A 17-year-old college freshman was invited to a fraternity party by her girlfriend. She went and had more to drink than she had planned. There was nothing nonalcoholic served at the party; it was hot and crowded. She saw people going upstairs and assumed it was less crowded there. Three men asked her to go up with them and she went. They took her into a bedroom and raped her.
This is one of more than 50 instances of campus gang rapes that have been documented by the Project on the Status and Education of Women of the Association of American Colleges in a new report written by Julie K. Ehrhart, a staff associate of the project and Bernice R. Sandler, its executive director.
"I had never heard of such a thing," said Sandler. "I got a call two or three years ago from someone who had said it had happened on their campus at a fraternity party and wanting to know if I'd ever heard of this. Then, I got another call a few months later. Same scenario. Then a third call came and again it was the same scenario. I travel around a lot to college campuses and without too much trouble, I gathered a list of about 50 of them where this had happened."
She says no one knows how often it occurs. "This is the first report on it. I suspect there's much more of it than anyone realizes," and the ease with which she gathered the incidents supports her belief. "On several campuses we were told by several people it happens frequently and on several campuses were told by students and faculty that it happens all the time. In some instances where it had been reported there were then a series of articles run in the campus newspaper and letters would come in and you'd get a letter from a fraternity brother saying, 'I'm ashamed of my brothers, this is not the first time it has happened.' "
It happens at large state universities, well-known liberal arts schools, religious schools, and Ivy League institutions. Almost all of the incidents chronicled in the report occurred at schools that have fraternities; some incidents occurred in residence halls and a number involved college athletes.
"The scenario is basically the same," said the report. "A fraternity holds a party. In many cases but by no means in all, a young woman often has had too much to drink and/or too many drugs. Therefore she may be unaware that the 'friendly' persuasion of the brothers is actually a planned pursuit of easy prey. By the time she recognizes her predicament, her confusion has changed to fear and panic, and escape seems impossible. She is unable to protest or her protests are ignored. Anywhere from two to 11 or more men rape her."
"A lot of people feel it's 'her fault,' " said Sandler. "That she asked for it. That's really blaming the victim. It's safe for young men to drink with their friends but for a young woman to drink with her male friends can be quite dangerous. They can ignore her, they can help her or they can exploit her. Rape is always awful for a woman but acquaintance gang rape is very difficult. These are not strangers. These are the young men who sit next to you in class. They are your friends, supposedly. There's a tremendous loss of trust. Even if a person has too much to drink, they don't deserve to be raped.
"I saw the transcript of the questioning of a woman who had been gang raped and the bias is incredible. She was asked about her sex life, her drinking. It's as if she's responsible for what happened. I think in that instance they didn't even talk to the young men involved. She got herpes. They talk to the woman and decide she's not credible and drop it."
Sandler says she knows of no criminal charges that have arisen from the 50 instances studied in the report.
"A lot of fraternities have agreements whereby the whole fraternity will take responsibility if any members do anything bad. The school is then in a bind in which they have to punish everybody, but how can they punish everybody if everybody didn't do it. Then, they'll say: how about no more parties until the end of the school year. That, indeed, has been the punishment. The whole fraternity is put on social probation."
The report contains a number of recommendations to help institutions prevent gang rapes and to manage the situations when they occur. As Sandler points out, it is a felony in most states to have intercourse with someone not in a position to give informed consent. But according to this report, the rules of society don't apply on many campuses and vulnerable young women who are away from home for the first time, who probably don't know yet how to handle alcohol or drugs, are the prey.