COLLEGE

Harassment At SAE And Its Fallout: Initiation Ritual Included Slut Shaming

04/17/2015 12:58 am ET
Yale Daily News

This article was originally published by the Yale Daily News, and a portion is being reposted here with permission.

The pledges of Yale University’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, or SAE, are required to wear a uniform of a blazer, button-down and tie — conspicuous garb for teenagers on a college campus, though they wear it proudly. The night of Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, was no exception.

Twenty-two men clamored into the fraternity’s off-campus house at 35 High St. The inside was dark. The pledges were greeted by the boisterous shouts of roughly 30 older members sitting on couches lined against the walls, decorated with framed photo composites of past fraternity classes dating back decades. Soon, the new pledge class’s yearbook-worthy smiles would hang beside them. But first, they had to undergo initiation, their inaugural act as SAE brothers.

Traditionally, the SAE president recounts fraternity lore. Pledges recite an oath. Two senior “chaplains,” elected by their brothers for their entertainment value, give a presentation dressed in ridiculous clothes. The presentation is usually a mythological story about Minerva, the Roman goddess and patron saint of SAE, and the dirty details of her sexual encounters. It is lewd, but tongue-in-cheek in spirit.

For the spring 2014 pledge class, however, the chaplains typed a speech about a different set of characters, who were not fictional. Among them was Zoe, a 20-year-old Yale sophomore they identified by name, but whose name has been changed for this story in an effort to protect her identity. In the six months before the ceremony, Zoe had engaged in sexual acts with five members of the fraternity — including the two chaplains. The title of the speech, as it has come to be known and discussed around campus, used her name in association with “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the best-selling novel-turned-film focusing on a sadomasochistic relationship.

These events were described to the News by two individuals who were present and by a third to whom the activities were later recounted in detail. The SAE brothers cited in this story spoke under the condition of anonymity. Aspects of the ceremony were also corroborated by documents pertaining to a University investigation that examined the events of that evening and its aftermath.

These documents — as well as interviews with Zoe and several SAE brothers and the statements of University administrators who dealt with the case — show how members of a Yale fraternity made a female classmate and her sexual experiences the butt of a public joke consecrating membership in their ranks. Further, they outline the victim’s months long battle to get the University to hold the fraternity accountable in a public forum, to announce to students what had been a private conclusion of a confidential disciplinary proceeding about a matter that had already leaked into the campus rumor mill.

When the University did make an announcement, a full year after the event itself, it offered an incomplete picture of the case, foregrounding the fraternity’s positive reforms and casting the incident as a teaching moment for the campus. What was touted by the University as evidence of its transparent approach to handling sexual misconduct was rather the result of Zoe’s protracted effort to move Yale to action. When Yale did act publicly, it shut her out of the process altogether.

Zoe’s relationships with the five SAE brothers described in the speech occurred from September 2013 to the following February. Her involvement with two of the men lasted from September to December, and the other three occurred in quick succession in January. She described these encounters as “consensual, casual relations.”

Following her involvement with the men, Zoe commented on some of their sexual performances in conversation with the fraternity president, a junior at the time. He was one of the five fraternity brothers with whom she had sexual relations, but she had come to regard him as a friend. Zoe said she felt they had come to trust each other. As they were both sharing details about their sex lives over the course of multiple conversations, Zoe told him that one brother climaxed quickly, another was enthusiastic about giving oral sex and a third enjoyed cuddling. He later passed along those comments to the group of the other four brothers, according to the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct panel’s report.

Zoe’s comments spread “like wildfire,” one of the chaplains later told an independent factfinder assigned to investigate the incident. “She had provided intimate and private details about these encounters to others,” he wrote in a statement to the UWC last April. “Our encounters had become public knowledge to many in the Yale community.” Embarrassed that multiple peers had teased them about their sexual performances, the chaplains decided to address the comments publicly. Their roast became their platform.

Inside the fraternity house, the chaplains spoke in mock Spanish and Arabic accents, introducing Zoe as someone who had engaged in sexual relations with five members of the fraternity. The names of those members were listed, followed by description of their sexual performances based on the comments allegedly made by Zoe. Some of the comments mentioned in the speech were fabricated, according to Zoe, including remarks about the pubic hair of one brother.

Though the brothers had previously gossiped about her ratings, many of the freshman pledges had not heard her name before, according to SAE brothers present. Meanwhile, some of the older members who knew her sat in the back, presiding over the soon-to-be new brothers lined up in the middle of the room. No one interrupted.

The speech was a “ridiculous five minutes,” the SAE president told the fact-finder. By the end of the night, SAE had initiated 22 new members.

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