When I was an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta, the fraternities had a little Sunday morning ritual called the “Walk of Shame.” After all the big Saturday night parties, brothers would drag lawn chairs into the front yards of their campus frat houses and berate women who were walking down Frat Row, heading home the following morning. Many of them would hold up cards ranking the women’s attractiveness from zero to 10.0 in what one frat called the “slut Olympics.” Odds are that some of those women were the victims of date rape but none deserved to be devalued in that way. But that was the 1980s. Stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore, right?
Lately news stories of rapist frats have to compete with news stories of racist frats so it’s easy to get confused. Last week’s story about the banners hanging on the Sigma Nu house at Old Dominion in Virginia urging parents to drop their freshman daughters off “for a good time” was just the latest offense to actually make the news cycle. Did the frat boys (yes, boys) know that freshman females are at the greatest risk of becoming rape victims the first two weeks of their freshman fall term? Even if they didn’t, I’m sure it’s what they were banking on.
The list of such stories is long. From frats jokingly referred to as “rape factories” (Wesleyan) to frat emails about female students as “rape bait” (Georgia Tech) and on and on. It is the norm of the rape culture in a place that is not only supposed to be safe for young women (universities), but is also supposed to challenge the power status quo by enlightening students to the abuses of power. Instead universities with fraternity systems are reinforcing the the status quo in the worst possible ways. I have endless stories of frat bigotry from brothers I have encountered over the years, from racism (ex. at University of Alabama, “Want one our niggers to fix you something to eat?”) to homophobia (ex. at Oregon State University, “We don’t let fags into our party.”) But misogyny was always just the air they breathed, not even worth noticing.
Universities may suspend fraternities whose sexual abuse makes it into the mainstream media, but for the most part, it goes unchallenged in any meaningful way. Why? Because fraternities are the engine of the Old Boy Network that carries “brotherhood” into the corporate boardroom (and washroom, and country club, with “business meetings” at the strip club). This is the Old Boy Network that invented the glass ceiling and sows the seeds of rape culture because it’s a male privilege and it brings money from good old boys from Duluth to Dubai. Happy alumni in high ranking positions give a lot of endowments to universities to preserve their fond memories of academics and parties, but mostly parties. Why would any cash strapped university president bite the hand that feeds his or her beast by suggesting that the beast is deeply sick?
First, the reality
Because they’re right there on campus, researchers have had a relatively easy time studying frats for decades. Repeated surveys have shown that one in five daughters sent to college will become victims of sexual assault. A 2007 study found that fraternity brothers rape at three times the rate of non-fraternity members (300%) and that most campus rapes happen inside fraternity houses. It’s not just “coeds” who are victims. We can include off-campus girls and women (including “townies”) and young men (including fraternity pledges) in the body count.
For years I’ve assigned Martin and Hummer’s classic 1989 study on fraternity date rape to my students. The research detailed how fraternities use “little sisters” (adopted female students) to lure women to fraternity parties, maximize their alcohol consumption (see my recent post on Cancun), and then crank the music as loud as possible. The brothers would then use the line, “It’s really loud down here. Let’s go upstairs so we can talk,” to set the stage for the rape of the incoherent female. Interestingly, the study also found that fraternity members with girlfriends were less likely to engage in rape. However, members with girlfriends were routinely castigated for being “henpecked” and “pussy-whipped.”
There’s another deeper subtext about how these rapes often occur in group settings, gang rapes, with brothers watching each other have sex with semi-conscious women, performing their masculinity for each to other. In Peggy Sanday’s 2007 book, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus, there was almost a sport-like quality to “beaching a girl” – having sex with her while the frat brothers watch. Researchers have also explored the deep homoeroticism of young men living together in a “Greek” house as they throw any off any suspicions that they themselves might be gay by expressing homophobia and sexually “conquering” women (but not having girlfriends). Things that make you go, “Hmmm….”
Three things: Generalizations, boys and sororities
Let me clear about three important things. First, not all fraternity brothers are rapists or repressed sadistic homosexuals. I’ve known plenty of fraternity guys, including my father and my college roommate. Both, like good guy Brad Pitt (left), were Sigma Chi members. (We hope Brad was a good guy in college.) I am confident they saw the experience as formative and way to make (or buy) friends that lasted beyond Graduation Day. I am not generalizing about individual members, but I can weigh in on the moral corruptness of institution itself.
Secondly, young males are inherently stupid and not encouraged to be enlightened. Teenage boys are not taught about the impact of patriarchy on their mothers and sisters. They are taught to take risks to prove they are “real men.” This includes me. My dorm at Emory’s Oxford College had an annual event called The Whore & Pimp Party. Not only did I not challenge it’s existence, my sophomore year I organized it (and booked a great Atlanta metal band called Metalworks). I really hope Oxford left that party in the twentieth century. It was both sexist and racist. And there are few more despicable characters in modern American culture than the pimp. (No Trump reference needed.) I was a stupid 18 year-old-boy. But, after that, I chose to evolve
Third, people will say, “But what about sororities? Isn’t that equality?” First of all, sororities were created because women were (and are) locked out of men’s fraternal organizations. Secondly, “separate but equal” has never translated into any form of equality. And third, sorority girls (yes, girls) aren’t dropping roofies in male students’ drinks and raping them. Sororities give the illusion of equality and therefore serve to give legitimacy to the fraternities that exclude them (unless they are “hot” enough to be a frat little sister). Sorority girls are the house slaves who think they are equal because they have a seat at the master’s table, but are still thought of just like the field slaves by the brothers. (I borrowed that analogy from Malcolm X.)
When I was a grad student teaching at Emory, I declared open war on the racist sexist fraternity system and all its bogus “traditions.” The KA house had its big Old South party, romanticizing the days of slavery. Another frat (Pike), had a “Pole Party,” and advertised it on flyers featuring a woman with a pole going up her vagina. That one actually got a reaction. Word got out that if you were a frat boy or sorority girl, cover your Greek letters in Blazak’s class or he will call on you to defend your lifestyle choice. Anti-frat graffiti started popping up around campus. Women started saying, “I’d never date a frat boy.”
It came to a head when I was invited to a big conference of fraternities to discuss my opposition to the Greek system. Into the lion’s den. And I didn’t hold back. I talked about how we emphatically opposed racial apartheid in South Africa but we don’t recognize gender apartheid in our own house. I talked about how sororities are propping up a system that routinely turns a blind eye to the rape of their members. I said, “You are educated people heading into the twenty-first century. Is this the best you can do?”
There were lots of boos and and one alumni stood up and asked, “How can you say these things when we do so much good charity work in the community.” I could’ve questioned that charity work (A carwash for a children’s hospital! Thanks!), but for once I was right on point. I simply said, “Do you honestly think you could not have done that good work in a organization that allowed women to join?” He had no answer because there is no answer. Afterwords, two young women approached me and said they were quitting their sorority.
Now whenever I see fraternities recruiting on campuses, I always stop to ask, “Do you allow females to join yet, or do you still discriminate against women?” They just smile.
I have a fantasy that one day I will be invited to give a commencement speech at Emory. (Maybe after the film version of my book, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, comes out.) I will tell some funny stories about political science classes with guest lecturer Jimmy Carter and the day I started a punk rock riot when Ramones played at the school. And I’ll also tell a few about the bad old days of the fraternity rape factories. Of course, there are still frats on university campuses, including at Emory. A tumbler account ranks the current Emory frats, from top dogs Sigma Chi, “Good looking guys who are good with girls,” down to Phi Delta Phi, who were kicked off campus for “fight clubs.” The cream of the crap.
My daughter, Cozy, will head off to college in 2032. I might be naive, but I hope fraternities (and sororities) are long gone by then. A memory of a hurtful tradition, like slavery. Young people do have the constitutional right to assemble. If the KA’s want to march around like Confederate soldiers they have that right. If the Alpha Phi sorority wants to say it only recruits attractive white females, they also have that right, just like the Klan does. The question is, do they have the right to do it on university campuses, subsidized and supported by all the other students who either would never be allowed to join them or who are, as my mom claimed she was in the 1960s, GDIs (God Damn Independents)? No, they do not.
Dear university administrators, do you want to reduce hazing deaths (and the lawsuits they incur), and also reduce institutionalized racism and sexism while weakening the glass ceiling that so many female administrators have pushed against? (Only 26% of college presidents are female.) End the archaic Greek system and join the twenty-first century. Clemson did it last year (temporarily). Individual frats and sororities have been kicked off campuses. It’s time for the whole system built on the exclusion of others to go. This includes black fraternites and other minority frats that exclude women and the minority sororities that back those frats up. College is supposed to be a place where all are safe to find and follow their dreams, not be encouraged to become rapists or the victims of rape. Are alumni donations more important than your daughter’s safety or your son’s criminal record? (Of course, many colleges deal with rape accusations behind closed doors so that today’s privileged college student isn’t tomorrows registered sex offender. Prison stints might cut into alumni donations.)
Fraternity members are not “men.” They are boys who are trying to become men in a setting that encourages them to value “bros before hos.” Michael Kimmel wrote about this so well in his 2008 book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. In the end, he urges society to raise “just guys,” who care about justice, instead of just “guys,” who continue the cycle of bro culture. What if the next time a fraternity or sorority tried to colonize a campus (that’s their term), young men came out and, in the spirit of the opposition to Wal-Mart stores being built in small towns and big cities, said, “Not on my campus! Not at my school!”
Some would make the case that the solution is to just teach frat boys not to rape. I would argue that’s not feasible within the institution built on the exclusion of women. It’s like teaching white people not to be racist by sending them to an Aryan Nations compound. It’s time for the whole thing to go. If they want to have their “No Girlz Allowed” treehouse off campus, they can. But let’s keep campus a safe space. I know this won’t eliminate rape (date rape is a campus-wide problem), racism and hazing deaths from America’s universities, but it will get the institutions that celebrate them away of our institutions of higher education. And obviously, some good old boys with deep pockets whose heads are still back in their college animal houses are going to whine about “political correctness” (No Trump reference needed) and threaten to close their checkbooks, so this is where the administrators get to decide where they stand. And it is a crucially important choice. The voice of non-Greek students is pretty clear.
My dream is to drop Cozy off at her freshman dorm at Emory University seventeen years from now. I want my biggest fear to be her deciding to become a business major, not if she will be one of the 20% of female students to be raped. Let them talk about the Greek system in her history class along with slavery. Evil Traditions 101.
Note: Donald Trump was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity while at Fordham University. It is not known if he raped anybody while there and if he did how many women he raped. As Mr. Trump is fond of saying, “we’re looking into it.”