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Could this fraternity campaign put an end to campus sexual assault?

Could this fraternity campaign put an end to campus sexual assault?

#NotOnMyCampus recently went viral on the University of Texas campus. But some are skeptical about the campaign’s intentions.

RoundUp 2015, the annual springtime party held at the University of Texas, was like pretty much any other fraternity or sorority party on campus. Students sipped beer and spiked punch, with the men pouring liquor straight from the bottle into each other’s mouths, and women comparing flash tattoos with their sorority sisters.

But there was one crucial difference. As students lined up to enter the parties held in frat house lawns and basements, they flashed neon orange wristbands at the bouncers. Written in small font on the wristbands were the words #NotOnMyCampus, a campaign slogan targeted at ending campus sexual assault.

In the wake of recent high-profile campus sexual assault allegations at Columbia University and the University of Virginia, many fraternities have made public statements affirming their dedication to preventing sexual assault on campus. But the University of Texas just introduced #NotOnMyCampus, a student-led initiative aimed at curbing sexual violence.

Not On My Campus first appeared in early 2014 at Southern Methodist University, and an adapted version of the movement was launched at UT on March 23 through a viral social media campaign and an accompanying web-based pledge. Edwin Qian, one of the three Greek members responsible for bringing #NotOnMyCampus to UT, saw the annual Round Up party as a perfect way to launch the movement, which he hopes will introduce a much-needed dialogue about campus assault. His goal, he told me, was to ride the publicity attached to Round Up and attack the issue of sexual assault from its heart center: at the biggest annual Greek event in Texas.

“I’m sure you’ve heard about all these negative stories about Greek life,” Qian told me a week after the launch of NOMC. “You have the incident at [UVA] and you have the incident at Oklahoma where people are angry about Greek life. We thought this was something our Greek community could do to fix this problem on the entire campus.”

A Greek-led initiative at stomping out an issue many associate with the Greek community felt suspicious to some students. Sara Martin (not her real name), a sorority member at UT, says she was concerned about the roots of the movement. “Since I’m on the executive council for my sorority, we were the ones who were responsible for the social media push for our chapter,” Martin says. “But I think it takes a lot more than a social media push to create something that’s actually going to change that culture.”

But Qian’s campaign is, at the very least, raising awareness of the issue of campus sexual assault. And on a relatively conservative campus like that of UT Austin, which many say typically turns a blind eye to such issues, starting a dialogue about sexual violence is half the battle.

Qian realized how serious the issue of campus sexual assault was when a friend from school texted him last fall. She’d been raped and was looking for help, but she chose not to report her assault for fear of being blamed for bringing it on herself. Qian had no idea how to help her. “I was scrambling because I had no idea what the right procedures were for a situation like this,” he says.

With the help of two friends from the Greek community, co-founders Ellen Cocanougher and William Herbst, Qian came up with a plan to bring a sexual assault prevention movement to UT. Qian also linked his new group with two pre-existing resources on campus, Be Vocal and Voices Against Violence, to create something of a sexual assault outreach conglomerate.

The Monday after spring break, NOMC went live. When people like UT linebacker Malik Jefferson and University President Bill Powers started sending in and tweeting pictures of “NOT ON MY CAMPUS” written in black marker on their palms, that’s when the campaign really started taking off.

From frat bros to football players, groups of students joined in and shared the pledge. Local and national media also jumped on the story, enamored with the idea that a big public university in the Bible Belt would address an issue a lot of universities aren’t willing to talk about in public.

Caroline Bennett, one of the first volunteers for NOMC, says the way the social media launch exploded so quickly is “indicative of how the campus was really ready for this type of initiative.” She says that within the first week, the group has had “survivors tell us they feel less alone and more willing to be able to discuss the [issue] that’s been so sensitive, and has really been hidden for a long time.”

“Survivors tell us they feel less alone.”

According to UT’s most recent security report, 21 cases of “forcible sex offenses” — a category that includes sexual acts directed against another person forcibly, against that person’s will, or in a case where a person isn’t able to give consent —  were reported to the university in 2013.  For the sake of comparison, at the University of Minnesota and Ohio State University, 18 and 28 forcible sex offenses were reported in 2013, respectively.

These numbers are fairly typical for a large university like the University of Texas. For the sake of comparison, in 2013 18 and 28 forcible sex offenses were reported at the University of Minnesota and Ohio State University, respectively.

But Erin Burrows, who works for Be Vocal and Voices Against Violence at UT, says these stats are “the tip of the iceberg” of a much larger number of sexual assault cases that go entirely unreported.

“There are a lot of barriers that survivors face in making the decision of whether or not to report,” Burrows says. “Of course survivors can report anonymously and sometimes that’s what those numbers arrive from.”

Like Qian, most people at UT know someone who has experienced sexual assault on campus, or knows someone who knows someone. Burrows says many survivors come to outreach groups like Be Vocal and Voices Against Violence for help, but in the interest of preserving confidentiality, she won’t disclose how many assaults are reported to these groups per year.

Because of the haze of secrecy surrounding campus sexual assault, we don’t know the details about where or how it most often happens, but we do know from academic studies that Greek life is correlated with higher sexual assault rates than other campus organizations. Whether it’s the hard-partying atmosphere or the sexist and racist culture many associate with Greek life, it’s clear that campus sexual assault in fraternities and sororities is a huge issue nationwide.

“Women who are in sororities have higher rates of experiencing sexual assault, and men in fraternities have higher rates of perpetuating sexual assault,” Burrows says, citing the 2007 study on the phenomenon. “It’s not a high margin, but it is true that there’s something about the historical culture of Greek life that enables sexual violence to happen.”

The issue is not just limited to the UT campus. Last month, for instance, a member of a UC Berkeley fraternity was charged with sexually assaulting one his fraternity brothers. Half of the reported sexual assaults at San Diego State occurred in fraternity houses. And the former president of a Utah State fraternity is being investigated for what may have been a string of sexual assaults. There are so many of these stories dominating national headlines that some experts are arguing that maybe we should just do away with the entire system and ban fraternities altogether.

So when the former president of the Interfraternity Council and a dedicated fraternity brother created a movement on UT’s campus aimed at curbing sexual assault, some were understandably skeptical of the group’s intentions. Martin, for one, is concerned that Qian and his co-founders aren’t sufficiently acknowledging the link between Greek life and sexual assault rates.

“They aren’t saying that [rape is] a Greek problem, but it is very obviously and blatantly geared toward members of the Greek community,” Martin says. “So why aren’t they saying it? Why are we hiding it?”

“They aren’t saying that [rape is] a Greek problem, but it is very obviously geared toward members of the Greek community. So why aren’t they saying it? Why are we hiding it?”

When I asked Qian whether or not he sees sexual assault as an issue in UT’S Greek system, he demurred. “I just want to say that it is not a Greek life problem, it is a campus-wide problem, and people recognize that,” he says. “Just because I go to these events and I see these things, doesn’t mean these things are not happening at events that I don’t go to, right?”

The launch of #NotOnMyCampus at Round Up, a booze-soaked event that is typically considered the manifestation of all the negative aspects of Greek life, also raised some eyebrows. Some thought the fact that #NotOnMyCampus was launched at a fraternity event was the height of hypocrisy. 

“I was sketched out by the wristband thing,” Martin says. “They printed Not On My Campus on the Round Up wristbands, but do people really understand what that meant?” The point is well-taken: At a bacchanal like Round Up, students were likely paying far more attention to what was on tap than what was printed on their wristbands.

Still, Burrows says the fact that NOMC came from the very community we typically associate with campus sexual assault gives it an edge over other student-led movements. “To have something like Not On My campus, that is really embedded in the fraternity and sorority community, makes this issue relevant in a way that wasn’t possible before that campaign happened,” Burrows says.

Getting people talking and signing the pledge is what Qian calls phase one of NOMC, and he says it’s pretty much complete. “Now Not On My Campus is working on providing more programming,” he says. “We have all these concrete plans coming up, so we’re really excited about that.”

Some of these concrete plans include a campus screening of The Hunting Ground, a documentary about rape on college campuses. A group of volunteers is working to create an info pamphlet to hand out to other schools, which are also interested in bringing NOMC to their universities. There’s also talk of starting self-defense classes and providing incoming freshman with NOMC representatives they can trust as confidants throughout college.

Qian says “to end the culture of sexual assault is definitely one of the end goals” of the movement, and to “help make victims feel safe is another.” He also told me that NOMC is now, by default, the official sexual assault policy for the Interfraternity Council. Shockingly, IFC, the governing body for 2,700 fraternity men at UT, didn’t have an assault policy at all before NOMC was launched.

This is all good news, but Martin thinks that for anything to substantially change, there needs to be a total culture shift. Campus fraternities also need to be more willing to acknowledge the role they play in the prevalence of campus rape, as well as put an end to the double standard the Greek system typically applies to rape prevention. “The fraternities don’t invent policies to prevent assault,” she says. “The sororities invent policies to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Now, she and the rest of UT’s 50,000 students are waiting to see if Not On My Campus will be able to keep the conversation about campus rape culture going, or if it’ll just be the byproduct of another frat half-heartedly paying lip service to the idea of putting an end to the campus rape epidemic.

“Everyone is hopeful,” Martin says. “But now they have to actually do it.”

Photo via Melissa’s Custom Gifts/Twitter