Brotherly Lust

The awful spectre of fraternity rape.

By Mark Worth, Candy Nelson and Dana Clark Felty


Somewhere, perhaps in one of her therapy sessions, a young woman is still trying to make sense of what happened to her during the early morning hours of February 24, 1995. Many of the details she will never be able to remember. For her sake, it may be just as well that she doesn't.

What the woman is sure of is that she got extremely drunk while bar-hopping in downtown Gainesville and was invited back to the Sigma Chi house for some after-hours partying by a contingency that included then-fraternity president Rob Bennett. There, she says, she met two frat brothers who, after inviting her to an upstairs room and locking the door, poured beer down her throat against her will and had group sex with her for several hours—with a third frat member watching for part of the time. Police reports indicate the brothers boasted of their conquest at lunch the following afternoon.

The woman—"Vicki" for the purposes of this article—is also sure about the fact that if she hadn't been so drunk, she never would have agreed to have sex with the two men. Vicki, who was 18 at the time, told UF police a week after the incident, "Just because the girl has been drinking, you don't give her more beer and then assume it's OK. They have to know that what they did was wrong, and whatever it takes, it's got to stop. How many other girls are gonna go?..."

Florida's rape law, while clear on the surface, is loaded with timebombs upon further inspection. It speaks of a person who does not consent to participating in a sex act as being a rape victim. Vicki told police she didn't give consent to the Sigma Chi brothers, but that she didn't physically or verbally resist their sexual advances. Still, there's a razor-thin line between what Vicki claims happened to her early that morning and what the law defines as sexual battery.

Investigators who looked into the incident said there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges against the Sigma Chi duo: UF junior James "Jamie" Haldin and sophomore Steven Melco. And, UF administrators decided against disciplining Haldin and Melco. They weren't so much as arrested—even though Vicki said she suffered a bruised right breast in the incident. Their only punishment: suspension from Sigma Chi for having two-on-one sex, an act deemed "unbecoming" at a Christian-based fraternity whose charter requires members to believe in God.

As for Sigma Chi, the fraternity was not punished for serving alcohol to a minor, in spite of strong evidence that the under-age Vicki was served booze at the house. That decision, made by a panel of Greek and university leaders, elicited this colorful remark from the president of Pi Lambda Phi, site of the most infamous gang rape ever reported at UF: "I definitely think that Sigma Chi got off on something that we would have gotten screwed on," said Pi Lam’s Seth Tipton.

For the past month, MOON has been looking into what happened to Vicki at the Sigma Chi house. In the process, we've extensively examined the issue of sexual assault at UF and at other campuses—particularly as it occurs within the fraternity system. We've interviewed dozens of people, from UF officials and fraternity leaders to rape counselors and feminists. We've pored over a stack of studies that examine campus and fraternity rape, as well as a pile of police reports, court records and newspaper clippings.

Rape is and always will be a complicated societal problem that devastates its victims and frustrates those in the business of preventing it. People searching for easy answers and explanations will be disappointed. But looking through the lens of the Sigma Chi incident and examining the recent history of rape at UF fraternities, MOON has been able to draw some fundamental conclusions about the university's response to the problems of sexual assault in the Greek community, and about why some of these solutions appear to have fallen short of their stated goals.

As it quickly will become clear, those hoping for an end to sexual abuse in the fraternity system shouldn't hold their breath. Here's why:

One also can't help but ask why it took the university until 1994 to require fraternity members to attend rape awareness seminars. By then, details of several alleged fraternity rapes, as well as repulsive exploitation techniques used by some frat members, had been extensively reported in the media. Why the long delay? Was it denial? Or were even more unsettling factors at work, such as collusion between university and fraternity leaders?

Faced with such an unfriendly landscape, local NOW members represent a lone voice in the wilderness. Still, by all accounts, NOW's proposals seem the most logical of any currently on the table. Among them: aggressive prosecution of sexual offenders, more comprehensive and accurate education programs, mandatory rape awareness seminars for incoming freshman, and tougher talk from UF administrators and rape educators. Further, NOW believes it’s time for the onus to shift from the woman to the man. “As a woman, I’m sick of being told don’t drink too much, don’t have fun, don’t let your guard down,” said Kristy Royall, co-president of NOW's UF/Santa Fe Community College chapter.

NOW sees the problem of rape as a microcosm of what's wrong with men and with how they relate to women. "We see rape as a feminist issue," says Royall. "Men feel like they can get away with it. They protect each other." Looking closely at what reportedly happened to Vicki and countless other women who have met with misfortune at UF frat houses, Royall's assessment seems to be disturbingly accurate.


NEVER AGAIN?

As much as the 1990 student murders will forever stand as a grisly reminder of violent crime in Gainesville, the reported 1983 gang rape of a UF freshman at the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity house will occupy the darkest page in the history of UF's Greek system. One can hardly discuss the problem of campus rape without recounting the sickening events that a 17-year-old woman says she endured on Sept. 13, 1983. We'll call her "Rebecca". About 8:30 that night, Rebecca went with her two roommates and another friend to a Little Sister rush party at the Pi Lam house. Once there, she drank a couple of daiquiris. By 11, Rebecca's friends were nowhere to be found. At that point, she started asking around for a ride home. None of the Pi Lam brothers would oblige. By midnight, Rebecca was the only woman left in the entire place.

Then, according to UF Police Department records, "some of the brothers were teasing her that if she did not leave soon they would take her upstairs." She didn't. They did. Two Pi Lam members began coaxing the reluctant Rebecca into going to a bedroom with a brother so they could "get to know each other better." She did. They did. Upon entering the room, Rebecca was surrounded by three brothers. A fourth stood in front of the door, blocking her escape. The room was illuminated only by the light of a clock radio. The men told her if she slept with a brother, she would become a little sister. Little did they know, Rebecca had no such aspirations. How could they? They didn't even know her name.

Three brothers proceeded to rape Rebecca, she told UPD investigators. "We brothers share everything," she told UPD. As if waiting to refill their beer mugs, Pi Lam members formed a line outside the room. She reported being assaulted by no fewer than three men at the same time. After eight Pi Lam brothers had their way with the teen-ager, someone called an end to the gang bang, UPD records show. Rebecca was allowed to leave. She had been in the room for two hours. Outside in the hallway, several brothers still waited, eager to participate in the ritual. They very likely would have another chance. A brother told Rebecca "not to feel bad, that another girl had been upstairs," and that "she was prettier than most that come upstairs."

On the ride back to her apartment, the brother told Rebecca that he was sorry about what had happened and, apparently based on the earlier events at the frat house, that he would see what he could do to make her a little sister.

For reasons to which perhaps only she is privy, Rebecca waited nine weeks to go the authorities. Certainly, shame and humiliation were likely factors. Another possible reason: embarrassment over having contracted herpes. She told UPD investigators what happened that night. She passed a lie-detector test. Six Pi Lams acknowledged having sex with the woman but said it was consensual. UPD didn't believe two of them, Jeff Seiden and David Stone. They were charged with sexual battery, a first-degree felony that carries a possible life-long prison sentence. Then-State Attorney Eugene Whitworth, however, cited a lack of evidence as his reason for not taking the Pi Lam pair to trial. The only punishment stemming from the incident: a two-year suspension for Pi Lambda Phi, which was found guilty of hazing.

For months, the story dominated the headlines of the Independent Florida Alligator. Feminist groups were outraged, demanding reprisals. Concerned-sounding UF officials puffed their chests, promising reforms. Fraternity leaders reeled under the intense heat, stammering forth boilerplate defenses of the Greek system.

Within a year, the Little Sister program was history. Then, alcohol was banned from fraternity rush parties. There was almost universal agreement that the lesson of Pi Lam would live through the ages, and that fraternity rape would be a problem of the past. If a narrative of the alleged Pi Lam gang rape were etched onto a granite tablet at the entrance to UF's Fraternity Row, maybe frat members would have stopped their coercive sexual behavior by now. But it wasn't. And they haven't.


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