Sorority leaders must stop blaming survivors

I could never take another a swig of beer. I could dress “modestly” (whatever that means). I could never walk into a dark party and show my moves on the dance floor. I could never leave my dorm room again.

And I could still be assaulted.

Julie Johnson, a chairwoman for the Panhellenics Committee made the following comments concerning sexual assault in the Greek community in today’s Daily Tar Heel:

“We as women could do a much better job,” Johnson said. “And unfortunately we have to take responsibility for our behaviors and ourselves — we have to. That means we’ve got to be smarter in the choices that we’re making so that we don’t get ourselves in bad situations.”

I assume the “bad situations” she mentions here are instances sexual violence where alcohol is involved.

When I was a first year, I attended a Halloween party where older men gave me alcohol. They passed me their flasks. I saw a friend take a swig. I was nervous and insecure. I figured this was normal for college. So when I was handed the flask, I tipped it back and felt the liquor scorch my throat.

I felt the guy who was dancing with me pull up my skirt over and over. I tried to smooth it back down. I didn’t want to make a scene and ruin the party. But he kept on pulling up my skirt. I eventually made eye contact with a friend and danced away. Later that night a skinny guy pulled me close to him and we started to kiss, badly. I never learned his name. He guided me to a dark corner, and asked me if I was a first year. Nervous, I nodded. He told me I was cute, and pushed me to drink his beer. By now I was properly drunk and trying to hide my discomfort with the situation. After more clumsy kisses he asked me if I wanted to leave with him. I told him I heard my friends calling me. I dashed up the stairs and found a friend.

The things those men did? Folks who study interpersonal violence call them grooming. In college, perpetrators typically target first years, make sure they’re intoxicated, isolate them, and move them to a second location.

I don’t know what would have happened if I had left the party with him. Maybe nothing. Maybe assault.

Julie, if I had been raped that night, would it have been my fault? Please let me know. My email address is If you want, we can talk on the phone. I’m serious.

To be clear, I wish I hadn’t taken swigs from that flask, or gulped down the beer the guy gave me. I still don’t like looking at the skirt I wore that night. It reminds me of a stranger’s strong hands pulling it up. I wish I’d stayed home that night.

As much as I wish I had made different choices, I feel sure, to the core of my being, that what happened was not my fault. If, God forbid, I had been assaulted that night, it would not have been my fault. Let me say that again. The fault in this situation lays squarely on the shoulders of the men who took advantage of me.

Leaders in the Greek community have a powerful voice. I wish leaders would not use their power to blame victims of assault for what happened to them. I know many sorority women who are doing big things to reform the Greek system, and attitudes like the ones Johnson recently expressed undermine those efforts.

Survivors, especially survivors who are members of sororities, deserve better from campus leaders. I hope that Johnson and other members of the national Panhellenic community use this moment as an opportunity to seriously examine their role in helping, not hurting, survivors.

Note: the National Panhellenic Conference’s position statement on sexual assault is as follows:
The National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), one of the world’s largest organizations advocating for women, is the umbrella group for 26 inter/national sororities. NPC deplores the act of sexual assault. We support the rights of not only our members, but all women who are survivors of sexual assault. A woman’s right to report and seek a fair, supportive and timely due process will remain a priority for NPC. We support the collective efforts of our sorority organizations, and those men,women, colleges and university officials who seek substantive change to prevent such conduct and eradicate violence against women. NPC commits to partnering with institutions of higher education to make our campuses safe for all who attend.

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