Monday, November 27, 2017

Why college fraternities are bad for boys too

Recent exposé documentaries like The Hunting Ground, have shed light on the sexual assault epidemic that has gripped college campuses across the US. Although there is no clear profile of what a sexual predator on campus looks like, statistics have shown that fraternity members are three times more likely than other males to commit rape. This is a startling figure.

In 2014, a BBC correspondent spoke to students in Boulder about the problem. Nearly all those interviewed blamed ‘frat’ culture for encouraging and justifying sexually predatory behaviour amongst their members. Significantly, no spokesperson from any fraternity or Greek Life organisation in Boulder was willing to comment publicly on the issue.

However, one frat member, Edmund, volunteered to give the BBC reporter “the other side to the story”. Edmund defended fraternities, arguing that they are often scapegoated when it comes to incidents of sexual assault. He accused the media and wider student body of misinterpreting fraternity culture. Instead Edmund insisted that college fraternities are “founded on Christian values”. 

When asked about specific instances involving fraternity members, Edmund expressed the opinion that girls who dress in what he called “extremely provocative clothing” and who drink excessive amounts of alcohol at a party are “setting themselves up for a hook-up of sorts”. Edmund was also critical of the affirmative consent requirement under American law, arguing that it means, in reality, that a boy needs a girl’s permission to “unbutton every button on her shirt”. Evidently then, Edmund believes that legally no girl should be allowed to refuse her consent if a boy wishes to undress her. That, to say the least, is a very interesting viewpoint - assuming, of course, it fairly represents what fraternities believe in! 

As far as I see, then, public statements by frat members such as Edmund - and the general frat organisation response (or lack of it) to student and media attacks on Greek life - make it easy for feminists to view fraternity culture as a threat to women. Yet, from what I’ve observed, there seems to be just as good a case for regarding fraternities as a threat to boys as well. 

One aspect of certain fraternity cultures that is gaining increasing public attention is the custom of hazing. Hazing is, apparently, a not uncommon feature of college fraternity initiation. The practice often involves physical violence, sexual coercion, forced alcohol consumption or degrading or dangerous “pranks” such as compelling frat initiates to eat vile food mixtures. All this is seemingly done in the name of tradition and “brotherhood”.

In the US, hazing is known to have resulted in the deaths of 70 male students since 2000. Notably, that figure does not include episodes dismissed as “accidents”. But what is more unsettling is the fact that alcohol and hazing related deaths now appear to be on the increase, despite the banning of such “rituals” in many states. The accounts of these deaths make deeply disturbing reading.

The BBC recently told the story of 19 year old Tim Piazza, a student of Penn State University, who died on 4 February 2017 after taking part in a hazing event for the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. CCTV surveillance showed that Tim was given at least 18 drinks in the 82 minutes before he fell 15ft down the steps of the fraternity house’s basement. Shockingly, 12 hours were allowed to pass before his “brothers” decided to call emergency services. Medical reports found that Tim had suffered a fractured skull and irreversible traumatic brain injuries. His spleen had ruptured in multiple places, causing extensive internal bleeding and haemorrhagic shock. As a result, 26 fraternity members are now facing charges for involuntary manslaughter. Moreover, since Tim’s death, three other frat members at different US universities have died – two in the last couple of weeks. 

Understandably, stories like those of poor Tim and other victims, have led some colleges to ban hazing and Greek Life altogether. It remains to be seen whether that measure will be successful. Personally, I’m sceptical. Why? Because, to my mind, if boys as well as girls are to be properly protected, we need to recognise, above all else, that hazing is an unavoidable consequence of “hyper-masculine” environments. I know that, even in Irish colleges for example, where there is no such thing as fraternities, hazing still occurs in certain exclusively male clubs and societies. 

It seems, then, that, whilst prohibiting hazing and Greek life is certainly something that all universities should consider doing, it will probably not be enough, by itself, to protect students. We need equally to face the fact that the promises of friendship and camaraderie that fraternities and other exclusively male organisations offer is a great illusion. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that facilitating young men, at any level, to found their closest friendships on extreme physical and mental abuse is good for them, or for women. Indeed, if this is how boys are encouraged to behave towards those they are meant to call “brothers”, how can we expect them to treat girls with any greater decency?


Joterias! said...
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Joterias! said...

Great blog post Aoifa! I share your view: Fraternities present a threat to both female and male college students. As you note, the hyper-masculine culture that fraternities espouse is toxic, misogynistic, and facilitates the rape of women. Additionally, I think fraternities perpetuate homophobia even if many of their rituals are, arguably, queer. Take the trailer for Goat, a movie about the frat pledging process, it captures the homoerotism that undergirds frat “brotherhood.” ( Still images from its scenes make it difficult to distinguish the pledging process form gay BDSM pornography.

That’s partly why frat culture reminds me of Eve Sedgwick’s "Between Men". There, she posits that men’s homosocial desire is predicated on the repudiation of homosexuality, and occurs at the expense of women. In her triangularization of desire schema, a woman is the means by which two purportedly heterosexual men can satiate their homosocial desires by engaging in homosocial behavior. In that configuration, the woman’s presence buffers the homosocial interaction between men from becoming a homosexual one. And isn’t that what happens in frats, where “bro” bonding isn’t gay because bros are encouraged to treat women as objects, at times in its most vile form, via rape?!?!

On another note, as an undergrad, I lived in a queer-themed cooperative house situated on my school’s frat row—the geographic area that was home to the fraternities and sororities on campus. Indeed, the house I lived in abutted a frat house. I recall an occasion when a housemate and I heard raucous chanting coming from the frat house. We were intrigued, so we followed up on the sounds. From our balcony, we could see and hear members yelling emasculating epithets at two shirtless pledgees while other of their future “bros” offered drinks. My friend and I chuckled. We uttered, “and they call us fags?”

In short, frats present a threat to college students (and feminism) because they promote bonds masked by a fragile hyper-masculinity, whose viability depends on the repudiation of homosexuality and the use of women as a means to an end.

Suzanne Connell said...


Thank you for highlighting some of the shocking realities underpinning many college fraternities and Greek Life in America. I too find the concept of Greek Life to be alien since it’s not practiced or encouraged in my home university or in any of the universities in Ireland. I can however recognize the toxic effects that creating exclusively male environments can have on young men and impact on their perception and treatment of women.

The secondary schooling system of the Republic of Ireland in my mind shares many similarities with the creation of a ‘frat’ or ‘lad’ culture among young men. Particularly in the private school sphere, the majority of which are Catholic and run by religious orders, many schools are either all boys or all girls. For many years I have identified this separation of the sexes as having a detrimental impact on the eventual interaction between boys and girls. I particularly found in all boys’ schools, especially those that are big rugby schools, masculinity is prized above all else and often at the expense of girls. The ‘lad’ culture emerges in these environments, where women are often treated as objects of conquest used and abused in order to impress the lads and further one’s social status. As you also touched on, many all male sporting clubs also engage in a type of hazing where excessive consumption of alcohol is seen along with physical abuse or “court sessions” which is a process whereby boys are “called out” on the sexual encounters they’ve had with certain women and either praised or abused for it.

The effects of exclusively male environments are harmful to both men and women and in my mind are counterproductive to achieving an equal and respectful society.

Omar de la Cruz said...
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Omar de la Cruz said...


Thank you for your great post. While I don't see fraternities going anywhere anytime soon, I agree with your point of view and wish they would at least be more closely regulated. When I think back to my undergrad days when I lived a year in an all male apartment, I cringe at some of the predatory things people would say in that all-male space. I can only imagine the things that go on behind the scenes at fraternities which seem like that same sort of atmosphere but magnified times ten. I had friends and acquaintances who were in fraternities so I was invited over a few times but I always felt uneasy there. The dim lighting, sticky surfaces, an excessive alcohol made me feel claustrophobic. I can't even imagine what it must feel like in there as a woman in a skimpy outfit being eyed by multiple drunk men. On top of that, I never attended events like fraternity parties with the intention or expectation of finding someone to be intimate with. The entire atmosphere felt far too phony, sort of like networking but far more sinister. Altogether, fraternities have always made me uneasy, and that's without even jumping into a conversation about hazing.