Three weeks ago, a University of Kansas junior I’ll call Ellis stood with hundreds of other students on the lawn of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, protesting a sexual assault that had allegedly taken place at a recent party. “We believe her,” Ellis chanted at the brick building on the edge of campus, with its white colonnade and private security guards posted outside. “We believe her,” the crowd roared.
Ellis had never attended a protest before, much less organized one. But the previous day, they’d heard that a friend of a friend had allegedly been drugged and assaulted at a Phi Kappa Psi party the night before. When the mutual friend asked if Ellis would be willing to protest the fraternity, Ellis—a sexual assault survivor themself—quickly agreed.
It only took a few hours for Ellis to get the word out—first on the anonymous forum Yik Yak, then on Snapchat and Instagram, where Ellis started the account @fckpkp. The next evening, walking to the fraternity, Ellis was surprised to see throngs of other students headed in the same direction. Many carried signs like “Unconscious is not consent,” and “If they can’t say ‘no’ / they can’t say ‘yes.’” Soon the crowd filled the fraternity’s yard and pushed up its front steps, prompting the private security guards to pepper spray the protesters. The three-hour demonstration, and a follow-up the next day, made the local news and spurred KU administrators to reach out to Ellis and other students, offering a meeting to discuss sexual assault at the university.
“I’ve never been part of something this big before, this much of a change before,” Ellis tells me. “It helps me heal as a survivor myself, and is really a way for me to get justice, too. So, it’s empowering.”
The protests that shook KU last month are part of a nationwide uproar against sexual assault in fraternities, as many students return to campus for the first time in over a year. At the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, hundreds of people showed up for four consecutive nights in late August outside Phi Gamma Delta (“Fiji”) after a 17-year-old student reported to police that a brother there raped her; more than 482,000 people so far have since signed a “Ban Fiji Forever” petition on Change.org. At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, student protesters flipped a car outside Theta Chi after rumors of an assault there spread on social media. Other anti-rape protests—against both frats and university administrators accused of failing to protect students—have taken place at Auburn University, Northwestern University; Loyola University Chicago; Virginia Tech; and flagship state schools in Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, and Utah in the last few weeks. And today, organizers on at least nine more campuses are planning an “Against Our Will” protest, coordinated by Strip Your Letters, which advocates for reforming the Greek system to make it safer and more racially inclusive.
(Alternate angle) Day 2: Hundreds of students protest in front of Fraternity “Fiji” on the University of #Nebraska -Lincoln’s campus in protest of #Fiji member allegedly raping a girl in house#UNL pic.twitter.com/tEgBvUmHoG
— Oswaldo Royett (@oswaldosrm) August 26, 2021
Hundreds of protestors at UMass Amherst are gathered in front of the Theta Chi frat house, where a member was accused of sexually assaulting a woman last weekend.
“Fuck Theta Chi” seems to be the most common chant so far tonight pic.twitter.com/wJBWjTotTi
— Matt Berg (@mattberg33) September 21, 2021
“Students are taking it on themselves to protest the institutions and the spaces that are allowing violence to happen,” says Sage Carson, the manager of Know Your IX, an advocacy group that teaches students their rights when it comes to sexual violence in schools.
Campus anti-rape activism is nothing new, from the “ED Act Now” rally outside the Department of Education—which kicked off an era of unprecedented federal attention to campus sexual assault during the Obama administration—to Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress-carrying performance at Columbia University. But this fall’s protests have a startling urgency, not only because they’re challenging fraternities on campuses where Greek systems are historically powerful, but also because they are taking place during a semester experts believe could be marked by extraordinarily high rates of sexual assault.
For years, college administrators and sexual assault experts have warned of a “red zone,” lasting from the start of the fall semester to Thanksgiving break, when first-year students are at heightened risk of experiencing sexual violence. But this year, on many campuses, there are effectively two incoming classes: The usual freshmen, and the sophomores whose academic and social life last year was curtailed by COVID restrictions. That’s led some advocates to warn of a possible “double red zone”—the potential for sexual assault rates to soar not only among first-year students, but also among sophomores. “They don’t have the same secured social networks, they haven’t been to parties, haven’t been drinking, and it makes them easy targets,” Carson explains.
Conventional wisdom about the existence of a “red zone” got empirical backup in 2007, when a National Institute for Justice-commissioned study of two universities found that more than 50 percent of all sexual assaults among undergraduate women happened between August and November. Subsequent research concluded that first-year women were at particular risk, especially in their earliest weeks on campus. (The studies did not look at the experiences of trans, non-binary, or genderqueer students, though a major sexual assault survey in 2019 found they experience roughly the same rates of sexual assault as undergraduate women, with even more devastating personal and academic consequences.) The contextual factors of freshman year—psychological pressure faced by new students, their unfamiliarity with physical spaces on campus, and alcohol-soaked parties that specifically recruit first-year women to attend—can all help explain the heightened danger.
On KU’s campus, for example, first-year students are recruited into fraternities and sororities before the start of the fall term, says Grace Reading, a recent KU graduate, former peer counselor for survivors, and cofounder of Strip Your Letters. Every year, the night before classes begin—known as “Shark Night” or “301”—Greek houses at KU lift restrictions on new members drinking and hooking up, and sororities send their new members to their first fraternity parties. “It’s the most dangerous night of the year,” Reading says. New members are often drinking for the first time in their life, don’t know the people they are with, and are unfamiliar with the physical and social layout of fraternities.
It’s difficult to tell how much COVID restrictions affected rates of sexual assault among students last year. At the UMass, Amherst, the number of rapes reported to police—notoriously an unreliable statistic—plummeted from 23 in 2018 and again 2019 to just 3 in calendar year 2020; at KU, where students report that parties continued largely unabated off campus, campus sex crime statistics show only small fluctuations. Similarly, we won’t know whether there truly is a rise in sexual assault this fall until the issue is studied using campus climate surveys like those conducted by the Association of American Universities, according to Carson.
Still, there’s some anecdotal support for the idea that the “double red zone” is, in fact, happening. Usually, Know Your IX organizers receive a “small uptick” in students emailing them for support after being sexually assaulted during the start of the fall term; this year, Carson says, it’s been a “massive flood.” The week of the protests at the University of Nebraska, five additional people came forward to report rape or other sex crimes to university police. And at UMass, Amherst, an Instagram account called @umassshareyourstory spent the last week posting at least 77 anonymous, unverified stories of sexual assault, harassment, or racism at the university.
“For me personally, it’s very overwhelming,” says Raaya Alim, president of the UMass, Amherst chapter of It’s On Us, an anti-sexual violence campaign. “There are so many people coming forward, or actually coming out and speaking about their experiences, showing how endemic this situation is, how many times it’s occurred, time and time again.” Nora Gallo, who graduated from UMass, Amherst in 2020 and co-leads the Every Voice Coalition, another anti-rape advocacy group, says increasing numbers of survivors have been reaching out to her this term “as a friend, and as an individual who works in this space.”
According to Carson, allegations spreading on social media are just another form of the “whisper networks” long used by women to communicate which male students, professors, or campus organizations to avoid. In her time at the University of Delaware, students scribbled the names of accused perpetrators on bathroom walls; now, anonymous allegations are commonly shared on Instagram. Carson attributes this year’s wave of protest to what she says is a trend of schools increasingly mishandling sexual assault cases since 2017, when former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rolled back Obama-era guidelines on how schools must respond to assault reports among students. “What we’re seeing now is the culmination of years of lack of enforcement from the Department of Education around Title IX; schools, knowing that they weren’t really held accountable for not taking survivors’ complaints seriously; and those whisper networks, trying to work,” Carson says.
And while students today might be protesting individual cases of alleged sexual assaults by fraternity brothers, they’ve honed in on a systemic problem. Some social science research repeatedly pinpoints fraternities as a major location of sexual harm on college campuses. One study from 2007 found that, among first-year men, those who joined fraternities were three times likelier to commit a “sexually coercive act” that year. (Researchers have also found that fraternity-affiliated men are more like than others to hold attitudes that support rape.) Meanwhile, a 2009 study found that sorority members are four times likelier to be sexually assaulted than non-sorority members—even when alcohol consumption was controlled for.
At UNL, in response to protester demands, chancellor Ronald Green announced the university would temporarily suspend operations of Phi Gamma Delta and shut down the fraternity house while it was investigated. The accused student there has reportedly dropped out. The situation is much different at UMass, Amherst, where chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy sent the student body an email explaining no student has yet made a report to the university about being sexually assaulted at Theta Chi on the night in question. Two student protesters, on the other hand, were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, inciting a riot, and failure to disperse; the CEO of the national fraternity is reportedly urging the Chancellor to take even stronger action to defend the fraternity from a “violent student-mob.”
Meanwhile at KU, where Ellis is preparing for a meeting with the Chancellor, the University and the Lawrence police department are investigating the sexual assault report from the party at Phi Kappa Psi. Among Ellis and their co-organizers’ demands of the university are more robust sexual assault prevention programs for all students, with more rigorous education requirements for fraternity members. This type of demand—for universities to do more to stop sexual assaults before they happen, rather than offering more avenues to make formal reports about it afterward—is a common theme of the recent wave of activism, Gallo tells me.
“I think people are tired of KU’s reactionary responses to sexual assault,” Ellis says. “Not all situations are the same, or predictable. But doing the most to prevent those predictable ones is what matters.”