On November 4th, news broke that a student allegedly distributed a photo of a sexual act that occurred at Tiger Inn. The initial reporting done on this story, from Krystal Knapp at Planet Princeton and then Chitra Marti at the Daily Princetonian, focused on a report of sexual assault at TI listed in the University’s mandatory daily crime log, which was described as a closed investigation. While original versions of the two articles are not available, the Prince’s former title, “Breaking: Case of sexual assault reported at Tiger Inn,” can be found in the article’s URL. The Prince’s article mentions sexual assault in its first sentence: “A case of sexual assault allegedly took place at Tiger Inn in October, according to the University’s federally mandated daily crime log.” It then includes a quote from Captain Nick Sutter, Princeton Police Department chief: “’We do not have any information relating to whether the alleged acts were consensual or non-consensual with respect to the individuals involved.’” Planet Princeton’s article no longer contains any mention of sexual assault or the daily crime log, though it originally (to my knowledge) contained similar information.
The articles, along with all subsequent articles published on various local and national online news media, now focus upon the event’s having been photographed and the distribution of that photo. While a less attention-grabbing title than one containing the words “sexual assault,” the article’s current title—“Student allegedly distributed photo of sexual act at Tiger Inn”—still makes sure to mention the eating club by name. And every other published article also originally mentioned TI by name in their headlines, until someone presumably asked for the name to be changed to “Princeton eating club.”
These articles also all happen to make an attempt to fit this event into a grander narrative about TI. Each one mentions either the club’s temporary closure in 2006 following allegations of two instances of sexual assault, or the resignation of all but two TI officers following the 21 Club’s destructive party, or both. The Prince and Planet Princeton mention both of these events, but more remarkably so do the national news outlets, because these were two events that previously made national news.
Knapp of Planet Princeton also mentions Caroline Kitchener’s piece in The Atlantic detailing her views on why female students decide to join TI, which Kitchener calls “the frattiest social club on campus.” Knapp’s six paragraphs about TI could almost be used as a guide to news coverage of the club throughout history.
6abc describes how “The Tiger Inn is known as ‘Animal House’ around Princeton due to its hard partying, which has led to trouble before.” Business Insider and The Huffington Post make sure to give the juicy details about Princeton’s frattiest secret society, the 21 Club, both connecting TI to the group “whose members gain acceptance by drinking 21 beers in 42 minutes.” The Huffington Post also takes time to describe the club’s competitive bicker process.
I don’t have a strong objection to this reporting. It is expected. These news sources, including the Prince, want to be widely read, and stories that connect trouble or scandal to privilege, elitism, and the Ivy League in general are certain to get clicks. “Princeton student distributes photo of sex act” doesn’t grab as much attention as a headline that connects that student or that sex act to an eating club, particularly to TI.
However, we should be wary of pinpointing this alleged crime on TI. When articles describe TI as being “under investigation,” rather than a student or students being “under investigation,” it is easy to make this leap. Of course, the photograph was allegedly sent to the TI listserv, hence the institution itself being investigated. Yet many, if not most, students received the picture unsolicited. The national news, local news, and the Prince influence the way we discuss issues on our campus. In this scenario, it would be wise to consider this alleged crime as something that happened at Princeton, not something that happened at TI, “the frattiest social club on campus.” I know firsthand of quite a few past instances of unknowing sexual exploitation—many of them involving listservs. And I am sure there have been countless more instances beyond what I have gathered in my two and a half years here. We are lucky that this incident was reported, whether it ends up having been sexual exploitation or not. Now, a lot of people who were unaware that sexual exploitation is against the Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities and against New Jersey law are aware of that fact.
Following the allegations of sexual exploitation and of possible sexual assault (though the latter issue has gradually been removed from the discourse of the event’s coverage), the front wall of Tiger Inn was vandalized with the words “RAPE HAVEN.”
This reaction, while I don’t think is entirely invalid, is in some ways misplaced. Sexual assault, just like sexual exploitation, is an issue with the Street as a whole. Generally, large masses of intoxicated students go to the Street every Thursday and Saturday night, and generally, many of those intoxicated students choose to hook up with intoxicated peers. This happens in a widespread fashion, not just at TI, and it can be dangerous. (I never have and never will advocate against “hooking up” at one’s own will and desire, but doing so while intoxicated has proven to be a foolish and potentially tragic decision. The dearth of random yet safe, sober sex at Princeton is a sad fact.)
I mentioned earlier that I believe news outlets attach “TI” onto headlines and make the event seem a part of the “TI narrative” because of a media fascination with trouble in connection to elitist institutions, such as selective eating clubs and Princeton in general. This fascination derives from the fact that we don’t normally associate the elite with heinous crimes like sexual assault. We expect Ivy League students—particularly students who spend a lot of excess money to eat their meals and party with only a select group of people in a mansion—to be better behaved than that. And yet, this is not the case. Sexual assault happens at TI, it happens at the other private clubs, and it happens all over Princeton.
Therefore, this fascination is not only something to be reconsidered, but it is also evidence of our false, self-aggrandizing conception of Princeton as an institution where sexual assault doesn’t happen. Placing the rhetorical blame for sexual exploitation and sexual assault on the club with which the alleged perpetrator is affiliated is further self-aggrandizement (for those not affiliated with TI). To fit this event into a grander narrative about TI—to suggest that this might have happened because TI is the “frattiest” club—is to misplace the blame and to ignore the scope of the issue.
Unlike Kitchener, I don’t find TI to be a particularly feminist place, though I am not a member and I only have friends who are. I also don’t find it to be the safest place in the world, although unlike every other club on the Street (to the best of my knowledge), TI has a safety czar whose explicit duties are to make sure overly intoxicated students get home safely. This is one step toward making the Street a safer place for students, and one step toward preventing more cases of sexual assault. The culture of a place is also a factor in determining the likelihood of sexual assault, and TI has an infamously male-dominated culture. However, a more productive way for the student body and those who are upset or infuriated by the alleged sexual exploitation and rumored sexual assault would be to consider how it reflects more widely upon Princeton’s culture. To separate a problem from oneself and to place that problem on an institution outside oneself is risky. Portraying TI as a radical outlier at the far end of the spectrum, and this event as something to be explained by the club’s bad record, would be a dangerous mistake. Doing so overlooks the dangers lurking outside of TI’s doors, at other eating clubs and on Princeton’s campus in its entirety.