The Beta Theta Pi house at Wesleyan.
On October 5, an anonymous woman filed a lawsuit against Wesleyan University, a leafy liberal arts college with around 3,000 students in central Connecticut, and its fraternity Beta Theta Pi. She alleges she was sexually assaulted at a 2010 Halloween party at the fraternity, and that afterwards, she was taunted by Wesleyan students. The suit claims the university was negligent and reports that the fraternity is known as the “Rape Factory.”
The Mu Epsilon chapter of Beta was founded at Wesleyan 122 years ago, in 1890, and while the chapter is technically in good standing with the university, a current student who did not want to be named but is active in the school’s Greek system told BuzzFeed that the frat’s relationship with the university “has been historically a little rocky.”
The university — where fewer than 10 percent of students are members of fraternities — has butted heads with Beta over the past couple of years, mostly over a housing-related debacle. In the years prior, all other fraternities had agreed that their chapter houses would be managed by university housing. Under this arrangement, room and board fees go to the school, and the school’s public safety staff (essentially campus police) have jurisdiction over the space. But Beta held out, deciding to remain private, which meant Wesleyan public safety couldn’t enter the house and therefore couldn’t police parties. The Middletown, Connecticut police department was the first line of defense.
The year after Jane Doe’s assault, Wesleyan, evidently concerned about its inability to police the fraternity itself, sent an email to students saying that “students will be prohibited from residing in — or using for social activities — houses or property owned, leased or operated by private societies that are not recognized by the University.” This would be punishable by disciplinary action or even suspension. While the email didn’t mention Beta, a campus blog called Wesleying seemed certain that the regulation was aimed at the fraternity. The headline for a post that published the email was “Beta: Beginning of the End?”
Another student, who graduated last spring, said the situation was confusing. “We all got an email from the administration bashing Beta and warning everyone not to go there, but no one really knew what was going on,” he wrote in an email. “I remember the email referenced sexual assault, but I never actually knew what had happened or even what had allegedly happened.”
The following semester, in the fall of 2011, Beta made amends with the administration and moved on campus. Fraternity members seemed to accept the decision, even if they weren’t thrilled with it. “I don’t think that anyone was particularly happy about coming on campus,” a member told the school paper, The Argus. But, he added, “I don’t think too much is going to change.”
One year later, the fraternity is being called a “Rape Factory,” in a case that’s getting national attention.
Doe has already sued a man named John O’Neill, whom she says raped her. O’Neill was visiting a fraternity member friend but was not a Wesleyan student himself at the time of Doe’s attack. He plead guilty to lesser charges by Doe of third-degree assault and first-degree unlawful restraint — not rape — for which he is currently serving out his jail sentence. Despite the victory in O’Neill’s criminal case, Doe’s lawyer Douglas Fierberg, who specializes in fraternity-related lawsuits, believes there is another case against the university and the fraternity as “wrongdoers under civil law.”
Current Wesleyan students didn’t think the term was ever commonly used on campus. “I’ve never heard the term ‘rape factory’ used on campus prior to this case, and a number of other students have expressed surprise in the comments section that the media seems to have latched onto this term,” said Zach Schonfeld, a Wesleyan senior and managing editor of the Wesleying blog wrote in an email. “It’s definitely not commonly used.” The other Wesleyan student agreed: “I’ve never heard the term ‘rape factory’ used here. There’s no serious identification of those guys as rapists,” he said.
The recent graduate said the term was “completely made up,” but recalled, “There was one time walking around on a saturday night when I overheard some guys talking about about ‘bringing some drunk girls back to Beta’ in a way that seemed pretty inappropriate.”
Max Brivic, Editor-in-Chief of the school’s newspaper, The Argus, was a sophomore when the assault occurred. He too had never heard the term. “There were definitely lots of jokes about not wanting to go to Beta because of unwanted grinding or other sexual advances,” he wrote in an email. “But there were other frats on campus that had the same reputation.”
Fierberg said “you could find confirmation” that this term was common, but declined to provide further details.
While that loaded nickname may be contested, the fraternity does have a well-defined reputation, and one that many members aren’t the most proud of. “They represent a specific type of guy at Wesleyan: a lacrosse playing, BMW-driving bro,” the anonymous current student said.
The college guidebook Off The Record, which publishes pamphlets about different schools around the country, called it the school’s token “bro’ fraternity.” A post on the online college discussion forum College Confidential said Beta and one other frat at Wesleyan “provide a niche for a couple of sports teams and their friends.”
That privileged, preppy image is nothing new for the frat. In a 2009 interview with the school newspaper, a member of the fraternity who graduated in 1949 said, “I certainly didn’t view us as being an exclusive group of white, Anglo-Saxon men.” But, he added, “We were an easy target to be criticized and bashed. For the politically-correct attitudes [of] the time, we were an easy target to blame for the stereotypes that people wanted to use to basically support whatever kind of argument that they were making.”
According to Beta Theta Pi’s national spokesman Martin Cobb, the fraternity’s Wesleyan chapter is in good standing with the national organization. In a statement, he wrote that “Beta Theta Pi’s concern first and foremost is for the well-being of the woman so significantly impactedby O’Neill’s illegal behavior. Convicted of third-degree assault and first-degree unlawful restraint — resulting in a 15-month sentence in a Connecticut prison — O’Neill has affected in an extremely negative manner both a young woman in the prime of her life and 64 Beta Theta Pi students unassociated with and unaware of his atrocious actions.” He added that the fraternity “has long prided itself on the respectful treatment of all women — at all times.” A Wesleyan University spokesperson said she could not comment on a pending lawsuit.
The anonymous current student believes female students wouldn’t feel unsafe going to the fraternity and said that their parties are still popular. “From time to time, you’ll get jokes about roofies,” he said of some Wesleyan frats. “But a lot of people go to their parties.”
The recent graduate had a slightly different opinion. “Do people think Beta’s sketchy? Yeah somewhat,” he wrote. “I’d say it’s pretty sketchy and if I were a girl I might feel unsafe at some events. That being said, people go to Beta to grind and make out in a dark dance room.”