We Need Fraternity Men to Do a Lot More Than ‘Walk a Mile in Her Shoes’

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For many, Greek life is a central part of the college experience. And each year, it seems there are more efforts by fraternity men to acknowledge and even address sexual assault on college and university campuses.

However, despite their work and years of national attention and campus administration efforts, fraternity houses themselves remain particularly dangerous places for sexual assault. Research from our very own campus, the University of Arizona, found 40% of sexual assaults “by force” and 55% of sexual assaults “by incapacitation” are reported to have occurred in a Greek house.

That’s why we really appreciate increasing efforts by Greek men to take action against sexual assault.

But, not every action actually helps to make our campuses safer.

Some campaigns and fundraisers can serve as placeholders, in lieu of actual work to make campus safer or better. One of these placeholders is “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.”

When a fraternity attempted to host this event on our campus, a firestorm erupted.

At our campus Women’s Resource Center, we declined the invitation to participate in one fraternity’s “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.” In response to our “no,” a fraternity member collaborated with a website to publish a fake and inflammatory “news” story about the interaction.

It was an obviously embellished account including a fake email exchange and sentiments like drowning puppies and burning patriarchy.

This fake story brought the onslaught of over one hundred hateful emails, Facebook posts, and voicemail messages from people all over the country.

Folks, believing the story at face value, rallied behind the fraternity member who organized the event and his intentions to raise awareness around sexual assault. They felt like we were being too “feminist” and too “politically correct” by not getting behind the event.

But here’s what that “news story” didn’t tell folks. We regularly do support fraternity men taking leadership to prevent sexual assault. But we, and many others, have serious problems with this particular fundraiser.

The event meant to raise awareness about sexual assault via the humor of fraternity men walking in red high heels – is part of a national “Walk a Mile” organization.

Fraternities across the country pay to host this organization’s event on their campus nearly every weekend of the year. It’s meant to be fun and funny because “men don’t walk around in high heels.”

The problem, though, is that while many men who organize these events may have great intentions, that humor reinforces gender conformity and reinforces the overt violence and social shame received by anyone who dares not to conform.

This is humor at the cost of transgender women, who are victimized at nearly twice the overall incidence of sexual assault and sexual misconduct as other survivors.

After all, if what is “funny” and “fun” about the event is that masculine-seeming folks are wearing heels and perhaps dresses, that sends a strong message about how we ought to treat some femme-identified folks in our communities.

Trans and gender non-conforming folks are an important part of our Center and the social justice work of our campus – no event’s “good” should come at the expense of others’ humanity.

No matter the intentions, awareness-raising events like “Walk a Mile” not only marginalize members of our community who are already experiencing tremendous violence, but they send the message that fraternity men “care” while demanding little of the average fraternity member to change the material conditions in their organizations that produce sexual assault.

We don’t need publicity stunts. We don’t need “awareness raising” through funny antics. We need fraternity men to take up the real, hard work of sexual assault prevention.

So, it should not come as a surprise that we declined participation.

But, out of all the pushback and harassment, there remains a really good question. What can fraternity men actually do to prevent sexual assault? 

After all, fraternity men hold a tremendous amount of power on many college campuses. That power can be leveraged to cause harm, or it can be leveraged to address endemic problems like sexual assault.

So we thought it important to offer some specific, tangible ways that men in fraternities can responsibly and accountably work to end sexual assault on our campuses.

1. Work on You First

In our work, we find that the average fraternity member can’t or won’t even admit that sexual assault is a problem or that (as research indicates) fraternity men are more likely to commit sexual assault that non-Greek men.

We need Greek men to take responsibility for the disproportionate numbers of sexual assault in fraternity communities and work to address the ways that toxic masculinity and commitment to rape myths make fraternity houses and parties less safe.

Start with your members and commit to long-term and critical education. Then move to your parties and work to transform the environments where predatory behavior is bred.

 As part of this effort, implement real education for your members. A twenty-minute presentation during recruitment or a one hour workshop doesn’t make a lasting impact when it comes to sexual assault.

Educators are up against more than eighteen years of firmly ingrained attitudes and behaviors.

Work with organizations on your campus to get your members into an educational program that is a multi-week series of real, honest sexual violence prevention education, and demand that your institution invest in effective education programs that are ongoing and that push your members to think deeply and critically about their role in preventing sexual violence.

2. Make It Local 

If you’re going to fundraise, do it for a local, women-led organization that works to prevent sexual assault or helps survivors navigate the aftermath of trauma – especially an organization right on your own campus.

They can make the greatest and most immediate impact for survivors, including the survivors of assault at your parties that you never know. National organizations are great and do important work. But they also have access to funding, grants, and staff that your campus organizations don’t.

3. Be Survivor-Centered 

If you’re going to do an event “for women,” “for survivors,” or “for” any marginalized identity – people from that community need to be at the center of your entire planning process.

Simply put, survivors and those who work to serve survivors know way better than you do about what will actually prevent sexual assault or help support those impacted by trauma.

Work with the members of that group from the very beginning as equal collaborators to develop a program that reflects their experiences and honors their voices.

Follow their lead – they know what they’re doing. Don’t just invite those folks in at the end or after you’ve planned everything to show up as token supporters.

4. Be Inclusive

The problem with the pushback we received about “Walk a Mile” wasn’t that some well-meaning men designed a program that might have adverse effects on their campus.

The problem was that when presented with narratives and voices and criticism from those who this program could harm, the members dug in their heels and called on an army of trolls to support them.

Any and all programs to address sexual assault need to not only be survivor-centered but also need to be respectful and responsive to the needs of all marginalized communities on campus and beyond.

Ask yourself (and check in with people who have experience in these areas) whether your program is respectful of all people’s identities, including racial, religious, sexual, gender, class/wealth, ability, and other marginalized identities.

5. Set a High Bar

Hold your brothers to the highest standard. The tide is turning, and campuses are paying attention to sexual assault more and more.

Fraternity men can be at the leading edge of this long, overdue awakening, using their campus standing to set the bar high for campus culture around preventing assault.

Develop a no-tolerance policy for misconduct, and then hold your members to it.

Commit yourselves to creating environments that push back against rape culture, and do more than just host publicity stunts. On many campuses, where Greek life leads, the campus follows.

The question you have to ask yourselves in how you interact with fellow Greek men is, “Where exactly are we leading?”

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To be sure, this is difficult work. It’s not the kind of work you will immediately see results for doing.

If you’re receiving lots of accolades for the work, it probably means it’s more show than substance. That’s why most fraternities are not taking up this task. That’s why campus educators struggle. That’s why fun events like “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” are just easier.

But if we want to make our campuses safe for women, if fraternity men really want to be leaders of integrity and honor, this difficult path is the only way.

And remember – you don’t have to walk this path alone. In fact, powerful women have laid out the path before us, and if we follow their lead and rely on their leadership, fraternity men and their friends and allies will undoubtedly be a part of the solution to the problem of campus sexual assault.

Krista Millay received her ThD in Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics from Boston University, and is currently the Director of the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Arizona, where she oversees sexual violence prevention education. She was a 2015-2016 Tucson public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

Jamie Utt is a sexual violence prevention educator and works in the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Arizona to engage men in violence prevention. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Teaching, Learning, and Sociocultural Studies.