What have frats done for us?

In the wake of the horrific Rolling Stone article about a 2012 gang rape at the UVA fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, I have found it hard to control my emotions, waffling between rage and sorrow. It seems that sexual violence is the theme of the year in my town, the supposedly peaceful Charlottesville.

The residents I’ve talked to, many of whom are UVA alums, are grieved, but sadly, many of them are not surprised. The general sentiment is: Yeah. That sounds like something frats would do — and have done for years. And then there is the outpouring of feelings of powerlessness against an entrenched system of violence, adolescent stupidity, and misogyny.

This is my question: How powerless are we?

To me, there seems to be a very simple answer, or at least, a practical solution that could begin a tidal wave of much-needed change: Shut down all the fraternities (and not just for a few weeks, to pacify public outrage).

No, this wouldn’t solve the problem of rape. Sexual violence is often committed by men who are not frat brothers. No, not all frats are evil. Obviously, not all frats are raping women. There are some genuinely lovely and good-hearted men who are in or were in fraternities, and I am delighted to know many such men.

Phi Gamma Delta House University of Virginia-Fraternity from Negatives from the Charlottesville photographic studio plus an index volume  Holsinger's Studio (Charlottesville, Va.)  1890-1938  Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.
Phi Gamma Delta house at UVA. University photo archives, 1890-1938.

But let’s discuss honestly what this action could do. What are the advantages of the greek system in American universities? What have fraternities done for university cultures?

Advantages of frats

  • Having a bunch of friends that your parents purchased for you who are all in your same social class. Accordingly, a sense of unity, loyalty, and belonging within this artificial, homogenous family
  • Business connections. Hey, later in life, you may be asked to conduct judicial review of your own frat when it faces gang rape charges! Sweet deal.
  • Parties! Which naturally involve plenty of alcohol, with the added benefit of skirting the law on underage drinking (due to lack of enforcement)
  • Some mandatory community service

Disadvantages of frats

  • Parties! Copious alcohol + no law enforcement/adult oversight + groupthink = a perfect storm to generate a mass of bad decisions.
  • Hazing. Most panhellenic organizations will tell you that hazing is illegal. But most frats will admit that they still do it. Just a little bit. Just enough to maybe kill just one student a year (as was common at UNC). It’s just one human being. He wanted to fit in!
  • Frat houses that are private property (like many of the houses at UVA) create a perfect culture of protection for frat activities. You can wreak fairly unsupervised havoc to your heart’s content. A private frat house is also a perfect location to trap and rape women with zero consequences to yourself and your brothers.
  • When you do get in trouble, you benefit from a large degree of protection from university officials because you’re rich. Accordingly, your parents and your frat’s alumni hold clout, because they too are well off, and your university doesn’t want to piss them off by punishing you.
  • A culture that encourages a strong sense of brotherhood (aka idiotic male behavior), often culminating in a high degree of misogyny.
  • A culture that fosters racism and elitism. I can’t even remember how many times UNC frats got in trouble for racist and sexist parties while I was working for the student paper; too many times to count. The elitism is so blatant it’s almost not worth mentioning. Such organizations, like fraternities, that exist solely to exalt the most privileged members of society seem crass and anachronistic in 21st-century America.
  • The exaltation of tradition. Frats have existed for a long time and were often the first organizations established at American universities. There’s a strong feeling that we must protect frats, at all costs, because they have been around for so long. Particularly at such a university as UVA, which views history and tradition as a veritable religion, long-held customs and cultures are very slow to change — or even to admit that they need to change. (Reveling in that kind of circular logic of, well, we’ve always done it this way and therefore it is perfect and unchangeable.)

Some Surrounding Facts

  • Men in fraternities are more likely to commit sexual assault than men who are not in fraternities (NASPA Journal, 2007). The relevant and especially damning passage from this research on rape prevention:
    • Among men on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to commit rape than other college men (Bleeker & Murnen, 2005; Boeringer, 1999). Thus, rape prevention efforts often target fraternity men (Choate, 2003; Larimer, Lydum, Anderson, & Turner; 1999; Foubert & Newberry, 2006). Compared to their peers on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to believe that women enjoy being physically “roughed up,” that women pretend not to want sex but want to be forced into sex, that men should be controllers of relationships, that sexually liberated women are promiscuous and will probably have sex with anyone, and that women secretly desire to be raped (Boeringer, 1999). Beyond the aforementioned quantitative findings, qualitative research suggests that fraternity culture includes group norms that reinforce within-group attitudes perpetuating sexual coercion against women. These cultural norms have the potential to exert powerful influences on men’s behavior (Boswell & Spade; 1996).

  • About 30% of UVA’s undergraduates belong to a fraternity or a sorority.  (In contrast to other regional schools, UNC, my alma mater, has 17% of the student body involved in greek life; Duke University has about 38%.)
  • About 55% of sexual assault occurs at parties, and in about 72%–81% cases of reported rape, the woman was intoxicated.
  • Women were not officially (fully) enrolled as undergraduates at UVA until 1972. So, comparatively, this is a school that is still figuring out how to treat women as humans. Let’s be honest: The Great Demigod Thomas Jefferson wasn’t exactly a role model in this arena. (By contrast, UNC enrolled its first woman student in 1897.)
Phi Gamma Delta, the second fraternity chartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, in 1851.
Members of Phi Gamma Delta, the second fraternity chartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, in 1851.

Let’s be clear: This kind of evil, predatory behavior is not exclusive to UVA. While at UNC, I heard about a story a year about a girl being raped by her frat date, and I heard collectively two separate stories about women in our circle of acquaintances who suffered gang rape at frats. Being assaulted by frat brothers was a common horror story at UNC. A few miles down the road at Duke, my friend, who was in a frat there, reported that many Duke frats had “progressive parties” in which one of the rooms was the “date rape” room, into a which a girl would be lured and sexually assaulted, and then moved on to the next station at the party. These parties are still happening there today, and no frat has been punished for them.

Sexual assault happens at colleges all across this country, which is why this is a problem of epidemic proportions — even if the evidence is scattered and hushed, tending toward horror stories that women quietly share with one another.

Why would we not try to stop at least SOME of those regular assaults against women by closing down institutions that are famous for sexual violence?

Again, frat brothers are not the only agents of evil. There are plenty of other men out there who are committing sexual assault without the assistance of the greek system. But I earnestly believe that we can stop an enormous proportion of the problem of recurring sexual violence on campuses by shutting down fraternities.

If we shuttered frats, students could still join clubs. Parties would still be had. Gratuitous amounts of alcohol would still be consumed. And, sadly, I am not so naive to think that sexual violence would end. Women would still be in danger on a regular basis, so there’s that, to pacify the traditionalists.

But we could shut down a series of long-standing institutions that promote some of the worst sides of human nature: entitlement, machismo, sexism, recklessness, and a grievous lack of respect for human dignity. At this point, I think frats are beyond saving. They are too far gone to implement reform. The entire culture is morally bankrupt and has been for decades. Good men can exist inside this system, as we all know, but the bad that frats generate seems to far outweigh the good.

Is it not worth it? To make some wealthy alumni angry in exchange for improving university culture and perhaps protecting the lives and bodies of girls?

I don’t think university officials think it’s worth it; they’d rather have the money. Money wins, just about every time, when you put a young woman’s life on the scales.

Again, I’m not stupid. I don’t really believe frats will be shut down. Frats will continue to grow and thrive and rape. Those men who assaulted their dates will graduate and become prominent members of society. They’ll become fathers. They’ll pass on their beliefs to their children. And their little juniors will go on to college, join a frat, and start the cycle all over again.

But if we don’t start seriously questioning the worth of some of our most cherished institutions, our world will not improve. And we will continue to hear the same horrific stories, year after year after year. I am trying to be hopeful. In the meantime, I won’t stay silent about what I perceive to be a vicious cancer in our universities.

If the initial article didn’t make you angry, here’s some additional reading that might.

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