Women claiming sexual harassment at Yale fraternities take unexpected legal action

Women sue Yale frats, asking for integration

Three female students are suing Yale University and nine of its fraternities, asking a federal court to force fraternities to accept women as members. They accuse Yale and the fraternities of allowing "dangerous environments in which sexual misconduct thrived."

They said fraternity houses dominate a limited social scene around campus, one that needs to be wiped clean of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, reports CBS News' Meg Oliver.

Anna McNeil, Ellie Singer, and Ry Walker said they've had enough of inappropriate behavior by men at Yale fraternity parties. Asked whether they've ever been sexually assaulted at one of the parties, all three raised their hands.

"Someone came up from behind me and started grinding on me and then actually pulled up my skirt," Walker said.

"I was groped from behind. A lot of people were grinding against me from behind, I couldn't see them," McNeil said.

In a lawsuit, they alleged "female undergraduates risk sexual harassment and assault by attending fraternity events." They said men "deny female students admission... based on their appearance, verbally harass them, grind against them, grab them, and grope them."

"Why do you want to be part of a culture that you're alleging promotes sexual misconduct?" Oliver asked.

"A fraternity party wasn't any of our first choice, but it was kind of the only choice for the first couple of months at school," McNeil said.

"It speaks to the way that fraternities dominate the social culture at Yale," Walker said, adding, "Those are the places that are open late at night. And those are the spaces that some of our friends are hosting parties in."

"Fraternities offer a vast network of privileges to their members. They offer connections, they offer help networking," Singer said. 

"Some people might argue sororities do the same thing," Oliver pointed out.

"Sororities don't tend to have nearly the same connections as fraternities. Fraternities often have people, I think, in higher positions of power. And certainly on campus, they occupy a much higher social space," Singer said.

Their lawsuit against Yale and nine fraternities argues "'separate but equal' Greek life reinforces gender norms, stereotypes, and prejudices." They're seeking class action status, asking the court to award damages and to order policy changes, including "fully integrating women" at Yale's fraternities.

CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman said the case is "enormously complicated." She's confused by what she sees as the lawsuit's contradictory goals.

"If I am someone who goes into a party at the only place available for me to socialize, which is a fraternity, and I am being groped and sexually assaulted and in an environment that I think is unsafe, why do I want to join the fraternity? Why don't I want the fraternity banned?" Klieman said.

"I think I speak for all of us when I say that banning fraternities isn't counter to our objectives. We're adopting the kind of gender-integration model because we think it's one that's, you know, more feasible, that's worked similarly in other contexts in the past," McNeil said.

The women are part of a group which has repeatedly filed complaints asking Yale to regulate fraternities. "Yale's response has been deliberately indifferent. Yale has known about the problem of fraternity-related discrimination and sexual misconduct for at least a decade," said their lawyer, David Tracey. 

Pledges of one fraternity allegedly posed for a photo outside the Yale women's center with a sign reading: "We love Yale sluts." Another fraternity was banned after pledges reportedly paraded around chanting "no means yes." A third fraternity faced allegations of turning away women of color because they wanted "white girls only."

Singer said the optimal outcome of the lawsuit would be a "paradigm shift."

"Right now, students are forced to make a choice between having a social life and not feeling safe at parties or feeling safe but barely being able to go out at all. We want Yale to take decisive action to make that change so people no longer are forced to make that choice," Singer said.

In a statement, Yale University told us they have no comment on the lawsuit, but said all students are subject to discipline for sexual misconduct. A lawyer representing all the fraternities told us the claims "are baseless and unfounded" and that they "look forward to vigorously defending this action in court." This case focuses only on fraternities at Yale, but other schools no doubt will be watching.