Rape Happens Here

For 150 years, leafy, progressive Swarthmore College tried to resolve student conflicts in the best Quaker tradition — peacefully and constructively. Then came 91 complaints of sexual misconduct. In a single year.

In late August 2012, as students began to trickle onto campus, word got out that a sorority had been reestablished by a group of students who were perhaps more career-minded and athletically oriented than the typical Swattie. Perturbed, a senior sent an email to the Swarthmore Queer Union listserv:

Wait — I thought the sorority thing was shot down pretty definitively last year. Why is this happening? Are we happy this is happening??

They were not. And so a petition was formed to gauge interest in abolishing the new sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, which soon turned into a referendum to eradicate Greek life altogether.

Frats at Swarthmore look pretty much like you might expect. There are only two, Delta Upsilon and Phi Psi, and neither provides housing. When a writer at the website TotalFratMove.com (Jezebel for fraternity bros) caught wind of the referendum, he panned Swarthmore’s frat scene: “To hear that there is anti-Greek sentiment at Swarthmore is about as surprising as finding out that a Lena Dunham shaped sex doll is the new mascot for Oberlin College.”

However harmless Swarthmore and its frats appear, they’ve long been maligned on campus. “Greek life at Swarthmore has always been precarious,” says former dean of students Bob Gross, who retired in 2006. “People resent that they have dedicated space.” Indeed, as the referendum heated up in March 2013, anti-Greek activists began pinning up fliers with messages like “Groups that exclude and frighten Swatties should not control 50 percent of the social spaces on campus.”

As the movement intensified, the anti-fraternity messaging began to suggest a relationship between “frat culture” and “rape culture.” A couple nights before the vote, in early April, several students asserted this more publicly through a familiar mode of expression at Swarthmore: chalked messages written on campus walkways. (Hope Brinn, one of the leaders of the movement, wrote about being raped in a message she planted in front of the campus library.) The next day, many of the chalkings had been scrubbed away by then-student-council co-president Victor Brady. Like many on campus, he was perturbed by the vitriolic and personal accusations they contained. President Chopp followed with an email condemning the “targeted anonymous postings.”

Mia Ferguson wasn’t involved with the referendum, but she was incensed by the notion that student testimony was being suppressed. “I had accepted what happened with me as sexual assault,” she told me as we sat in a Philadelphia restaurant in late January. What motivated her to go public was the sense that Swarthmore had abandoned its commitment to free expression and inquiry.

So she joined Brinn for a second night of chalking. “We were really angry, chalking things everywhere, and then this staff member came up to us,” Brinn remembered in an oral history collected last year by a campus magazine. “He said, ‘Are you aware of the cover-ups, too?’ And he started talking about how the administration had literally been destroying evidence of sexual assault.” Brinn and Ferguson couldn’t track down any specifics, and the staffer stopped responding to my emails when I asked him about the claims. Whether true or not, the whiff of a wider conspiracy galvanized the two women. Within a few weeks, they had collected sufficient testimony of victim-blaming, underreporting and general administration insensitivity that they brought their complaints against Swarthmore.

For a dedicated band of student activists at the school, a broader politics of oppression linked frat culture and rape culture with concerns about everything from the Keystone XL pipeline to American imperialism. But where they saw “intersectionality,” others saw inchoate aggression. After the fraternity referendum failed, says David Hill, a 2013 graduate and DU brother well known on campus for his conservatism, there arose “a general culture of hatred towards the administration.” Gross, the retired dean, summed much of the activism up as “the way adolescents individuate themselves — by rebelling against the parents.”

The analogy may be flip, but it’s apt in at least one sense. Swarthmore represents a peculiar inversion of the “in loco parentis” once reliably promised by small liberal arts colleges: Students expect — and are granted — near-total autonomy. But that no-consequences freedom also sets up an expectation that students will be inoculated from any harm that befalls them on campus. I spoke at length with roughly a dozen victims of alleged sexual misconduct at Swarthmore and, through a Freedom of Information Act request, obtained the Title IX complaint that detailed the stories of a dozen more. (Swarthmore’s Phoenix and Daily Gazette published several such accounts, too.) One theme was constant: The women felt betrayed less by their perpetrators, from whom they never expected much, than by their college.

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