Just Another Day at the Rape Factory: Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Rape on college and university campuses across the US is a systemic problem, and so is the lack of action on the part of officials, many of whom want to suppress rape reporting as much as possible because it would make them look bad.

Oct 10, 2012 at 4:10pm | Leave a comment

When the divine Ms. Emily shot me a link to this story about a former Wesleyan student suing the university over allowing dangerous conditions to persist at a fraternity she claimed was called the “rape factory” on campus, I knew the story would be pretty unpleasant. What I didn’t know was how unpleasant. The claims in her 27-page lawsuit against the school as reported by the Hartford Courant are stark, and there’s evidence from around campus to suggest that she is far from alone in having concerns about the Mu Epsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi; Wesleyan itself issued a warning saying it couldn’t guarantee student safety on the premises of the frat, yet took no meaningful action to address the issue.

“Jane Doe” says that the university’s lack of discipline contributed directly to her rape in 2010 at a Halloween party hosted at the frat, and to subsequent events. Her story is cracking open some sordid truths about the frat and the campus, and it’s capturing national attention.

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To understand Doe’s suit, it’s necessary to get a little background information first. Founded in 1890, Mu Epsilon has had a rather spotty history with Wesleyan, including a history of student injuries and other problems on site. It alone among other frats insisted on remaining private rather than being part of the university’s housing system, which allowed it to evade campus safety and direct oversight; Middletown’s police department was instead responsible for handling incidents at the frat.

In March of 2010, the university sent out a warning to students indicating that the frat house was dangerous and they should avoid it (because apparently taking action to address the safety problems is harder than telling students to just not go there). Jane Doe didn’t get that warning, though, because she didn’t start attending until fall 2010; and when she went to a Halloween party on 30 October, she was raped in a locked room. Her assailant, John O’Neill, went to prison for third-degree assault and unlawful restraint (but not rape), and a year later, Wesleyan attempted to take more decisive action against the frat.

The frat made nice, and its status was restored.

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Doe says that the university’s culture of complacency endangered her and other students, and claims there’s an active culture of rape at the frat. Some people on campus disagree, but it sounds a lot like splitting hairs to me:

There was one time walking around on a Saturday night when I overheard some guys talking about 'bringing some drunk girls back to Beta' in a way that seemed pretty inappropriate.

The “rape factory” term may not be as widespread as Doe suggests it is in her suit, but it’s clear that there’s a culture of sexual assault and harassment at the frat. That’s supported by what happened to Doe after she reported her rape, when she was harassed by frat members who catcalled her, followed her around, and held up signs saying “free Beta” after her identity was unmasked. The harassment became so incessant that she withdrew and continued her studies at another educational institution, all while Wesleyan stood idly by.

This is bad enough: university tolerates a frat known to be dangerous, makes no decisive moves to protect students, and allows a student to be harried out of school in the wake of a rape.

But what happened to Jane Doe is even worse than that. You see, after she was raped, she reported the case to her Resident Advisor, who did...nothing. RAs are supposed to be trained to deal with situations like this, and their training includes reporting cases of sexual assault, providing counseling, and making sure students get hooked up with the resources they need. Her RA violated her trust as well as the terms of the work contract by not taking any action.

She couldn’t even go to student health the day after the rape because they were closed, although it was suggested that she could go to a hospital. The university, of course, declined to provide transportation, rape counseling, or any other support for Doe. In the wake of this, she became emotionally withdrawn and miserable; and still, the university didn’t offer academic counseling or support.

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What makes Doe’s case all the more terrible is that it’s far from unique. Rape on college and university campuses across the US is a systemic problem, and so is the lack of action on the part of officials, many of whom want to suppress rape reporting as much as possible because it would make them look bad. After all, who would want to apply to a college with a frat known as the “rape factory,” or to an institution where multiple rapes took place during the course of a semester?

While colleges and universities have an ethical and legal responsibility to their students, they often fall down on the job when it comes to sexual assault, not only not providing support to victims and survivors, but actively allowing them to be bullied off campus and into other schools. Doe is unique in that she reported it and kept fighting, rather than giving up and allowing this incident to become something terrible in her past.

In the same year that Doe was raped, NPR News and the Center for Public Integrity got together on a joint investigation into rape on college campuses, noting that one in five college women experienced rape and academic institutions were doing little to stem the epidemic. What they uncovered was chilling: lies, coverups, harassment of students, and more. Doe’s case fits into this larger framework, and what’s deeply disturbing is that little has changed since then.

Students of all genders should have a right to a safe, comfortable, secure campus, and the fact that many colleges and universities are more concerned with image than student safety is horrifying. I hope the increased media attention as a result of this suit stirs some positive action not just at Wesleyan, but at other schools, and that we start admitting that ignoring rape doesn’t make it go away.

Image credits: Devon Buchanan, Justin Henry, Official US Navy Imagery.