No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
Last week a student at a small Virginia university was strangled by her male roommate. Grace Mann was an active women’s advocate and member of the University of Mary Washington’s feminist group Feminists United Club. The group believes that Mann’s death is related to the recent suspension of the university’s rugby team after Feminists United Club members complained to the university about the rugby members performing an offensive chant that joked about rape and necrophilia. Following the team’s suspension, members of FUC began receiving hate emails and hundreds of messages on an anonymous social media app Yik Yak. The messages threatened the university’s feminist group and stood up for the actions of their rugby teams. There was mention that if the team got suspended, the rest of the university would “burn with them”. The student charged with the death of Mann, Steven Vander Briel, is a former member of the rugby team that was suspended. The police haven’t released any information about her death that relates the threats to Mann’s murder.
This wasn’t the first time that the Feminist United Club members had challenged the University; last year the Feminist United president Paige McKinsey spoke at a student senate meeting criticising fraternity culture and the university’s response to sexual assault. She also published an op-ed, “Why University Mary Washington Is Not A Feminist-Friendly Campus”, which talked about the rugby team’s chant. This caused both social media Yik Yak and the university’s student newspaper comment section to fill with hateful threats and complaints of misandry.
Two attorneys filed a complaint on behalf of the Feminists United Club that said their university was permitting a sexually hostile environment. These complaints fall under America’s gender equality law, Title IX, which protects students from sexual harassment and discrimination while enrolled in an education programme that receives federal financial assistance—which is pretty much every university and college in America. So by right, these universities and colleges have to provide an environment free of discrimination and sexual bias etc. for their students. Following their report on the death of Mary Washington University student Grace Mann, The Huffington Post claimed that the Education Department confirmed 137 colleges and universities are currently undergoing Title IX investigations. The Education Department wouldn’t name the universities being investigated but Dartmouth, Columbia, Barnard and Yale have all had Title IX complaints filed against them over the past two years.
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Reports have shown that fraternity culture has a huge impact on the campus environment. While they do some good things for universities (giant amounts of funding and alumni donations), they also cultivate an exclusive and toxic environment that is known to breed sexism and racism. Studies have found that frat brothers commit rape at three times the rate of other guys on campus. Every college and university has extracurricular clubs and groups, so what is it about fraternities that encourages male students to engage in harmful behaviour with their peers like sexual harassment and racism? The easiest explanation is that the feeling of being in a group or pack makes people believe they won’t be individually targeted for their behaviour, or that their actions won’t be noticed because everyone else is doing it. The tricky thing with fraternities is that the amount of money and legacy forms a protective layer around these young men. Often they aren’t actually held responsible for their actions and every time this happens, it adds to their fearlessness.
Thankfully New Zealand has yet to regurgitate America’s obsession with fraternity and sorority culture, but our high schools and universities are still not free from sexism, racism and discrimination—for example, see University of Canterbury ENSOC’s use of blackface in a promotional video last May.