Illustration of a woman yelling into a bullhorn during a protest

They started as a group of 20 outside the Psi Upsilon fraternity house on a brisk September night. “We need to protect our women!” they chanted. “Survivors deserve better. Women deserve better!”

Within the hour, the group swelled to 200 protestors. CitrusTV began interviewing students, and a theme emerged: they were protesting what they saw as the university’s failure to protect its students from sexual assault, to win justice for survivors, and to hold abusers, particularly those who reside in frat houses, to account.

The protest continued to grow and turned into a march, stopping at a string of Greek houses. At each stop, the group walked up to the front of the chapter house and chanted in outrage, at times yelling for fraternity members to come out, to show their faces. They never did.

Eventually, they reached Chancellor Kent Syverud’s brick mansion on Comstock Avenue. “We want justice!” they chanted. “When do we want it? Now!”

These students were among thousands protesting rape culture on campuses across the country in the fall of 2021. The movement was sparked by the ongoing epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses like Syracuse University, where 1-in-5 female students say they have been sexually assaulted. The protests were also fueled by changes to Title IX  during the Trump administration that remain in place and exempt universities from having to investigate off-campus assaults and make it harder for survivors to report them.

A survey of more than 100 student survivors who formally reported sexual violence to their schools found that schools failed to fulfill their obligations under Title IX, with 39% of the survivors saying their decision to report caused substantial disruption to their education. That might help explain why at SU, where 19% of students reported that they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact in a 2020 survey, 95% of cases go unreported.

“Less than 10% of college students are reporting to administrators, campus authorities, or the local police because we know that a lot who do report experience adverse effects on their safety and privacy,” said Abigail Tick, the SU campus champion for Callisto, a nonprofit organization dedicated to a “world where sexual assault is rare and survivors are supported.”

Advertising professor Rebecca Ortiz, a member of the Chancellor’s Relationship and Sexual Violence Task Force, added that the phenomenon of victim-blaming plays a significant role in the low percentage of reported cases.

“When people experience sexual assault, we often fall into blaming ourselves and thinking ‘I shouldn’t have been in that place’ or ‘I shouldn’t have talked to that person’ or ‘I shouldn’t have worn what I wore,’” Ortiz said. “When in reality, there’s nobody to blame except for the person who engaged in the violence.”

Syracuse University Students Protest After Allegations of Sexual Misconduct
Syracuse University Students Protest After Allegations of Sexual Misconduct

Title IX

Title IX is a federal law established in 1972 as part of a larger package of the education reforms signed into law by Richard Nixon. The law states that “no person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex be excluded from the participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal aid.”

Universities are required to have Title IX contact information readily available and accessible. SU, for instance, has Title IX information posted around campus, including in bathroom stalls.

To report an assault, students can file a formal or informal complaint. Informal complaints consist of simply informing the Title IX office of an incident, while formal complaints require the accuser to agree to an investigation and hearing.

Greek life is largely disconnected from the Title IX process, as fraternities are not involved in investigations or hearings, according to Darci Lane, the assistant director of Title IX at Rochester Institute of Technology. A fraternity member is granted the same due process as any other student. Only individuals directly involved in the incident are informed of the accusation, except when it’s a question of public safety.

Protests on SU's campus in front of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity

But privacy can become dangerous, potentially leaving an abuser’s own fraternity brothers unaware of his behavior. Lane said Title IX does not reach out to a fraternity if there is an accusation against a member. If the member is found responsible, there is some feedback to the chapter but not in any detail. Once a member is suspended from the university and cannot physically be on campus, he is then required to tell his fraternity leadership.

Regardless of a suspension or expulsion, fraternities are not required to kick a member out.

Lane said she hears many grievances against Title IX. Common complaints include a lack of accountability for the accused and the length of the process. “Sometimes people expect an outcome that is not consistent with precedent,” Lane said. “People might want someone to be suspended for something that normally gets someone probation.”

Lane understands the critique. But she said that investigating sexual assault allegations is difficult and that every student is entitled to due process.

Prevention is a major focus of Lane’s work. Fraternities at RIT are required to have annual sexual violence prevention programs. The offices that oversee the Greek system at RIT collaborate with the school’s Title IX office to host training on five dates in the fall and spring. Some Greek organizations at RIT arrange for additional training during the year, Lane said.

Lane subscribes to interactive training methods that range from anonymous questions to discussing past experiences with violence. She recalled a specific session where she received questions that ranged from being sweet — “How do you kiss a girl?” — to graphic — “How do I tell a girl she got blood on my d—-?” Some questions are concerned with the gray areas of consent, such as having sex while drunk.

Lane embraces these difficult conversations and hopes her willingness to be frank leads to learning and growth.

“They don’t like being lectured to with these topics. They don’t like being told what they already know,” Lane said. “If you just have a cookie-cutter approach to educating people, you’re going to lose them.”

For Lane, educating men and women also requires different tactics. Women are disproportionately victims of sexual violence and considering potential trauma is a must. She said sensitivity and humor are cornerstones when educating them. Men do not like being condemned, and Lane holds the opinion that most men, if educated, will not commit violence.

“If you approach men like [they’re] a potential rapist, you lose them,” Lane said. “If you approach women like [they’re] a potential victim, you also lose them.”

Photo of Take Back the Night vigil and march

Fighting Back

Stand with Survivors SU protesters are dissatisfied with the university’s process for handling sexual assault complaints and released a manifesto pushing for systematic change. Among the demands, the group wants the Title IX office to involve third-party organizations to support survivors during a trial.

Stand With Survivors SU says they have been working with SU, the Student Association, Vera House, and Callisto to implement change on the university campus.

“We look forward to continuing our relationships and work with these groups as well as establishing a broader network this semester,” the group said in a statement, adding “this is just the beginning for our coalition.”

The university’s Title IX office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Members of the reporting team reached out to the office starting in the fall, with requests continuing into April. University spokeswoman Sarah Scalese also did not respond to requests for information.

Student leaders begin candle lit vigil and march in front of Hendricks Chapel

Those demanding change often point to rape culture as a central feature of violence against women on college campuses and throughout society. The term was coined in the 1974 book Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women and describes a culture that normalizes and glamorizes sexual violence against women. The belief that a woman’s choice to drink alcohol or dress provocatively leads to assault puts the blame on the victims. And the portrayals of rape in entertainment that exist simply to shock the audience or advance character development diminish the brutality of rape and desensitize people to it.

Studies have found rape culture to be pervasive in Greek life due to several factors. “When there’s not accountability for these things that are happening, that’s when we see normalization of sexual violence in that culture,” said Chris Kosakowski, campus coordinator for Vera House. He added that the secretive nature of the Greek system and the power dynamics within it contribute to the problem.

The policies of the office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs (FASA), which oversees Greek life at SU, state: “No chapter will tolerate or condone any form of sexually abusive behavior from their chapter members or guests. This includes any behavior that is physical, mental, or emotional. Actions that are sexually demeaning will not be tolerated.”

Yet FASA itself has no mechanism for investigating sexual assault complaints, according to Pam Peter, the assistant dean in charge of the office. “Chapters and governing councils do not investigate sexual assault,” Peter wrote in an email.

Peter has not responded to repeated requests for an in-person interview.

Three fraternities at SU are currently on probation, with a fourth under investigation. Another 16 Greek organizations have been banned or suspended from campus.

But Kosakowski is quick to dismiss Greek life as the sole cause of campus rape culture. Rather, the factors that lead to a powerful presence of fraternities are often the same dynamics that shield perpetrators from accountability.

“Within Greek life, there is a disproportionate amount of money and power,” Kosakowski said. “That is where we see less accountability happening or the fact that these fraternities are part of a college’s institution. We need to think about highlighting survivors’ voices and equipping them with the same amount of power and resources back so we can have true accountability.”

Rebecca Ortiz, who holds a doctorate in mass communication, has researched sexist attitudes, including victim-blaming, and how they relate to the Greek system. She said she and other researchers have found that students affiliated with the Greek system are sometimes more likely to hold some of those beliefs.

“If you’re immediately jumping to the assumption that [people who report sexual assault] are lying or that they are making it up or that they are to blame for what happened, that’s a very dangerous attitude to have,” Ortiz said. “It doesn’t allow us to actually serve victims if the assumption is that they’re lying.”

Despite this correlation, she emphasizes that it is not Greek life alone that fosters these attitudes. But organizing groups around gender the way Greek life does can often lead to problems, she added, particularly when paired with a sense of belonging that compels members to defend each other even when they’re in the wrong. In those situations, Ortiz said people are less likely to come forward.

Students march on campus

As students on campuses across the country increasingly take the initiative and demand change, Stand with Survivors has achieved small victories at SU amid other signs of change. Stand with Survivors is developing intensive bystander training for First-Year Seminar classes. The group is also planning a four-year curriculum on fighting back against rape culture. Vera House has been working with Syracuse sororities to coordinate fundraisers and educational events regarding sexual violence and recently began hosting weekly office hours on campus. And the Phi Sigma Sigma and Alpha Gamma Delta sororities pledged donations to the 2022 Take Back the Night event.

“We need to think about highlighting survivors’ voices,” said Kosakowski, “equipping them with the same amount of power and resources, so we can have true accountability.”

At the Take Back The Night rally at the end of March, one of the leaders of the Stand with Survivors protests spoke about the empowerment she has found through the survivor network on campus. It is with them, she told the crowd, that she has learned that the worst thing that happened to her does not define her existence.

“We need each other and we need to be there for one another, to uplift one another and to empower one another,” the speaker implored. The crowd responded in support with the Take Back the Night chant: “We have the power. We have the right.”