Texas SBDC - UT Permian Basin

College Fraternities and Sexual Assault

by Peter Gabriel

There are several related but separate legislative efforts underway to combat the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. Most controversial is California’s new sexual assault law, which requires affirmative consent prior to sexual intercourse.

In addition, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has co-sponsored with seven other senators the bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act. This action is a response to complaints of Title IX civil rights violations from female students, several of whom have turned activist and been very effective in getting politicians to take notice.

Lastly, President Obama has launched the “It’s On Us” campaign, which urges all students to intervene, “promising not to be a bystander to the problem, but be a part of the solution.”

Each of these efforts stems from the realization that sexual assault on college campuses has reached epidemic proportions. But has it?

Critics take issue with the federal government’s use of the 1 in 5 statistic that came out of a 2007 federally funded study. (Glenn Kessler has written a good fact-checking piece about it at Wash Po.)

The 1 in 5 statistic is consistent with decades of research:

  • One in four college women have consistently reported surviving rape or attempted rape on numerous multicampus studies sampling thousands of college students for several decades (Fisher,Cullen, & Turner, 2000; Mohler-Kuo, Dowdall, Koss, & Wechsler,2004; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987).
  • Up to 5% of college women survive rape or attempted rape every year (Mohler-Kuo et al.,2004).
  • The rates of sexual assault among U.S. college women have been reported to be two to three times that of the general population.
  • Researchers have consistently reported that between one-fifth to one-quarter of college women are raped during the course of their college careers (Fisher & Cullen, 2000; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987).
  • Other estimates state that between 15 to 30% of women on college campuses report being victims of rape (Mills & Granoff, 1992).

It should be noted that this research is untainted by any potentially false rape claims.


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Men have consistently acknowledged perpetrating high levels of sexual assault.

For more than 20 years, men have self-reported high levels of sexual assault during college. In my last post, I shared the work of David Lisak, who found that 6.4% of college males reported having committed or attempted rape, many of them serially. That is just one example of a large body of research, including:

  • A national survey of college students found that 25% of men reported perpetrating some form of sexual assault (4% completed rape, 3% attempted rape, 7% sexual coercion, and 10% unwanted sexual contact) since the age of 14 (Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987).
  • Pioneering research by Koss and Oros (1982) reported that 23% of college males admitted to having sex with a woman against her will.
  • 43% of college men admit using coercive behavior to have sex, including ignoring a woman’s protest; using physical aggression; and forcing intercourse; 15% acknowledged they had committed acquaintance rape; 11% acknowledged using physical restraint to force a woman to have sex.
  • A longitudinal survey with college men found that 14% reported perpetrating sexual assault in the previous year (Abbey & McAuslan, 2004).
  • Another longitudinal study with college men found that approximately 9% had committed acts that included the general legal elements of rape, 2% had attempted rape, 8% had engaged in verbal coercion, and 12% had initiated unwanted sexual contact at some time during their college years (White & Smith, 2004).
  • 11.5% had perpetrated some form of sexual assault during their 1st year in college, and 14.1% did so during their 2nd year in college.
  • Nearly 99% of sex offenders in single-victim incidents were male and 6 in 10 were white (Greenfeld, 1997).

Is rape culture the problem?

College campuses are clearly hot spots for sexual assault. Yet perpetrators are rarely disciplined.

Rape culture is defined as:

A society in which sexual violence is tolerated and perpetuated through a collection of social norms, attitudes and practices.

In my view, rape culture is not the culprit in general society. But it is very prevalent in one key aspect of campus life: College fraternities.

Fraternities on campus play a key role in the perpetration of campus sexual assault. The evidence is overwhelming.

“Compared to their peers on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to believe that:

  • Women enjoy being physically “roughed up.”
  • Women pretend not to want sex but want to be forced into sex.
  • Men should be controllers of relationships.
  • Sexually liberated women are promiscuous and will probably have sex with anyone.
  • Women secretly desire to be raped (Boeringer, 1999).”

In a survey of 264 college men across 22 universities, 90% of respondents noted that they had acted in sexually aggressive ways in bar or party contexts, leading the researchers to conclude that sexual aggressiveness appears to be normative in particular settings (Thompson & Cracco, 2008).

From a study examining the influence of male peer groups:

Two intercorrelated pathways predict sexual assault: hostile masculinity and impersonal sex.

Hostile masculinity is composed of negative attitudes and beliefs towards women while impersonal sex is characterized by engaging in sexual relationships that lack emotional closeness.

The potential influence of membership in male socialization peer groups, such as fraternities and athletic teams, and their impact on sexual aggression was examined.

Key Findings re Impersonal Sex:

  1. Membership in a fraternity was associated with higher levels of reported sexual aggression. Fraternity men are three times more likely to commit rape than other college males.
  2. Impersonal sex characteristics were a significant factor of sexual assault perpetration.
  3. The number of sexual partners was a significant predictor of sexual aggression.

As the number of sexual partners increased, so did the propensity to sexually aggress. This finding is in line with previous research on men with more impersonal proclivities to sexual relationships (Malamuth, et al., 1991; Malamuth, et al., 1995, Malamuth, et al., 2000).

It is thought that an impersonal nature to sexual encounters creates emotional distance for men from their partners and better facilitates viewing women as objects for sexual gratification rather than as potential mates.

Interestingly, being a varsity athlete was not found to predict sexual aggression. While studies on fraternities in recent decades have delivered consistent correlations to sexual aggression, studies on athletes have been mixed.

Key Findings re Hostile Masculinity:

Adversarial sexual beliefs emerged as a significant predictor in the model. This finding was consistent with previous research which indicated that men who view women as adversaries are more likely to commit sexual aggression. Men who endorse adversarial sexual beliefs are hypothesized to want to assert dominance over women. These men may have a desire to “put down” women and as a result render them less powerful or controlling (Malamuth, et al., 1991). Sexual encounters are one way in which these men can assert their dominance.

…Similar studies have indicated that men high in this domain may be characterized by a fear of rejection and anxiety concerning their relationships with women. In an effort to lessen the feelings of insecurity, the use of force and coercion may be used by these men to help alleviate feelings of rejection and anxiety.

This finding supports previous studies that cite fraternity membership as a particular risk factor for sexual aggression (Boeringer, Shehan, & Akers, 1991; Koss et al., 1987; Koss & Gaines, 1993).

We have strong correlation, but not causation.

Do men likely to commit rape deliberately join fraternities, or do fraternities foster a culture that leads men to commit sexual assault?

In particular, research has indicated that men in fraternities are more likely to endorse rape supportive attitudes such as high rape myth acceptance, more traditional views towards women, and more traditional views of masculinity. It is proposed that one of two mechanisms can help explain the greater numbers of reported sexual aggression among this population.

One reason is that men who endorse these views seek out membership in groups upon entering college that continue to accept and foster those beliefs. An alternative reason is that men who acquire membership in these groups may develop and strengthen rape supportive attitudes as a function of the male peer supported environment.

Numerous colleges are shutting down fraternities on campus or forcing them to go coed. But it is not yet clear how widely these strategies will be adopted. Certainly, some colleges rely heavily on Greek life to attract students.

Can anything be done to shift fraternity culture to reduce sexual aggression?

John Foubert’s study Effects of a Rape Prevention Program found that fraternity men were three times more likely to commit rape than other college men. This confirmed the same finding in two previous studies.

Before they got to college, fraternity men were no different from other male students. They committed the same number of incidents of sexual assaults before college. But here’s the difference. Guys who joined a fraternity then committed three times as many sexual assaults as those who didn’t join.

It is reasonable to conclude that fraternities turn men into guys more likely to rape. Our study confirmed that fraternities provide the culture of male peer support for violence against women that permits bad attitudes to become treacherous behavior.

Foubert’s prevention program showed improvement among fraternity men:

Men who joined fraternities during the year and had seen a rape prevention program at the beginning of the academic year were significantly less likely to commit a sexually coercive act during the year than control group men who joined fraternities. Long-term attitude change was also associated with program participation.

Don’t expect fraternities to cooperate, however. Despite lawsuits and having earned names like Rape Factory, fraternities are digging in their heels to defend their own and put the blame squarely on women. Last week Bill Frezza, an active alum of a MIT frat, said this in an article in Forbes (since removed):

As recriminations against fraternities mount and panicked college administrators search for an easy out, one factor doesn’t seem to be getting sufficient analysis: drunk female guests.

…We have very little control over women who walk in the door carrying enough pre-gaming booze in their bellies to render them unconscious before the night is through…it is precisely those irresponsible women that the brothers must be trained to identify and protect against, because all it takes is one to bring an entire fraternity system down.

Still, all the negative press and attention is very likely to decrease the incidence of sexual assault by fraternity members. Frezza:

Never, ever take a drunk female guest to your bedroom – even if you have a signed contract indicating sexual consent…While a rape charge under these circumstances is unlikely to hold up in a court of law, it doesn’t take much for a campus kangaroo court to get you expelled, ruining your life while saddling your fraternity with a reputation for harboring rapists.

And please, look out for each other. Do not let a drunk brother take a drunk female to his bedroom.

…No nanny administrators or well-meaning risk-managers can fix the situation after an incident has occurred, and besieged fraternity systems are  particularly vulnerable.

…Unless and until the drinking age is reduced to 18, students relearn how to pace themselves while drinking, and individuals are held responsible for the consequences of their own behavior, rather than blaming the institutions that house and educate them, the only defense is extreme vigilance.


By turning the light full bore on the population that not only harbors rapists but recruits them, we may hope that their opportunities for sexual violence may be curtailed. College women should be under no illusions – if you get drunk at a fraternity party, you are a sitting duck for a predator.

Of course, not all fraternity members are guilty or even capable of sexual violence. But the frat party is the perfect conduit for the blending of the two most powerful ingredients of sexual assault on campus:

Hostile masculinity + Alcohol

In my next post I’ll write about the specific role of alcohol in sexual assault, and the very confusing rules that make consent impossible under very murky conditions.


Senator Gillibrand’s Campus Sexual Assault Statistics

University of Michigan Sexual Assault Statistics


Campus Sexual Assault Study