INDIANAPOLIS — When Matt Leibowitz got ready to reenter the world he loves — the world he so deeply wants to change — he dressed for the part. Khakis, loafers, a navy-blue sweater with the little pink Vineyard Vines whale on the chest. His outfit said to the fraternity and sorority members he was about to meet, Hello, I’m one of you.
His business cards signaled, Hello, I’d like to talk to you about sexual assault.
It was his first day at the annual convention of the Association of Fraternal Leadership and Values, where the preferred phrase is “fraternity brother,” not “frat bro,” where the talk is of “leadership and values,” not ragers and hookups. Some 2,676 undergrads had gathered to promote this nobler face of Greek life. This meant confronting head-on the unpleasant, uncomfortable, very-much-in-the-spotlight issue of rape.
There would be 12 sessions on the topic, compared with five last year.
At campuses across the country, a perceived (though much debated) epidemic of sexual assault has drawn federal scrutiny, lawsuits, enhanced disciplinary sanctions and calls for crackdowns on fraternity houses, the setting of many reported rapes. Yet Greeks maintain that the solution is to first change their own culture, from inside.
Whether led by students in individual chapters or pushed by national organizations and their insurers, fraternities are ramping up educational programs, hiring professional speakers to explain what counts as consent, show ways to intervene in risky situations — and convince these 18- to 22-year-olds that it’s their problem to solve.
At 23, just a few months out of college, Leibowitz has set out to become one of these speakers. This conference in a massive hotel and conference center was a key opportunity to advertise his services and test his conviction that talking about sexual assault can go a long way toward stopping it.
On that weekend late last month, he walked into the exhibit hall, business cards in hand, unsure where to start. Two young women and a guy advertising “The Best Shirts and Swag Ever” watched him hover near their table.
“Hiii,” they called. “What school do you go to?”
“I’m actually a presenter,” Leibowitz replied, adjusting the badge around his neck.
“Oh, so what are you doing here?” one of the women said.
“I’m with ‘Consent Is So Frat,’ ” he said. “I’m giving a presentation on sexual assault prevention.”
They stared back at him.
“That’s awesome,” the first to recover said.
“That’s good,” the next spluttered.
“That’s important,” the third nodded.
“Yeah,” Leibowitz responded, looking away. “It is.”
He was never your stereotypical frat bro.
A few weeks into Leibowitz’s freshman year on the small liberal arts campus of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, an older student knocked on his door and asked if he’d like to join Alpha Epsilon Pi. For a guy who spent high school playing trumpet in the marching band and serving on his temple’s youth board, Greek life didn’t seem like his thing. But AEPi bucked the stereotypes, too: a Jewish fraternity, with no house and only seven guys in his pledge class.
Wesleyan’s tiny Greek system soon became a flash point in a national debate after a student was raped at a Beta Theta Pi party. She filed a $10 million lawsuit in 2012, and the incident became the center of an exposé of fraternity life published in the Atlantic last March — one of the first in last year’s avalanche of news stories about campus rape.
Troubled by the reputation of fraternities, Leibowitz inserted himself in the debate. He attended forums and sensitivity-training courses on sexual assault, then led some himself. He wrote a column arguing that fraternity men could be feminists, and he turned that column into a Facebook page and then a Web site — the platform for Consent Is So Frat. When the university organized a task force following another fraternity rape and lawsuit last spring, he landed the only seat given to a fraternity member. While some factions pushed for an outright ban, Wesleyan last fall instead ordered that fraternities with houses go co-ed — arguably the most dramatic reaction of any school thus far to the campus rape debate.
After graduation, Leibowitz took a job at the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence, got trained as a speaker by a couple of sexual assault prevention groups and was asked to make a presentation to a fraternity at Maryland’s Frostburg State University. His work caught the attention of Campuspeak, an agency whose clients make as much as $3,000 to $6,000 speaking at colleges and which has lately scrambled to meet the demand for qualified sexual-assault experts.
On Day One, he gravitated to other young consultants trying to get a foothold on the circuit: Julia Dixon, who was preparing to tell the story of her own rape for the first time, and Lee Ann Kassab, a sorority sister who had been speaking to Greeks about sexual relationships through grad school. They made a point of attending each other’s sessions — just to guarantee that someone would be there, that someone would raise a hand to talk.
Leibowitz fidgeted with his pen cap, staring at 93 chairs in the hotel conference room. They were almost full. Mostly fraternity guys, but a handful of women, too. He had one hour to make these students feel like they could do something about sexual assault.
Who here had talked about consent and sexual assault back at their chapters, he asked?
Almost every brother raised a hand.
This was good, Leibowitz thought. Maybe they already understood that respectful sexual interactions should be a core tenet of being a fraternity man. He asked the room to break into small groups.
“I want you to try to talk about consent using these words and phrases,” he said, gesturing to his PowerPoint presentation:
A woman raised her hand.
“Some people act completely different under the influence of alcohol,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Yes I want this,’ and then they wake up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I really regret this, I don’t want this to happen,’ and it’s usually the girl that does that.”
Dixon, the rape survivor, buried her head in her hands. Victim Blaming 101.
A fraternity brother raised his hand with an idea: What about printing “Consent Is So Frat” on the ping-pong balls at parties?
You know — for games of beer pong?
Another sorority sister raised her hand. She said she was trying to craft an explicit policy against sexual assault for her school’s Greek system — so that if an assault occurs, members can point to the statement to prove “we’re against this.”
Not exactly the lesson Leibowitz was hoping to impart.
Yet she had invoked an awkward truth: For all the good intentions — for all the young change-the-culture idealists in the room simpatico with Leibowitz — the fact remained that much of the impetus behind these very important consciousness-raising sessions was the collective need of the Greek houses and their national organizations and the university administrations and everyone’s respective insurance companies to, well, cover their butts.
If Leibowitz had more time, he might have told them:
No, women don’t just “regret” it.
No, people shouldn’t need a drinking game to remind them to ask before having sex.
Sure, you can literally say you’re against sexual assault — but who isn’t? Don’t you want to achieve more?
He switched gears: An exercise he called “Frat Bro vs. Fraternity Brother.”
“I want you to think about those two ideas,” he said. How do other people see them? How do you see them?”
On a poster, he scribbled their shouted-out associations with “frat bro”: “Parties!” “Sperrys!” “Drunk all the time!” “Racist!” “Rapists!”
Then, “fraternity brother”: “Gentleman!” “Values!” “Accountable!” “Respectful!” “Asks for consent!”
Exactly his point. “We have this image of how people see us, and we have this image of how we see ourselves, and it’s important we address those, especially on this issue,” he said. “We see things in the media and on our campuses, and if we want to change them, it’s on us.”
With five minutes remaining, there were no more raised hands. He passed out forms asking them to review his presentation and wrapped up early.
A few Greeks came up to shake his hand. He beamed at them. When they left, he sighed and shut his computer. Maybe they didn’t all get it, he thought. But if just a couple of these guys would take these ideas back to their houses, that was progress.
The conference was set to end with a fancy dinner and an after-hours DJ. Instead of getting ready, Leibowitz and his new friends slumped in a booth at the hotel bar, drinking water.
“I’m slowly coming down from the adrenaline,” Dixon said. During her speech, she had shared photos of herself before she was assaulted and after. She worried that it hadn’t helped her message.
“I guess we’ll see when the reviews come back,” she mused.
Leibowitz wondered about his own reviews. Did he get through to anyone? Will it make a difference?
“You go through this phase where you’re like, ‘Why do I keep trying?’ ” said Kassab. That’s why she keeps every positive feedback card she has ever received. “I go through them in a moment when I feel like I’m not reaching anyone. . . . And I see a card that says something like, just ‘thank you.’ And it’s like, okay, I impacted one person, at one time. I can keep going for them.”
Soon, she’ll be going back to graduate school. She decided that becoming a counselor might be a better way than speaking to make real change. Sexual assault is getting more attention now, and that’s good. Someone like Leibowitz can pick up where she’s left off. It’s what they all do, every time they speak. Take the spotlight, light a torch with it, and pass it on.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article transposed words in the name of the organization that invited Leibowitz to speak at its annual convention. It is the Association of Fraternal Leadership and Values, not the Association of Fraternal Values and Leadership. This version has been updated.