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Sexual Predation & Rape Culture at Cornell University

by Madison McCormick //

Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and sexual violence. 

Across the United States, college students are facing a daunting threat: sexual assault and sexual violence. According to the Rape and Sexual Victimization Among College-Aged Female study conducted by the United States Justice Department, 26.4% of undergraduate women and 6.8% of undergraduate men experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. As demonstrated by this statistics, undergraduate women are almost four times more likely to be victims of rape and sexual assault. Additionally, The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network found that undergraduate students are at the highest risk of sexual assault and rape during their first few months of their first and second semesters in college, which tells us that most instances of sexual assault and rape occur during a student’s freshman year of college.

This history of sexual assault and sexual violence are nothing new at Cornell University, which has the highest number of reported sexual assaults out of every college and university in the state of New York. Cornell University has had several prominent sexual assault cases, including those perpetrated by Cornell Fraternity President Wolfgang Ballinger and a Cornell Resident Advisor. Although no major accusations of sexual assault at Cornell University have made headlines since 2016, sexual assault and sexual violence are still running rampant on Cornell’s campus today, especially at fraternity houses. 

Party Culture

The trend of freshman facing an increased risk of sexual assault and violence is furthered by the prevalance of party culture across college campuses nationwide. College freshmen often face intense social pressure from their peers to participate in party culture, in which underage drinking is commonplace. Some freshmen may also desire to participate in such activities due to their newfound independence and freedom.

it should be noted that alcohol consumption is neither a valid excuse for the perpetrator nor a reason for blaming the survivor. 

Regardless of whether freshmen participate in party culture and alcohol usage because of their own desires or peer pressure, the use of alcohol poses a grave threat to college freshman. The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 52.5% of full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 drank alcohol in the past month, and 33% of students engaged in binge drinking in the past month. The National Institute on Drug Abuse also reports that sexual assaults are more likely to occur in environments where alcohol is being consumed and that half of the incidents of sexual assault that occur on college campuses involve the victim, perpetrator, or both consuming alcohol. However, it should be noted that alcohol consumption is neither a valid excuse for the perpetrator nor a reason for blaming the survivor. 

Given these statistics, party culture and the alcohol usage that is prominent within it are putting college freshman, especially freshmen that identify as women, at increased risk for sexual assault. This phenomenon is becoming more and more likely because sexual predators are using parties or events in which alcoholic drinks are being consumed as a hunting ground for drunk and incapacitated young women. Since these college parties typically occur at fraternity houses, the face of the sexual predator is most often that of a frat boy.

Sexual Predation of College Freshman 

Freshman girls are going out with their friends to parties in hopes of de-stressing from a hectic school week but instead are falling victim to instances of sexual assault and sexual violence. Groups of freshman girls are being looked at like prize ponies, and frat boys are placing bets on who can win the prize, whatever the price. If you look closely enough at the party dynamics at most fraternity houses, you can see the frat boys giving girls drink after drink in hopes of getting them drunk enough to “get them into bed.” In many cases, sexual predators at the parties look for girls who look drunk so that they can try to sleep with them. 

However, these interactions cannot be consensual by nature, because if you are incapacitated or lacking the mental facultities to give consent (like someone who has been drinking),then any sexual activity that occurs is defined as sexual assault. The men who are taking advantage of this situation are well aware of this dynamic. It has been screamed from the rooftop that if someone is drunk or passed out, then they cannot consent; however, many men have adopted the mindset that if she doesn’t say “no” then they can’t be held accountable for sexual assault. Even in cases when the incapacitated person says “no,” sexual assault perpetrators often claim that they didn’t think that they really meant “no” or that they knew that the victim actually wanted it to happen, which is far from the truth.

The party culture that exists within fraternities is perpetuating rape culture, defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused.” Rape culture blames the victim and encourages behaviors of sexual assault and harassment, which is making sexual assault and sexual violence all too prevalent on college campuses. 

Graphic from The Recovery Village

Sexual Predation at Cornell University

Cornell University, which prides itself on providing excellent education and resources for its students, is riddled with sexual predation and sexual violence. The New York State Department of Education reported in 2018 that Cornell University has the highest number of reported sexual assaults out of every college and university in the state of New York, and little has changed since then. 

Cornell University is very much aware of the issue of sexual assaults occurring at fraternities on campus, especially since a case involving the Fraternity President of Psi Upsilon’s Chi Chapter, Wolfgang Ballinger, made headlines in 2016. Ballinger was charged with first-degree attempted rape, first-degree criminal sexual act, and first-degree sexual abuse after he sexually assaulted a woman in a bedroom at the frat house. He initially pled not guilty but changed his plea to guilty and received six years of probation on a misdemeanor sex offense charge, which was the maximum sentence possible under the plea deal made between the prosecutor’s office and Ballinger.

When you are drinking with a guy that you like and trust, then what reason would you have to think that they are intentionally getting you drunk so that they can sexually assault you when you’re blacked out? 

Speaking from firsthand experience, the dynamic in which upperclassman frat boys intentionally take advantage of incoming freshman girls still persists today. However, some frat boys have taken their strategy to a new extreme by dating or seeing freshman girls and then repeatedly sexually assaulting them. When you are drinking with a guy that you like and trust, then what reason would you have to think that they are intentionally getting you drunk so that they can sexually assault you when you’re blacked out? 

Situations like these are becoming more and more common, especially at Cornell. As I found out a couple of months after I was no longer in a similar situation, entire fraternities are covering for their frat brothers that they know have sexually assaulted women in the past. It seems that the “guy code” has persisted into college and is being used to protect known sexual predators. No one told me that the guy that I was seeing had sexually assaulted at least one girl the summer before I started college. No one stopped the situation when they saw the frat president walk me upstairs drunk and stumbling to “go to bed” night after night and week after week. These situations are not as easy to recognize as you might think, especially because no one talks about sexual assaults that are committed by your partner in a romantic relationship. It is extremely difficult to pull yourself out of denial and come to terms with the difficult reality that occurred.

Most Assaults Are Not Reported

After sexual assault victims realize that they were in a sexually abusive situation, especially those who found themselves in the situation described above, reporting doesn’t always seem like an option. The Department of Justice reports that only 20% of female undergraduate students report their assault. The trend of female students not reporting their assault occurs for a wide array of students. However, rape culture likely contributes to this trend because it encourages victim blaming. After a traumatic event like sexual assault occurs, the last thing a survivor wants is to be blamed for their assault, especially since many victims already struggle with deep-seeded guilt and tend to blame themselves. 

However, even with all the preparation and “preventative measures” in the world, instances of sexual assault and sexual violence are still possible. You can bring your own drink, limit the amount you drink, stay with friends, etc. and still find yourself in a dangerous situation, because sexual assault and sexual violence are the fault of the perpetrator, not the victim. Even if a sexual assault survivor does not take any “preventative measures,” an instance of sexual assault and/or sexual violence will never be their fault. The truth of the matter is, you never know what you will do in those situations until it happens to you, and most people tend to freeze in fear, if they are even conscious during the assault. 

At Cornell University, many students have parents that have tremendous social influence and make enough income to afford good lawyers. So what do you do when you cannot afford a good lawyer, especially when your rapist has already been accused and not faced any consequences? What do you do when your rapist’s parents have enough money to seemingly make any problem go away? Most sexual survivors tend to not report their assaults, but can you blame them given the statistics and society we find ourselves in today? 

Lack of Accommodations

In my experience, most professors and facility members are extremely accommodating and empathetic to sexual assault survivors. However, this unfortunately cannot be said for all professors. 

Although there are resources available at Cornell University for sexual assault survivors, these resources still cannot provide accommodations to cover all of the adverse issues that impact sexual assault survivors. Organizations, such as CAPS, cannot always help survivors academically because professors typically have the final say for accommodations. In my experience, most professors and facility members are extremely accommodating and empathetic to sexual assault survivors. However, this unfortunately cannot be said for all professors. 

When I saw my rapist for the first time in person after I realized what happened, I quickly found myself in a downward spiral that prevented me from being able to properly function and take care of myself. Academics were certainly not my first priority—how could they be? Fortunately, most of my professors and teaching assistants provided me with an outpouring of support and tried to make sure I was okay. I received accommodations that allowed me to turn in assignments and catch up after I had time to process and move past this trigger. However, I was not provided adequate accommodations by the Chemistry department and have since found out that a lack of proper accommodations from the Chemistry department is fairly common. 

Sexual assault survivors deserve better. I deserved better. Proper accomodations for sexual assault survivors should be required at Cornell University, because, although a majority of professors genuinely care about their students and do their best to support them, this cannot be said of all professors. 

The Time For Change Is Now 

Cornell University, as a whole, also needs to do better. Sexual assault and sexual violence have found a happy home on campus and have continued to grow as rape culture within fraternities persists. There is only so much that resources about consent can do when they are not reaching the target audience of fraternity members. Although singular investigations have been conducted into specific frats, like Psi Upsilon and Zeta Beta Tau, these occurrences are not isolated events concerning just one or two fraternities. Sexual assaults are occurring in a multitude of frats across campus. The perpetrator of the assault committed against me isn’t in either of the fraternities lifted above, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been assaulted by someone in a fraternity. Something needs to be done to even the scales and address the atmosphere of party culture within fraternities that is enabling this behavior. The chapters that are knowingly enabling and facilitating these assaults do not deserve a foothold on campus to victimize more individuals. It’s time for a real, comprehensive investigation into the fraternities on campus. It’s time for change. 

Here are some resources that have been helpful and beneficial to do during my journey in the aftermath of sexual assault: