurance policies like this, mainly because every sorority in the National Panhellenic Conference bans liquor and parties and prohibits boys from staying in the house late at night. Universities can’t change those policies — each sorority’s national offices determine them.
Called an “anti-rape idea” by the New York Times and a potential “cosmic shift in Greek life” by USA Today, the point of this idea is born out of the consequences of giving fraternities a “home turf” advantage over holding parties in their houses. Allowing women to reclaim some of their private space as a social space could protect them from poor environments where they are more likely to be sexually assaulted. At the least, it would give women a choice they don’t currently have.
But it might not be that simple. If the case study that is fraternity insurance is to be used an example, more insurance — and more party venues — might be the wrong way to go — especially if the narrative in Flanagan’s investigation is to be believed.
“I think it’s interesting that fraternities do purchase that additional insurance, because the effect that sororities not wiling to do it shows how stupid it is that fraternities do,” Armstrong said with a laugh.
The second option, knowing that fraternities existed full-well for nearly half a century without the modern day frat party that was only invented to boost enrollment post-1970, is for universities to “sororify” fraternities.
“From this point of view, the solution is not to involve sororities in the risk, litigation, deaths, keg standards, and other ridiculousness, but to make fraternities act like sororities,” Armstrong said. “That is, to hold all parties in public venues with alcohol appropriately and legally dispensed, monitored, etc. Of course this might kill Greek life, but if it does, it only proves that there is no point to it other than boozing.”
Universities might find this a virtually impossible task, given the power of alumni networks, donors, and the recruiting appeal of Greek life for college campuses.
The third idea: inundate parents with enough information to convince them to stop paying fraternity dues.
“Somebody will fall out of another window,” Armstrong predicted with certainty. “We know this is going to happen — we don’t know exactly where, who is going to die, or how many people are going to die. But when that happens, maybe there will be real change here.”
More than a few hopeful fraternity pledges at USC have learned the power of informed parents. A few years back, a member of Kappa Sigma was expelled from USC after photographs and videos surfaced of him having sex with his girlfriend, in broad daylight, on the roof of one of USC’s tallest buildings. Every year, when the parents of a few hopeful Kappa Sigma pledges go on Google (the photos and videos are still in the top five search results for “Kappa sigma USC”), the parental veto is often issued moments later.
“If the parents stop paying for the party, the party stops,” Armstrong said. “They are actually lubricating, financially, the very activities that are leading to a decent chance that their kid will develop an alcohol problem, engage in sexual assault, be sexually assaulted, die, fall out of a window, or tank their grades.”
Mr. and Mrs. Simpson (not their actual names), who have two sons in fraternities at the University of Nevada, Reno, definitely understood the risks, but explained the difficult balancing act with their youngest son that they said Armstrong’s statements don’t necessarily take into account:
“He’s 18 and can make his own decisions.”
All of the policy wonk surrounding fraternities and sororities won’t do a lick of good unless the fundamental failure of institutions to address sexual assault culture is rectified. Nothing was more revealing of this than my discussion with the Simpsons, who I, like Armstrong, had deemed squarely responsible for maintaining the system with their money. But listening to them say that even if they don’t like fraternities, they wouldn’t tell their now-adult kids what to do, was a shakeup.
The Simpson’s were the last link in the problem chain. I had pointed the finger first at universities, and if not them, fraternities, and if not fraternities, parents who pay for them. But the finger can always be redirected, resulting in a rabbit-hole style blame game where no one takes individual responsibility, and collectively, no one takes action. After a roundabout of “not my child,” “not my university,” and “I’ll be safe, even though I know the risks,” action-less finger pointing is an outcome no one wants, and that past and future sexual assault victims don’t deserve.
Dr. Heger envisioned a cultural shift that should be supported by universities and vibrantly maintained by their students.
“I think that the students need to also shun fraternities that are known to be violent — imagine what would happen if no one showed up to a fraternity party because it’s a violent place,” she began. “The more you get the school involved in activities like community response to other people and supporting kids that are raped, I think you’ll find that people end up saying, we’re not accepting it.”
On the conference call, Dr. Carry summarized USC’s approach: “What we are also trying to do is shift culture,” he began. “We are trying to change an institutional, environmental, national culture over sexual misconduct.”
For six weeks, USC refused to have an open, frank and honest two-sided conversation on these issues. Institutional culture? It won’t change as long as administrative ignorance clouds USC like the cheap fake fog in fraternity basements, and the Greek system they comprise exists in its current form. Environmental culture? It won’t change as long as USC ignores the undeniable role of serial rapists on a college campus. National culture? It’s already changing, adopting everything from new reporting technology to reformed social programming, and it’s leaving USC, which won’t even talk about it, behind.
Sexual assault is a billions of dollars per year industry in the United States. More than that, it’s a despicable, life-damaging, and sometimes life-taking crime that too many women and men have been forced to endure. This article is dedicated to, and written for, the survivors. USC has failed you.
This article has also been about that failure: the failure of USC to put meaningful words on the record as part of a transparent discussion, the failure of a predominant social system to attend to its gross exploitation of women, and the campus-wide failure to stand up and say, “no more.”
More than a few will label this interpretation of the complex relationship between victims, perpetrators, USC, and the Greek system a crock of shitty, anti-fun gibberish. But the survivors and student advocacy groups like RISEwho are dedicated to stopping sexual violence on this campus deserve better.
Our friend in the white fur was right. This web of exploitation won’t go quietly into the night. It will do what it will, and it will fuck who it must, but one thing is clear. The culture that sweeps sexual assault and the struggles of survivors under the rug might be a lot closer to Bovard Administration Building than we think.
Nathaniel Haas is a law student at the USC Gould School of Law, and received his undergraduate degree from USC in 2015 with a double major in political science and economics. His work as a journalist covering sexual assault and national politics has been featured in POLITICO and The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here, and send him an e-mail here.
This article would not have come together without the time and effort of Alan Mittelstaedt, the former faculty advisor for Neon Tommy, and Gabriella Gastevich, the former editor in chief. I was incredibly lucky to have their infinite patience and long hours of work in making this piece the best it could be. The world of journalism is a better place because of people like them. Thank you both.