Sexual assault is not just a Greek life issue: Spirit groups are failing to address it.

Sara Jane Ross, Contributor

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as part of the October 26 flipbook.

Trigger Warning: Discussions of sexual assault.

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“Diet Greek life”: That’s the running joke about spirit groups in some circles on campus — pockets of us who became disillusioned after years of membership in these organizations and time spent on their executive boards. On paper, spirit groups seem to be the solution to so many issues Greek life is often lambasted for: racist recruitment practices, homophobia and transphobia, dangerous hazing, extreme financial barriers to membership and a toxic culture that promotes and excuses abuse. But after three years in a popular spirit group on campus, including a year as vice president and a year on the executive board of the umbrella organization overseeing many other spirit groups, it became harder and harder to ignore the ways that those groups pitched as “better” than Greek life in fact function in many similarly harmful ways. 

As a survivor of rape by a UT fraternity member and veteran of the UT Title IX process, I have spent much of my advocacy journey on campus supporting and advising people like myself — students who were victimized by fraternity men and the organizations that protected them. While multiple studies have startlingly shown that fraternity men nationally are three times more likely to commit sexual assault on campus than non-fraternity men, statistics about sexual assault by members of UT-specific spirit groups are virtually nonexistent. 

From the time I joined my own organization, I was constantly fed the message that these male groups we partied with were “the good ones” — men who chose a path outside of Greek life and held themselves to a higher standard of conduct and respect. Like so many others, I internalized this idea and the false sense of security it provided and passed it along to younger members as it had been passed on to me. Yet somehow, in my three years of advocacy on campus, I have worked with survivors of abuse by members (including executive board officers) of every major male spirit group at UT. And while knowledge of the issue of sexual assault by members of Greek life is seemingly ubiquitious, we, as a campus, are largely ignoring that the epidemic of sexual violence also exists less publicly in these “better-than-Greek-life” organizations, and many of us are guilty of excusing it.

Since my very first semester in 2018 with my former spirit group, I have seen the ways that we quietly swept sexual violence by male spirit group members off to the side. For an organization that prides itself on uplifting and empowering women and nonbinary folks at UT, we always seemed to be willing to put that mission secondary to protecting what we perceived as our hard-earned social status as one of the premier organizations on campus. That social status was in part earned by our intentional “girl power” branding but was also largely due to our connections with the popular male organizations we regularly hosted parties with. The thought that we could be forced to cut ties with one or more of those organizations because of the abuse of our members by theirs threatened the status quo and stability of our position on campus. If we couldn’t offer current and potential members the chance to mix with popular and well-connected men on campus, what exactly could we offer them? Smiling speeches at recruitment events about love and family seemed increasingly hollow when compared to the way that survivors in our organization were often simply offered a statement about solidarity followed by no real action at best and censored with victim-blaming language at worst. 

Sexual assault is the sole fault of the person who commits it, but it’s time we examine the ways that the spirit group world at UT has been quietly enabling the kind of culture that breeds abuse and silences survivors — the very same culture that Greek life is so often condemned for. Pretending sexual assault in our groups is nonexistent and then weaponizing tone-policing and feigned incompetence when it is brought to light has never been an effective prevention and response strategy. We can’t afford to evade accountability any longer by hiding behind being “better” than Greek life — the safety of our members and our campus depends on it.

Sara Jane Ross (she/her) is a fifth year rhetoric and writing major, survivor-advocate and founder of the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Coalition at UT.