The college freshman recalled her night of terror beginning with a swell of giddiness. “Jackie,” as Rolling Stone called her, was 18 and thrilled to be at the Phi Kappa Psi house. It was her first frat party. But that emotion quickly gave way to fear as she was led upstairs into a darkened room where she says seven men took turns raping her over three hours.
The allegations, published late last week in a Rolling Stone article by writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, have ignited protests on the campus, shocked alumni, spurred a gubernatorial call for an investigation and sent the school administration’s spiraling into crisis. This past weekend, university president Teresa A. Sullivan asked the Charlottesville police to investigate the allegations.
“The wrongs described in Rolling Stone are appalling and have caused all of us to reexamine our responsibility to this community,” she said in a statement. “We as a community must also do a systematic evaluation of our culture.” She announced the suspension of all campus fraternities until Jan. 9. “In the intervening period,” she said, “we will assemble groups of students, faculty, alumni, and other concerned parties to discuss our next steps in preventing sexual assault and sexual violence.”
The fraternity, in a statement, said that while it had “no specific knowledge of the claims set out in the Rolling Stone Article, we take this matter — and these tragic allegations — very seriously” and was suspending all chapter activities pending an investigation.
But as shocking and as horrifying as Jackie’s story is, it bears a striking similarity to other stories of fraternity gang rape, a survey of academic literature shows. The narratives found in such analyses hint at a decades-old pattern of behavior as well as a generational shift in perception — from the era of “Animal House” to modern times, when campus rape is more closely scrutinized. The studies convey a culture of impunity, where group-think and hyper-masculinity treat sexual assault as something ordinary, even desired.
“There is a similarity of pattern in these incidents,” Lois G. Forer wrote in the foreword to the landmark 1990 book “Fraternity Gang Rape.” “The men are on their own ‘turf,’ whether it be a part of a park, a shack, or a fraternity house. The identity of the woman is irrelevant. Anyone who happens to be at or near the premises will suffice. All the men drink a great deal of liquor. Then, in the presence of the entire group, each has sex in turn with the female. … While individually they probably would not engage in such brutal or degrading conduct, when reinforced by their companions they exhibit no sense of what most men and women consider decency or compassion.”
Rolling Stone’s story of Jackie echoed the pattern Forer described, which isn’t restricted by ethnicity, campus ranking or nationality. Even the line that drew Jackie into the darkened room — “Want to go upstairs, where it’s quieter?” — is well-documented in fraternity rape literature. The fraternity brothers “tried to pick up women using lines such as, ‘Want to see my fish tank?’ and ‘Let’s go upstairs so that we can talk; I can’t hear what you’re saying in here,'” found Lehigh University researchers who spent months studying fraternities and rape.
Rolling Stone called the boy who lured Jackie upstairs “Drew.” He facilitated and watched the sexual assault and “gave instruction and encouragement,” the magazine reported. The presence of such a “male leader” is also common, found researcher Peggy Reeves Sanday, who authored “Fraternity Gang Rape.” “Often the male leaders characterize their roles as passive despite the fact that they stage scenarios.”
Such behavior, to be clear, is not endemic to fraternities, or likely even the majority of them. As Rolling Stone also conceded: “Most of that hooking up is consensual.” Academics have likewise learned female students consider many fraternities “safer” than others. But there are also “dangerous” frats. Lehigh researchers A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade, who spent months studying both kinds in the 1990s, said a very different structure governed each.
The safe frats maintained and cleaned women’s bathrooms and hosted parties dominated by couples. But at high-risk frats, there was a gender imbalance at parties, with way more men than women or way more women than men. Men would separate themselves and drink together, while women navigated fetid bathrooms. “When a brother was told of the mess in the bathroom at a high-risk house, he replied, ‘Good, maybe some of these beer wenches will leave so there will be more for us,'” the report quoted one man saying.
In such an arena, danger lurks. In 2002, David Lisak, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, and Paul M. Miller of Brown University studied 1,800 college men to determine the prevalence of rapists on campus as well their similarities to incarcerated rapists. The study found that the vast majority of rapes — about 90 percent — were committed by the same serial rapists, each of whom on average committed nearly six rapes.
“The evidence that a relatively small portion of men are responsible for a large number of rapes … may provide at least a partial answer to an oft-noted paradox: namely, that while victimization surveys have established that a substantial proportion of women are sexually victimized, relatively small percentages of men report committing acts of sexual violence,” they wrote.
Now police and university investigators are trying to determine if U-Va.’s Phi Kappa Psi is a dangerous frat inhabited by serial rapists. The Rolling Stone article criticized the university, saying although Jackie told a dean what happened that night, the fraternity was not placed under investigation by the university until it was aware of the magazine’s piece. The university is already one of 55 under investigation by the federal government for its handling of sexual violence and harassment claims.
Sullivan called upon witnesses to come forward. “There are individuals in our community who know what happened that night, and I am calling on them to come forward to the police to report the facts,” she said. “Only you can shed light on the truth, and it is your responsibility to do so.”