Opinion | First-year girls should be wary of the ‘Red Zone’

By Ebonee Rice-Nguyen, Staff Columnist

If you are an incoming first-year girl, then you’ve already been told to beware of frat parties. Yes, this line of thinking is a form of victim-blaming, but as fraternities have become known incubators of sexual violence, these pieces of advice are an essential part of every college girl’s survival kit. While only a small percentage of students at Pitt are involved in Greek life, this fact just makes it easier to sweep the conversation of sexual assault within Greek life culture under the rug. 

The transition from high school to college is a tumultuous time and one that brings a wave of new experiences, but not all of them are welcome ones. More than 50% of all college sexual assaults occur between a freshman’s arrival on campus and their departure for fall break. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has labeled this time as “The Red Zone.” Despite sexual assault’s prevalence, many freshmen girls have never heard of the “red zone” and are unprepared for what it means.

It must also be noted that during this period, Greek organizations hold their “rush” events for sororities and fraternities. As first-year girls try to navigate completely new environments without solidified friendships or groups, they’re especially vulnerable to those looking to take advantage of them.

Abby Gorman, a Sexual Assault Facilitation and Education (SAFE) peer educator and rising junior sociology major, said incoming freshmen girls find themselves in social hubs for sexual assault.

“Maybe they don’t have a lot of experience drinking. Maybe this is their first time being able to go out without having to report back to their parents. Maybe they never partied before. Whatever the scenario, they’re vulnerable,” Gorman said. “They don’t have a lot of back-ups. They don’t have a lot of experience. And that’s the perfect environment for upperclassmen or people who do have more experience to come prey on them.”

Greek life — at Pitt and nationwide — plays a central role in entrenching a culture of assault on college campuses. Greek life weekends tend to be organized around excessive drinking with the end goal of taking somebody home. This leads to situations where women are vulnerable. Women in sororities are 74% more likely to be raped than other women in college. Men in fraternities are three times more likely to rape women than nonaffiliated classmates. 

“In general, Greek life kind of creates an environment where sexual assault is not only allowed, it’s kind of encouraged, especially in fraternities,” Gorman said. “Brothers are encouraged to play the field … and they’re in these spaces where there are lots of impressionable young girls who are often new to college.”

When discussing sexual assault on college campuses, it is very easy to play the game of compare and contrast. In recent years, large schools like Stanford University and Indiana University have dominated media headlines and the discussion of sexual assault on college campuses. Students and administration alike compare the University of Pittsburgh to these universities. I  have thought, “Well at least it’s not as bad as the University of Virginia or Alabama,” but by looking at sexual assault through a comparative lens we diminish its impact and the experiences of survivors. 

“When you think of Pittsburgh and you don’t really think of it as a Greek school, we kind of ignore the fact that there is still Greek life which does still provide that environment that encourages sexual assault,” Gorman said. “When there is Greek life present, regardless of how big or small it is on campus, it still creates those same conditions of a really big campus. Assuming that Pitt is immune to that just kind of ignores the reality that like sexual assault is occurring both within Greek life and outside of it. It’s not exclusive to the big party schools.”

Sexual assault is not a new issue for the University. In 2019, a study was conducted by the Association of American Universities Campus Climate (AAUCC) Survey of undergraduate and graduate students on sexual assault and sexual misconduct. In the survey, 31.7% of undergraduate women at Pitt reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact.

Even though Pitt is not a Greek-life-heavy school, first-years should still be informed on the predatory nature of existing frat parties. The first-year desperation to find a party can lead to situations that first-year students have no control over. 

If you are an incoming first-year girl, then you are likely to experience Pitt’s notorious Hill Houses. The Hill Houses are home to four undergraduate Greek chapters near Sutherland Hall. The Houses are known for their huge, colorful parties and are considered a core experience for any Pitt student. But the houses are also home to countless instances of unsolicited male attention.

One first-year girl I spoke with described the Hill Houses as crowded, sweaty rooms where visitors feel more like sardines than students. The student said the close quarters and supply of alcohol-emboldened male students to act aggressively.

“There was one time, there was a random girl just dancing. All of a sudden this big guy just comes up behind her, grabbed her by the neck and then he turns her head to give her a kiss,” the student said. “And she’s literally struggling, saying no. He’s on top of her, grabbing her neck, turning her chin with his thumb, forcing a kiss.”

Luckily, other people intervened and the girl was able to escape, but the student I spoke with said a scenario like that is common at the Hill Houses — so common that she and other first-year girls connected over their shared experiences of sexual assault on their way back from the houses. 

When asked why other first-year girls didn’t come forward, the student said many fellow first-year girls feel the effort would be useless. 

“If survivors go through this whole process of reporting, of doing all the right things, taking all the right steps, only for them still not to be believed, like why would they want to put themselves through that?” the student said. 

It isn’t just first-year girls who feel this way about coming forward. In the same survey conducted by the AAU, almost half of the students don’t believe an investigation into a case of sexual assault would be fair. As these feelings become common, the conversation on sexual assault continues to be stifled. 

I think people don’t talk about it because … they don’t think it’s going to get respected and don’t think anyone’s going to care really, because even if you do talk about it, what are they going to do? They’re not going to do anything. So what do you gain? You just come out as a victim, but no one cares,” the student said. 

In this way, first-year girls find themselves in a vicious cycle when discussing their experiences. They enter college, unsuspecting of the dangers of Greek life party scenes and any college party scene, for that matter. If there is a case of predatory men taking advantage of them, they are reluctant to come forward, believing their voice will go unheard or that the University won’t take action. As more and more girls follow this pattern, the conversation on sexual assault at Pitt goes silent and more freshmen girls enter campus life, unaware of the potential danger.

“We mostly just automatically assume, but also we haven’t heard anything? Girls have no examples to go off, and if we even had like one person come out and have something done about it, I feel like a lot more of us would be willing to say, this guy did that to me too,” the first-year student I spoke with said.

This wasn’t written to scare freshmen girls or to denounce Greek life. For many students, Greek life has given them countless friends and memories. There are many first-year girls who have good experiences at the Hill Houses and countless other frat parties. This also is not intended to victim blame. This issue rests solely on the perpetrators, but as the conversation on sexual assault continues to be avoided both in our society and University, first-year girls must know the truth. 

Pitt offers a multitude of opportunities and experiences, but if we pretend that there is not a culture of sexual assault, one that has become tied to the first-year experience, then the cycle that many sexual assault survivors find themselves in will continue. 

Ebonee Rice-Nguyen writes primarily about political, social and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].