Editor’s Note: The following content contains sensitive material about sexual assault.
Every fraternity house has at least one predator, and I know who was in mine. I wasn’t there when it happened, which is by and large the most common excuse I hear from bystanders, but I know it did. Post-formal fraternity houses are chaotic: in the typical drunken haze, music seems to emanate from the walls themselves as the room spins around you. I was passed out on a couch sometime around midnight when a friend, eyes wide, skin pale, shook me awake and told me that he had witnessed the aftermath of a sexual assault. Within the minute, we saw the victim burst through the front door into the cold without her coat, explained by the quiet desperation on her face.
The fraternity covered it up, of course. An examination by my house’s officers found no provable wrongdoing and the rapist walked, scot-free, despite the victim’s claims. A police investigation, similarly, appeared to break down into a “he said, she said” and fizzled out. I asked my friend again for what he saw. “Honestly, I really didn’t remember that much about that night,” he told me over a Trillium burrito, and left it at that. In the two years since the incident, he’s given himself peace by embracing the ambiguity between what he wanted to believe happened and what he saw happen. So did the rest of the house, discussing the assault in hushed tones before rendering a verdict of “Who knows what actually happened?” and treating the assaulter like nothing did. It was easy: It meant we didn’t have to face the reality of our own complicity in the crime.
Why didn’t I say anything? I tried to rationalize it again and again, trying to find a thought or sentence that would exonerate me from guilt. I didn’t see exactly what happened, so what information could I give to the police? She could be lying. Do I trust her over the word of my brother? And that’s the problem: I trusted my brother. Outsiders to Greek life sometimes struggle to understand the intrapersonal dynamics of a fraternity, so I’ll explain for those who don’t know. You’re conditioned, whether you like it or not, to bond with a group of people you didn’t choose. By the end of pledging — usually hazing — you’re supposed to love your brothers. To take a bullet for them. I would have, until my brothers implicitly demanded that I cast aside what I had seen and heard and ignore a sexual assault.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by Cornell, more than one in four undergraduate women experience sexual assault. More than one in five report this assault occurring in a fraternity house. Why, comparatively, are there so few arrests for rapists? Why do they get away with little or no consequences? The answer lies in Greek life’s wall of quiet indifference. It’s easier not to think about how your brother is a monster, and raise your beer to him as if nothing had ever happened. But by continuing to associate with him, even if you do something as insignificant as greeting him at Zeus, you vindicate him and his decision to sexually assault his victim. With our silence, my brothers and I are all guilty of abetting his actions. By refusing to accept that he committed a crime, we let him get away with inflicting trauma the victim will carry for the rest of her life — because doing so was less complicated than expelling him from the house or even shunning him socially. Unfortunately, my fraternity is not unique. Every single fraternity has its monster, or monsters — just listen to what the women around them say. But you’ll never hear that from the brothers themselves, because it is easier to give the people you love the benefit of the doubt and pretend like nothing happened. Who wants to be the person that sends their friend to jail?
We need to hold our friends and brothers accountable for the trauma they’ve inflicted. I’m in no way saying that all men in Greek life are rapists — far from it. But covering up and moving on makes us just as complicit as the rapist themselves. We can’t continue letting fraternities shield rapists by suppressing the natural consequences of their actions if we want to do justice. And if the police won’t help, we have to take matters into our own hands and expel these rapists from our social circles and organizations. Getting away with sexual assault will only embolden these monsters to inflict trauma on countless more as they enter into the real world. We have a duty to treat the women that make up Greek life, the Cornell community and our future post-graduate lives with respect. For their sake as well as ours, we can’t let brotherhood get in the way of our humanity.
Members of the Cornell Community may consult with the Victim Advocate by calling 607-255-1212, and with Cornell Health by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. The Tompkins County-based Advocacy Center is available at 607.277.5000. For additional resources, visit health.cornell.edu/services/victim-advocacy.
Bonito Applebum is a student at Cornell University. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Steer Queer of Me runs alternate Sex on Thursdays this semester.