If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I am a graduate student because I bitch about it incessantly. What you probably don’t know if that I am in the torturous throws of writing my thesis, and my chosen topic of choice is fraternities, sororities and sexual assault. Timely, yes, but also personally important as I had a friend that was sexually assaulted when we were undergrad and I figured that if I was going to blow a few hundred grand and countless hours on something, it should be studying an issue that could maybe help make a difference.
I had seen a few of the news stories about the “welcome” signs at the Sigma Nu chapter at Old Dominion and frankly didn’t think much of it. I mean, frats doing stupid things isn’t exactly breaking news. But then my email inbox started to get flooded with notices about the story because as part of my research, I have a Google alert set with “fraternity” and “rape” as the keywords and somehow, the leap had been made (by individuals and the media) that these ridiculous signs were in some way part of rape culture.
— Heather p. (@nerdbaitplus3) August 22, 2015
— DMN Opinion (@DMNOpinion) August 25, 2015
I spend nearly all of my waking hours (that aren’t spent working to pay for this ridiculously expensive graduate degree) reading about sexual assault, rape culture, fraternities, and sororities. And because of my research, I can’t and won’t deny Greek life does have a rape culture problem – as do many other student organizations, collegiate sports teams, and entire campuses. I know that it’s a serious issue, and that’s why I’m studying it. But I also know that stupid signs like these aren’t rape culture.
Are they offensive? I suppose, if you can’t find the humor in such things. Do they objectify women? Sure… but in the same senseless, silly way that we ladies objectify men by creating “Hot Men with (FILL IN THE BLANK)” Instagram accounts and your annual “Mr. (Chapter Name Here)” male-beauty pageant philanthropy contest. Are they incredibly dumb? Yes, because only a bunch of fucking morons would hang any kind of sign that could possibly be interpreted as sexually-explicit outside of a frat house (or house where frat brothers are known to live, if you want to get technical) in a time when any little thing will bring down the swift and sometimes-unjust hammer of justice on a Greek organization.
But is it about rape? No.
In her book Transforming a Rape Culture, Emilie Buchwald defines rape culture as “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm … In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable.”
Look at those signs again. Do you see anything about violence against women? Or violence at all? Any threats being made? No. I see signs that are inviting me (and apparently, my mom) to drink and party and maybe even (OH MY GOD!) have sex – all normal parts of college life. Parts that do not necessarily, or even most of the time, end in rape. Even if those signs offended you, and it’s your right to be offended about whatever you want, it doesn’t have to mean that they are about rape.
Let me be clear: the fact that Sigma Nu was censored by their national organization within their rights. When you join a fraternity or a sorority, you give up certain rights (in this case, first amendment ones) for the privilege of being a member. That gives the national organization the right to hold you accountable when you do something that is not in line with their stated values. And I think we can all agree that these stupid signs were not in line with Sigma Nu’s “Excelling With Honor” tagline.
While I’m not sure a suspension was warranted – I mean, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t in accordance with my organization’s values when I got shitfaced at formal and made out with the bouncer, and all I got was social probation – I can’t fault Sigma Nu’s nationals for taking action. They are an organization that includes 278 other chapters they have to protect.
There is a bigger problem here, just not the one some people seem to think there is. The problem is that when we take something that’s just blatant stupidity and turn it into something that’s about rape, we take the focus off of the things that we could actually be doing to address rape culture. Old Dominion’s President John Broderick said in a statement, “While we constantly educate students, faculty and staff about sexual assault and sexual harassment, this incident confirms our collective efforts are still failing to register with some.”
I imagine that statement took Mr. Broderick some time to write. Time that could have been spent implementing sexual assault bystander intervention training for all students yearly, which statistics show can reduce rape on campus. Time that could have been spent budgeting for more sexual assault counselors or examining the university process for the handling of sexual assault complaints to make sure it was fair and just.
Making statements condemning these idiots isn’t going to change rape culture. Getting offended by every tiny little thing isn’t going to change rape culture. The only thing that’s going to change it is action, and it’s about time people stopped getting offended and started to take some..