It has been a year since UBC put their first stand-alone sexual assault policy into place, and students are disappointed with the university’s progress. As The Ubyssey investigated sexual misconduct and Policy 131, we discovered numerous problems with the policy's implementation, education and communication. While UBC has cited a reasonably lengthy checklist of things they have done, the holes that remain are the ones that survivors routinely seem to be falling through.
Content warning: this article contains subject matter and descriptions regarding sexual assault that may be disturbing to some readers.
On the morning of October 6, 2016, Sara Mack walked out of a fraternity house that sits in a neat row of similarly large, suburban houses on UBC’s Endowment Lands, across the street from the boundaries of UBC jurisdiction.
She left the Fraternity Village confused and scared, with hazy memories of the night before. She had gone to an “exchange” the previous evening — a commonplace event meant to facilitate sorority-fraternity relations. While Greek society international rules explicitly mandate that exchanges are sober events, after the lighthearted bonding activity is done a booze-heavy frat party called the “after-exchange” usually begins.
In an interview, Mack, a third-year human geography and history student and a member of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority, said that she felt “comfortable” attending the October 5 after-exchange — she knew most of the brothers there, and her sorority sisters were in attendance.
Late that night, Mack says, a member of the fraternity hosting the party saw that she was intoxicated. He offered her his bed to sleep in for the night. She describes herself as someone who would normally never stay over at another person’s house after a party. But she weighed her options: AMS Safewalk likely wouldn’t take a heavily intoxicated student, she didn’t want to try and take herself home for safety reasons, and she wasn’t the kind of person to put the burden of her care on someone else. So she decided to stay the night.
Once in bed, Mack fell asleep quickly. In the middle of the night, she says, she woke up to the person in whose room she was sleeping penetrating her from behind. Disoriented, it took her a moment to gather her bearings.
“I remember saying, ‘stop.’ And I just wasn’t really sure what was happening. And I don’t remember much of what happened. He was having sex with me. And it wasn’t mutual,” she said.
Still intoxicated, she fell back asleep. The next morning she describes being stunned and confused.
“I thought maybe I was overthinking it and it was consensual, and at some point I should’ve said ‘no’ more, or I should’ve said it more sternly, or I should have gotten myself out of the situation — like I was thinking of all the things I could have done, and it being my fault, and it being that I could have done more,” she said. “And that’s why I didn’t really tell anyone for a long time.”
This train of thought is one that countless survivors report. Social reasoning is a huge barrier to disclosure, and within the Greek community, which is known for being enthusiastically tight-knit, the complex of doubt can be further strengthened.
“The biggest thing to remember is that survivors are already internalizing that guilt. They’re already internalizing that fear. Everything that they’re thinking about is that,” said Nour Kachouh, volunteer and outreach coordinator with the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre.
“And those barriers may not be obvious — we may not be aware of them all the time, but it’s just important to remember that every survivor has their own barrier. And social stigmatization, especially in tight-knit friend groups, tight-knit organizations, tight-knit clubs, that is absolutely real.”
“I guess I partially didn’t want to ruin their reputation, because I know that they’re really good guys,” said Mack. “And I know there’s a couple bad apples, but I didn’t want to ‘ruin them,’ in a sense.”
Mack is exceptionally involved on campus. As former president of Ponderosa Commons Residence Association, she represented over 1,150 students in the last school year. She has also been involved as a previous executive of Gamma Phi Beta sorority and an AMS community engagement coordinator.
A large part of reasoning in choosing not to report, she said, is because her alleged attacker was a well-known person within UBC’s Greek community. To add to all of this, Mack was on friendly terms with him, increasing her own sense of self-doubt surrounding the situation.
“We were just friends. There was nothing else there. We were friends, we confided in each other about some things, but it was never anything beyond that,” she stressed.
Over a year and a half later, speculating on what was going through his mind at the time of the alleged assault, she wonders if he used their friendship as some sort of consent — perhaps working off of assumptions that more casual sexual arrangements are commonplace to university life. But, she said, she can’t know for sure.
Mack decided not to formally report the incident to the authorities after weighing her options. She was facing declining mental health and potential social repercussions, and the thought of telling strangers at a police station didn’t help. She questioned whether pressing formal charges would make her feel better.
“As much as I would give this kind of advice to friends — ‘Go report it,’ ‘You need to get tested,’ et cetera — I didn’t have the feeling of self-worth enough to go and report it myself. And I think I just felt a lot of shame and embarrassment.”
She recalls disclosing to a few friends at the time, including at least two women who were fellow members of Gamma Phi Beta, and cited her trust in the ability of executives to handle the situation by starting conversations with the fraternity. She thinks that she might have also told a trusted friend within the fraternity. Regardless, a short time later she says she got a phone call from the fraternity where she says she was assaulted. A short conversation ensued.
“He wanted to confirm that it was not consensual, and that was basically the gist of our conversation,” said Mack of the call.
She said “no,” he reportedly thanked her and said that the fraternity would follow up with “support,” and then the call ended. A month or so later she recalls following up to see what had come about from her disclosure, and says she received a vague response that called upon standards of privacy to justify the fraternity’s silence as to which, if any, punitive measures had been taken internally.
In the weeks following the assault, her alleged assailant had been sending her numerous Facebook messages, ranging from quick, seemingly harmless check-ins to more emotional diatribes: “What are you doing for thanksgiving then?”; “I actually had a crush on you I’m sorry”; “I wish it went down differently”; “Fml sorry I got drunk and messaged you.”
The longest of the messages was pleading in tone. The paragraph noted that he was “completely taken back [sic]” by a talk with his fraternity executives and had been “feeling so much confusion and sadness.”
“My career is in the field of social work and philanthropy. … An accusation this serious would in turn prohibit me from continuing to pursue my passions,” the message reads.
Mack called it a “non-apology.”
“I felt less inclined, especially after that message, to say absolutely anything to anyone, and [I felt] that if I did say anything, that I would be harmed or brought down in some way. I was scared, after that point.”
The message confirms that at least one fraternity executive knew of a serious allegation against one of their members, and did not take action. The Ubyssey reached out to the former president of the fraternity multiple times over Facebook messenger and email, and did not receive a response.
The handling of Mack’s complaint sheds light on what appears to be a trend in how the Greek community has been managing sexual misconduct allegations: internally. Mack said that while this trend led to overwhelming inaction, she attributes this less to malicious intent from specific fraternity members and more to the overarching lack of knowledge from Greek executives as to how to respond to such disclosures.
During her time as a sorority executive for almost two years over late 2015, 2016 and early 2017, she said she received over five formal disclosures, and many more informal ones regarding instances of sexual misconduct that had been allegedly committed by fraternity members. Without clear, overarching formal guidelines in place she said that sorority leaders often felt that the right thing to do was to start a conversation with fraternity executives.
With Mack’s particular case, she said, “I think I ultimately trusted [that the executives I told] took care of the situation, and I think I had a little bit too much trust.”
Mack didn’t talk about the wider attitude within the Greek community towards sexual misconduct. But off-record sources from within UBC sororities described the culture that underlies the way that disclosures and reports are handled.
“I think that there is so much oppression towards survivors in the Greek community that women really feel like they can’t push for their abusers to be terminated or be suspended from the university, which I think really should be the outcome. And women have kind of learned to step back, sit and be quiet about it,” said Melanie, whose name has been changed.
Melanie, who asked to remain anonymous due to her active sorority membership (only specific spokespeople may speak to the media), is well-versed in the Greek system; in addition to being a sorority woman throughout her degree, she served as a chapter president for her sorority and was a part of the Panhellenic Council, which is a student governance body composed of representatives or “officers” from each sorority.
She also identified the internal process between fraternity and sorority executives that Mack described, characterizing those conversations as steering “towards a no-outcome resolution.”
While she said that some pledges have been terminated in the past due to allegations, “I’ve never heard of someone who is really well-known in the Greek community or [just] an initiated member of a fraternity being terminated.”
Mack is no longer a member of Gamma Phi Beta — she had to drop her sorority membership in early 2017 after her grades dipped drastically due to her mental health, which she attributes to the alleged sexual assault. Her poor grades also called into question whether or not she would be able to return to UBC that coming fall — but as of the time of writing, she is back at school and working on rejoining her sorority.
As recently as early March of this year, the Greek community was called out for anti-survivor attitudes. Former IFC president Jeriah Newman stepped down from his role after AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Max Holmes penned an open letter calling out the IFC for their actions during an endorsement meeting for his re-election campaign. Holmes alleged that during that meeting, IFC members raised concerns about false sexual assault allegations, emphasized the importance of considering accommodations for the accused in a sexual assault case, implied that frat party attendance was lower when a member accused of sexual assault was there, and questioned the usage of the word “survivor” to describe those who experience sexual misconduct.
“It became apparent to me that IFC leadership cares more about the image of their institution than the systematic abuse survivors have experienced,” Holmes wrote.
While Newman said that he had “no recollection” of such topics being brought up during the meeting, and that the IFC “will always support survivors of sexual assault,” Holmes’ letter spurred angry support online. Including Holmes, six of the eight AMS executive candidates endorsed by the IFC rejected their IFC endorsements.
Newman originally said that he didn’t plan to resign from the IFC, but six days later published an apology letter and announced he was stepping down.
“Until something huge happens, like people asking the IFC president to resign, we don’t really look at our structure, just because we’re so busy doing all these other things [that are a part of Greek life],” said Mack. “And it’s hard for us to put it into perspective, all the larger things that we kind of miss on a daily basis.”
Maintaining good relations with the fraternities feels like a pillar of the sorority experience to many members. When it comes to the incentivization of joining the Greek system, the social piece is key — many students are there to find a sense of automatic community at huge universities with thousands of students. But sometimes these ties turn insidious, according to some sorority women: so heavily prioritized that they overshadow the openness that forms the linchpin of accountability within the Greek community.
“That’s like the common thing told to members, is that our relationship with the fraternity is more important than your issue with one member. … So we’re informally taught to keep quiet as long as possible unless you’re really at risk, so that your chapter can keep relations,” said Melanie. Her perception is that these attitudes lend themselves to the discouragement of formal disclosures and reports.
She also stressed her concern that there is no affirmation from UBC Sororities saying they would support their own survivors over the relationship that they have with the fraternity and the IFC.
“That kind of seems to be the sentiment right now, that coming forward is kind of the weak thing to do.”
According to a statement from UBC Sororities posted on Facebook in early March, “While a number of our chapters have educational programming on topics such as sexual misconduct and bystander intervention, and others have formalized mechanisms to receive safe disclosures, we want to do more. We believe the time is now to lead or participate in a large-scale initiative to address the issue of sexual violence response on campus.”
Commenters on that post asked whether there would be forthcoming acknowledgement that “sororities have been a toxic environment for survivors and have been indirectly complicit in maintaining one with the fraternities.” They also asked whether standardized processes on disclosures and the treatment of those who disclose would be put into place, to help prevent stigmatization and “so that women are not being penalized for not attending a function due to not wanting to see her assaulter.”
Kennedy Gagnon, the current president of the Panhellenic Council, said in a May interview that the council is doing work to reverse these attitudes and perceptions and create better policies.
“We’re actively working to ensure that that’s not the experience of survivors, and all of our policy and procedure that we’re developing is within consultation of survivors within the community,” said Gagnon. “So I certainly would love to hear from members who have had both positive and negative experiences, if that’s the case, to ensure that we’re doing our best to create a culture of consent and a culture that is supportive and safe for survivors.”
She added that the experience of the sorority woman, in her mind, will always be prioritized, and that future policy — which the Panhellenic Council is working on writing — will include a statement of support for survivors.
“At the end of the day, it’s my role and the role of UBC Sororities’ presidents, individual chapters’ presidents, to put the needs of their members first. And so if there is a chapter that feels, or if the community feels we should differentiate ourselves socially [from the fraternities], we are at liberty to do so.”
Jamie Gill, who took over as president of the IFC shortly after Newman stepped down, has put a concentrated focus on addressing the issue of sexual misconduct within the Greek community. He described his approach as “hitting the ground running.”
The IFC recently added UBC’s sexual misconduct policy to their official bylaws, as well as new guidelines surrounding disclosure and education — additions that all ten UBC fraternity chapters voted unanimously in favour of. According to Gill, the new bylaws say that when disclosures of sexual violence are brought forward, the IFC and the fraternity involved will work with those who disclose to determine whether or not they wish to further disclose or report to the university, and will provide as much support as possible either way.
“When people realize there is a way that we handle disclosures, then they will feel much more comfortable disclosing. And that’s the ultimate goal,” said Gill.
All current IFC members and fraternity executives are now mandated to receive disclosure training by November of 2018. The new bylaws say that training of new executives has to re-occur every year by the end of January. Gill did not wish to speak to whether there has previously been a problem with disclosures handled informally and internally, since he is new to the IFC role. The full bylaws will be posted to the IFC website in September.
“We are starting at a point where we want to imagine that nobody knows anything with regards to sexual assault, support and prevention … we want to educate from a baseline and start from the lowest point possible, and then move forward.”
Although the IFC is acting quickly, the implementation of their new policy is still in its baby steps. Gill also acknowledged that it will take time to rehabilitate the fraternity image and enact the cultural shift that he is aiming for.
“We are working to change a culture of people assuming that they know what they’re talking about, and that’s dangerous. When people assume they understand something that they don’t, especially a very complex topic such as this, that’s not good. And that’s why we’re focused on education.”
Mack’s case is, depressingly, hardly rare.
A March open letter responding to Newman’s public apology, penned by two UBC sorority women, reads, “As sorority women, sexual assault is not a negative stereotype of the Greek community — it is a reality that influences our decisions when engaging with the community and is an issue that desperately needs to be attended to.”
This year’s AMS Academic Experience Survey marks the first time that the AMS has asked respondents questions related to sexual misconduct, a choice that Holmes made precisely because of the underreported prevalence of the issue. The survey’s results, some of which were released in mid-April, found that 13 per cent of undergraduate women overall have experienced sexual assault and/or sexual misconduct by a member of the UBC community.
Even more shockingly, about one third, or 38 per cent, of female respondents who participated in Greek life said they have experienced sexual assault and/or sexual misconduct by a member of the UBC community.
Again, these statistics only include incidences perpetrated by a UBC community member.
“It’s hard to give an overarching view of the whole Greek system as there’s over 800 girls in sororities, but there are SO many girls that I’ve talked to who have either experienced sexual assault or know someone that has (Greek or not),” said an alumna of a UBC sorority in an email, who required anonymity due to her current position on the alumni board, which is governed by her sorority’s international media policy.
Mack perceives similarly high rates of sexual misconduct.
“There were very few in my friend group, which is basically my entire sorority, that have not come to me about something sexual assault-related happening to them, or harassment, or anything along those lines,” she said. “It’s very commonplace to have something happen.”
If the problem is almost a trope at this point, a media headline already written, why isn’t UBC addressing it? Why isn’t the university asking whether Greek executives are trained, or at least notified, on how to properly report?
“The Greek system is independent from the university, so we have no ability to impose mandatory anythings on that community,” said Louise Cowin, UBC’s former VP Students. “We would value, though, if that community reached out to the university with a view to our being invited into those spaces to provide education. I would welcome that opportunity.”
“I certainly think we would appreciate and benefit from more assistance and guidance from the administration,” said Gagnon.
This attitude, of shifting blame, of murky jurisdiction, of avoiding responsibility with half-complete answers and alternative suggestions, has come from UBC not just regarding potential issues within the Greek system. This approach has seeped into many aspects of the implementation of the UBC’s sexual misconduct policy (Policy 131), which was officially put into place one year ago, in May of 2017.
UBC has never rolled out a communications or education plan to tackle issues that take place at fraternity or sorority events or houses that may contribute to a higher rate of sexual assault in the Greek system. Greek leadership simply received the emails, like every other member of the campus community, that there was a new policy in place — a policy that, in April of 2017, committed UBC to among other things, “providing comprehensive and inclusive sexual misconduct education, prevention and response initiatives.”
“[Fraternities] have to understand the importance of this issue within their own community,” said Cowin, “and to educate and to connect to the university [for] support.”
But without any training, student leadership is left to its own goodwill and initiative.
“I feel like the UBC approach was very similar to the IFC approach in regards to sexual assault in that they wanted to create a policy and check it off their list. … I know that UBC never reached out to chapter presidents to talk about what this policy looks like and what your chapter could be doing,” said Melanie.
“In terms of how sororities have been responding to UBC’s sexual assault policy, I think that sororities are attempting to fill a gap that the university does not succeed at,” said the sorority alumna. “A big reason that a lot of girls join sororities in the first place is that they’re looking for a support system and a community that they’re not finding elsewhere at UBC.”
“I think it would be great to have support from the administration as well in terms of creating a program for leaders,” said Gagnon, citing her own initiative and help from those within the AMS as the reason she has any knowledge about how to potentially help survivors.
If infrastructure was in place, Mack believes, the Greeks would follow it to the letter — no questions asked.
“I think there’s a lot of educational opportunities that are missed and that need to happen, overall in campus leadership and overall in this campus, but it’s not an exclusively a Greek problem,” she said.
Said Kachouh, “It’s not about pointing a finger at a certain group and saying, ‘you are doing this wrong thing.’ It’s about recognizing that every group is working within the system. Every group has its own system, its own patriarchy, its own toxic masculinity, its own ideas about cultural norms, its own ideas about consent. And it’s about figuring out how to work in that system and how to mitigate negative impacts of those systems.”
The university’s current interactions with the Greek community are out-of-sight at best and out-of-mind at worst. At one point UBC had a position called the “student coordinator liaison,” who had the sororities and fraternities as a small part of a portfolio that encompassed all student leadership communities. Cowin said the new position came about as a result of funding after offensive Commerce Undergraduate Society frosh chants in 2013, but during Arvind Gupta’s presidency budget cuts slashed the role within only one year of its existence. Both Gagnon and Gill said that more official channels of communication would be very beneficial to their work, potentially through bringing back an official liaison position.
According to university administration, in many cases the Greek system is not under UBC’s jurisdiction because it is not a part of UBC, nor is its main physicality located on UBC property. In this case, “jurisdiction” is defined under the sexual misconduct policy’s mandate to investigate, which says that “the alleged conduct must have a real and substantial connection to UBC.”
“They’re not within my jurisdiction to investigate,” Myrna McCallum, UBC’s head of investigations under Policy 131, said of the Greek community. “So I really have no role at this time with the Greeks.”
She went on to explain that because the Greek community’s “private” social events are held “off campus” as the Fraternity Village technically is, sexual assaults that occur there might not be considered as having the “real and substantial connection” to UBC that Policy 131 mandates.
“It’s that the fraternity sits on the other side of the street, really, in terms of their location geographically,” said Cowin.
As explained by Holmes, while both the Panhellenic Council and the IFC are technically “clubs,” any AMS ownership over the Greek community is incredibly unclear. He accepts that it is a responsibility of both the AMS and UBC to, moving forward, be stringent in defining who has jurisdiction over the Greeks.
“It’s an at-risk community, and it’s a serious issue that needs to be tackled. And we can no longer use the excuse of, ‘They’re not related to UBC,’ or, ‘The AMS doesn’t have any control over them,’ or ‘None of us have any control over them.’ It’s a bad excuse, and it’s something that we need to determine,” he said.
Cowin agrees that this is an issue that could potentially be looked at as part of policy review.
This distancing of UBC from Greek life appears inconsistent with other key messaging given that the UBC “Sexual Assault Intervention and Prevention Education Plan” identified the Greek community — and student leadership as a whole — as a priority group for receiving sexual misconduct education as early as August 2015.
Mack thinks that UBC will not achieve a truly survivor-centric campus until all of its leaders are educated on sexual misconduct and trained to receive disclosures responsibly.
“[When they disclose], people are obviously going to go to their nearest leader: who are generally the sorority executives; who are for a club, their club president; for people that are in the clubs, their best friend; their prof; or whoever. And those people don’t know where to go right now,” said Mack.
“And they don’t feel comfortable going to these hack-job Policy 131 places that have been put in place arbitrarily because the government told [UBC] to. And they’re not told what to do.”
Onus within the Greek community is falling to a group of twenty-somethings managing other twenty-somethings.
“They’re leaving it up to students to deal with this internally,” said Mack. “Which is revolting, because we don’t know what to do. And victims are therefore suffering more because we don’t know what to do and we don’t know who to go to.”