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Armed with dated rules, sororities struggle to battle sexual assault

Ultimately, she felt abandoned after she was sexually assaulted, a period she calls one of the most trying times of her life. That lack of support led her to drop Delta Delta Delta sorority during her senior year.

“The institution itself is kind of like this ... it’s a facade of sisterhood,” she said.

Robertson is not alone in her experience. Women involved in Greek life are almost twice as likely to experience sexual assault than non-members, according to a study from the University of Oregon.

Thanks to the activism of college students, sexual assault on college campuses has been thrust into national discourse. Sororities are trying to improve their prevention and support programs. Robertson believes change is necessary.

“We need to talk about these things. Because a lot of really intelligent, diligent and hard-working girls could actually be an agent for change,” she said. “But I think that (sorority members) just don’t see it through this really critical lens that needs to be evoked.”

‘They didn’t have my back’

After being sexually assaulted by an employee at a restaurant where Delta Delta Delta often had cocktails, Robertson said she did not receive the support she expected from her sorority’s leader.

Robertson said she spoke to the then-president of the chapter, Austin White, who ignored her requests to no longer have events at the restaurant.

When she ran into White in person, Robertson said White recommended speaking about her problems at a chapter meeting.

“I was just so, like, angry,” Robertson said. “That obviously was probably one of the most significant trials I’ve ever had to deal with in my life, and they didn’t have my back.”

White declined to comment on the situation.

For girls like Robertson, sexual assault is more than the hot topic that it has become on campuses nationwide — it is a reality they have to face. The leaders of the Greek community and the University as a whole have begun to face the issue in recent years.

The current president of Delta Delta Delta, Holland McGraw, said she thinks sororities are more prepared to deal with sexual assault than in past years. During the last five years, she said the options made available in sororities to victims of sexual assault have improved.

She said lawyers have also spoken at Delta Delta Delta to educate members about what their rights are and what resources are available to them if they are ever sexually assaulted.

Kaitlyn Coppadge, vice president of standards of the UNC Panhellenic Council, said this academic year is the first for a program across all sororities called Delta Advocates. The program aims to provide resources in a safe environment to Greek victims of sexual assault.

Two sorority members from each Panhellenic chapter at UNC — 22 members total — are being trained on how to prevent sexual assault and help victims within the community. The program is set up so a member of any sorority can come to any of the advocates to talk.

Each advocate is trained through the One Act for Greeks and HAVEN training programs.

A national context for assault

UNC will launch a campus climate survey this semester to obtain accurate information on the prevalence of sexual assault at UNC.

Aaron Bachenheimer, the director of the Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life and Community Involvement, said to deny Greek organizations are at high-risk for sexual assault would be to ignore national research, but the issue is not separate from the entire campus.

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Marina Rosenthal, a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at the University of Oregon, helped conduct a sexual climate survey of Oregon’s entire student body, which found both male and female students involved in Greek life were more likely to experience unwanted sexual contact.

Rosenthal said gathering large-scale information regarding sexual assault is vital for campuses.

“The first step is being able to look clearly and accurately at the numbers,” she said.

She said there is a common misconception that victims would rather not speak of their experiences, but their research found the survey was not more distressing to victims than their everyday lives.

“It’s a problematic thought because what it allows to happen is for institutions to avoid looking at these issues with the excuse that they think it will be harmful,” she said. “But what’s really harmful for survivors is when they live on campuses and within institutions that don’t protect them.”

Rosenthal said although students in Greek life reported higher rates of drinking and more problems with their alcohol use, it does not explain everything.

“Alcohol matters but there’s something specific happening in the environment in Greek life that’s dangerous beyond just the fact that people are drinking at high rates,” she said.

She said fraternity parties were overrepresented in the survey for locations where sexual assault occurred. The study also found sexual harassment experiences were higher in Greek life than in the general student body.

“The connection here is that there is an overall climate of disrespect and an overall climate where talking about people’s bodies, making disrespectful sexual comments that aren’t wanted, all of this, is more socially acceptable in this specific context all the way on the spectrum from sexual harassment to rape.”

Changing the power dynamic

Each UNC Panhellenic sorority has policies that prevent members from consuming alcohol or throwing parties in their own houses. These policies, which come from national chapters, have been criticized because the same do not always apply to fraternities.

Coppadge said the option of throwing parties at sorority houses could change the power dynamic and empower sorority members.

“It would give us sort of more control over who is allowed into the party, what’s being consumed at the party,” she said. “It would lead to a safer atmosphere for us personally if those rules could be changed.”

UNC Panhellenic Council President Julia Mullendore said she does not think the change — which would have to come from the sorority’s national headquarters — would happen, nor is it necessary. She said the current alcohol policy is keeping Greek members safe.

The current alcohol policy for Interfraternity Council fraternities and Panhellenic Council sororities prohibits common-source containers, which are communal sources of alcohol like kegs, punch bowls or trash cans.

Julie Johnson, chairwoman for the Panhellenics Committee, said the problem lies in the abuse of alcohol and the idea of “blackout drunk” that has become normalized in college party culture.

“Women and men put themselves in very compromising positions here that they shouldn’t,” Johnson said. “Sexual assault has probably happened all along when people are just not in control of their faculties.”

She said women need to own their own behavior.

“We as women could do a much better job,” Johnson said. “And unfortunately we have to take responsibility for our behaviors and ourselves — we have to. That means we’ve got to be smarter in the choices that we’re making so that we don’t get ourselves in bad situations.”

She said she could not see sorority chapters allowing alcohol consumption mainly because members who live in houses are normally under the legal drinking age.

Bachenheimer said the idea is just the beginning of possible solutions and lacks basis in research. A better approach could be addressing alcohol abuse, he said.

“Maybe the best thing would do is to restrict alcohol at both fraternity and sorority houses and have organizations, if they’re going to have alcohol present, have those events at third-party establishments,” he said.

Struggling to battle misogyny

To face the issue of sexual assault, Robertson said a change in the way women view themselves is also vital.

“It’s the narrative of feminism and evolving women’s rights — it’s that it’s gonna have to change a lot in the minds of these young women. A lot of the girls who I know ... don’t see the problem this way.”

“We’re just maintaining this facade that we’re all independent young women who support and love each other, but only so far as that complies with this notion of this Greek community, which is inherently patriarchal.”

Kappa Kappa Gamma member Quinn Jenkins said she thinks the issue of sexual assault in Greek life is part of a cultural problem within the community.

Jenkins is one of the two Delta advocates in her sorority and is passionate about stopping sexual violence and challenging gender stereotypes.

“Sometimes we hold ourselves to these weird standards,” she said, pointing to websites like Total Frat Move and Total Sorority Move as perpetuating misogynistic ideas. She said Greek members can sometimes normalize these ideas.

“And then we lower ourselves to that,” she said. “That definitely plays into rape culture because, I think the whole TSM/TFM sort of persona is like strong aggressive man, very quiet but beautiful woman. When you have these sort of gender roles, at a party, when you’re feeling unsafe it’s much harder to speak out and empower yourself.”

Robertson said the culture must evolve because it affects the entire UNC culture.

“UNC is just so unique in a lot of ways, and a lot of it is that it’s just this clash of this old Southern idealism with this incredibly advanced and evolved research-academic community,” she said.

“We have an obligation to both of those legacies to evolve. Greek life is absolutely not excluded from that because although it might not be the largest percentage of the student body, it has one of the strongest voices. And that’s what’s important.”