The Party Game That Isn't a Game

For many . . . males . . . the transition to college represents a struggle for a kind of 'manhood' from which women are viewed as objects of conquest--worthy, but decidedly inferior, adversaries.... Unfortunately, most colleges and universities provide refuges ideally suited to reinforce these prejudices: fraternities.

--Andrew Merton, director of the journalism program, University of New Hampshire.

The above is quoted in a new report on a shocking, tragic and often ignored problem: the frequency of gang rape on the nation's campuses. Gang rape involving college students is not often called what it is. The aggressors and victim are socially acquainted. To the perpetrators it is a party game, occurring most often at a type of fraternity party where the brothers view group sexual conquest, with the aid of liquor and drugs, as normal party behavior.

While students and administrators are appalled when gang rapes are reported on their campuses, these incidents are "neither isolated nor rare," according to a new study published by the Project on the Status and Education of Women of the Assn. of American Colleges.

The authors, Julia K. Ehrhart and Bernice R. Sandler, identified more than 50 occurrences at institutions ranging from large state and private universities to religiously affiliated schools and the Ivy League. At some schools they heard reports of gang rapes happening every week at parties. Some fraternities even referred to "gang bangs" in their invitations to parties.

The Link to Fraternities

Their report is not an indictment of male students, the vast majority of whom would not participate in such behavior, nor of the fraternity system. However, the researchers' finding was that most of the incidents they documented took place at fraternity parties. The small amount of research on young men who join fraternities suggests that they tend to feel less in control of their lives than other students, are more likely to believe that what happens to them is the result of fate or chance and consequently may take less responsibility for their own behavior. The "animal house" image of some fraternities appeals to some of these young men.

While the reported incidents were not all alike and occurred at very different types of institutions, they had certain things in common.

These rapes are often considered the victim's fault: "She had too much to drink . . . She shouldn't have gone upstairs . . . She didn't protest enough . . . She asked for it." Many college males assume a female student is sexually liberated and feel cheated and justified in using force if she says no. Other girls blame the victim rather than supporting her. They would not have gotten drunk at the party or acted the way the victim did. The victim blames herself as well. Rape victims often leave school, Sandler and Ehrhart said.

Devastating Experience

Acquaintance rape is in many ways more psychologically damaging than rape by a stranger, according to professionals in the field. The experience of being raped by people she believed would not harm her is devastating. And the victim of an acquaintance rather than a stranger is more likely to blame herself for voluntarily placing herself in the situation that led to the rape. These victims are reluctant to tell anyone about the rape or report it and may meet with less sympathy when they do.

One victim of a fraternity gang rape at a small Eastern college said of a disciplinary hearing for the fraternity, "My past was brought up like I was an alcoholic nymphomaniac. The guys in question didn't have to go through any of this."

A large number of college-age students have an extraordinary tolerance for the idea of forced sex. What would be criminal in the outside world becomes a boys-will-be-boys episode on campus. A UCLA study of adolescents found that 54% of the males and 42% of the females agreed that forced sexual intercourse is "permissible" under some circumstances--circumstances that place the responsibility on the girl such as if she leads a boy on and then changes her mind.

Several studies of college students have found that a high number of girls report having experienced sexual coercion or violence, but do not think of themselves as rape victims. The largest study that has been conducted of sexual assault on campuses, sponsored by Ms Magazine with funds from the National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape, found that one in four women in college have been the victims of rape or attempted rape. Almost 90% of them knew the assailant; almost 90% did not report the crime to the police. One in 12 men in the study of more than 7,000 students described acts that most people would call rape, but none of them identified themselves as rapists. Almost three-quarters of the women who had been raped did not use the word rape to describe the experience.

A Masculine Ritual

Sandler and Ehrhart said in their report that the relationship among fraternity brothers perpetuates the sanctioning of rape in houses where it occurs. For these groups, gang rape is a masculine ritual, a way of proving their prowess to the group. Voyeurism--other fraternity brothers watching others have sex through peepholes or even on ladders at the windows--was often a part of gang rapes, the report said. "Men rape for other men," said one researcher Sandler and Ehrhart quoted. A University of Pennsylvania study has found that one characteristic of a "rape-prone" society is the existence of special men's clubs.

In addition, the fraternity bond in houses that engage in antisocial behavior is very strong, stronger than the disapproval from the campus at large, strong enough that members who do not engage in sexual aggression do nothing to stop it, Sandler and Ehrhart wrote.

Copies of their report, "Campus Gang Rape: Party Games?" (it also includes extensive recommendations on how schools and communities can deal with the problem) are available for $3 from PSEW, Assn. of American Colleges, 1818 R St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009.

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