Matt Nichols has a new response when asked what fraternity he's in. "None of those in the news," said Nichols, 21, a senior at the University of Minnesota and a member of Delta Tau Delta.
Recent reports of up to three alleged sexual assaults on female students on Fraternity Row are particularly painful for Nichols, a senior majoring in advertising and mass communication. For more than a year, he has participated in a weekly university group called Men Against Gender Violence (MAGV). Its mission is admirable: To emphasize that the lion's share of men on campus, including fraternity members, don't assault women, and to develop sometimes in-your-face strategies to get those who do to take responsibility -- and stop.
The group of about 10 young men is sponsored by the U's Aurora Center (www1.umn.edu/aurora), which offers sexual violence education and prevention programs.
"It's good to see that there's other people out there who don't fall into that stereotype of guys as womanizers, guys who don't care, guys who think it's OK to be overly masculine," said Nichols.
Not surprisingly, he's faced backlash from some guys who want him to mind his own business. He's been called "faggot," among other names, which he brushes off.
"It doesn't really bother me," he said. "[Those men] are trying to undercut what I'm trying to say. Here, and at Rutgers University [where a student killed himself after being secretly filmed during a gay sexual encounter], we see the most evil things. But the majority of people are not like that."
Nichols' girlfriend, Kristin Bruner, 20, does similar violence-prevention work at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She said his road is tougher. "He feels saddened about things like the fraternities," Bruner said of Nichols. "He wonders, 'Is what I'm doing working?' But he persists, and I admire him for that."
Early in his junior year, Nichols was stunned to learn that two close women friends had been raped, each by someone she knew casually. "That acquaintance could be my friend and her friend," Nichols said. "It's that fear of just not knowing people and what they can do."
A friend told him about the Aurora Center. He completed 20 hours of violence-prevention training, which included learning about "the darkness in humans."
Part of that training is understanding what, or who, they're up against. Sexual assault figures show that just 4 to 6 percent of men sexually abuse. "If you can get to that 94 to 96 percent of guys who don't abuse and make them feel responsible for this very small minority," Nichols said, "then you can see change in sexual violence."
Since Sept. 18, three U women have reported sexual assaults at fraternities. The first occurred at the Delta Kappa Epsilon house when a man forced his way into a bathroom and tried to rape a woman; neither was a university student. The Interfraternity Council suspended that fraternity for four years. On Sept. 26, a female guest at the nearby Chi Psi house said she was raped, but charges have been dropped. Soon after, another woman said she was sexually assaulted at the Phi Gamma Delta house.
Last Wednesday, five MAGV members met to talk strategy and offer support. Ben Blankenship, 21, a senior majoring in American Studies and Family Social Sciences, expressed frustration that people "censor themselves when I'm in the room." Or they get defensive.
Guys tell him, "We're just being men," said Blankenship, who also trained at the Aurora Center. He tells them: "The jokes really aren't that funny so why do you keep telling them?"
Participant Ross Neely has friends who are called "party killers."
"It does take its toll," said Neely, program coordinator in the U's Office for Equity and Diversity. "But being silent is poisonous.
"How we teach masculinity is really complex," he said. "What does it mean to 'man up,' to be the 'right' kind of man? If you don't stay in that box, we all know what the punishments are."
Freshman Andrew Felton, 18, finds the group's work "really impressive, especially lately." But standing up to friends is a challenge, he said. "Saying 'You know that's not right,' especially when you're with your friends, is always hard, but sometimes they're wrong."
Sometimes, these men are wrong, too, which they openly admit. One of Nichols' roommates gave him "a really hard time" about policing other guys, reminding Nichols that he used to do a lot of the same things.
"Used to," Nichols told him.
He also used to say things like "I raped that test" or "That's so gay." No longer.
Next week, the group will host representatives of U of M fraternities for what is likely to be a lively and important discussion.
"We still characterize rape as a woman's issue," Neely said. "Men close their ears, get defensive. Why don't we stand up and take responsibility and say, 'This isn't acceptable anywhere on campus?'"
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • email@example.com