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Sep 02 2016
by Ken Cavanaugh

Power and Brotherhood: The Dangers of Fraternities Go Far Beyond Hazing

By Ken Cavanaugh - Sep 02 2016
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Red solo cups slosh beer onto the already stained carpet of a frat house, and a crowd of people dance with reckless abandon to the beat of an early 2000s throwback. When the dance floor activity wanes, people refill their drinks and take a few hits while they chat with strangers and reunite with old friends. Before long, the pulsing lights and rhythmic music lure everyone back onto their feet, and a euphoric atmosphere once again fills the room. Behold, the sensory overload of a college frat party. Here, some make memories that will last their entire life; others, however, experience traumatic assaults that could end one.

Sexual assault at frat parties has become a hot topic in recent years. Fraternities are now regularly criticized by the media, exposing the consequences of the bro-culture and misogyny that are often perpetuated by the Greek system. What used to be exclusively analyzed in feminist literature has trickled down to more mainstream publications; articles like Bridget Read’s, “It’s the End of Frat Life As We Know It, and I Feel Fine,” (published in The Huffington Post) and Frank Bruni’s, “A Pox on Campus Life,” (published in The New York Times) are making knowledge about the issues surrounding frats accessible to a much larger number of people. Even a quick Google search reveals countless instances of sexual harassment and assault cases against members of fraternities.

Increasing attention from the media has sparked a debate over the relevance of fraternities on college campuses and whether or not their existence is worth the harm that they may cause. Many, however, are strong proponents of fraternities and the positive impacts that they can have on the lives of their members.

In the past, listening to both sides of the great Greek divide has left me feeling like frats and sororities are just the misunderstood middle child of America, overly criticized by people who simply don’t have comparable experiences from which they’ve gained perspective. It didn’t take much research for me to realize that this middle child was actually pretty well understood, and that while they may be in adolescent denial, unaware of the impact they have on others and society as a whole, something should probably be done to keep them in check.

As incoming freshmen all over the country navigate important decisions concerning life in college, joining a fraternity or sorority often finds itself at the top of the priority list. The number of students enrolled in American universities is increasing over time, and so are the number of those choosing to participate in Greek life. It is more important than ever that students are educated on the implications of the Greek system so they can make educated choices on whether or not they want to join.

First, let’s lay the groundwork and take a look into what makes fraternities so attractive to incoming college students.

Social fraternities have become an undeniable part of the quintessential college experience. At many schools, frats find themselves at the top of the social hierarchy, hosting parties and social events that many students consider one of the highlights of college life. This benefit, however, is only the tip of the iceberg for fraternity members; fraternities boast that membership is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a very powerful nationwide organization. Joining allows students to network and make lifelong friends while cultivating their leadership skills and helping the community through charity work.

In fact, joining a fraternity can actually create a tangible difference in the life-readiness of college students after they leave their universities. In a partnership with the North-American Interfraternity Conference and National Panhellenic Conference, Gallup and Purdue University conducted a survey which revealed that graduates who participated in some form of Greek life are 10% more likely than other students to "strongly agree" that they have been adequately prepared for life after graduation by their experiences in college. This is only one of many statistics that show the positive impacts that fraternities can have on the lives of students that are admitted into their ranks.

It is undeniable that these benefits help propel graduates of fraternities into the rest of their lives with the momentum that they need to be successful, and this fact has stood as the main defense of the fraternal system at large in the face of countless cases regarding sexual assault, incidents from social inebriation and hazing and much more.

While there are quite literally an endless supply of examples of these, I’ll just pick a of the bunch to shed some light on the seriousness of the matter.

Fraternities are all about leadership, and some really do their best to educate their pledges and members to lead in every aspect of their lives. In fact, at Georgia Tech, a member of the now disbanded Phi Kappa Tau chapter sent an email to their fellow fraternity brothers on how to lead a girl to bed. The email concludes with the charming valediction of, “In luring rapebait,” and includes a handy shortened guide in closing for frat members who needed a quick review (courtesy of Total Frat Move):

“A short guide consists of the 7 E’s of HOOKING UP! 1. Encounter (spot a girl or group of girls) 2. Engage (go up and talk to them) 3. Escalate (ask them to dance, or ask them to go up to your room or find a couch, depending on what kind of party) 4. Erection (GET HARD) 5. Excavate (should be self-explanatory) 6. Ejaculate (should also be self explanatory) 7. Expunge (send them out of your room and on their way out when you are finished.) IF ANYTHING EVER FAILS, GO GET MORE ALCOHOL. I want to see everyone succeed at the next couple parties.”

This leaked private email exhibits the unfortunate result of the intersections of sexism, misogyny and rape culture within some frat houses. In fact, this deep-rooted misogyny dates back to the 1800s when Jenkins Holland, a Sigma Phi member, sent a letter to a fraternity brother that stated “I did get one of the nicest pieces of ass some day or two ago.”

Some people might argue that incidents like these are isolated, and that not all fraternities foster a culture of sexism and objectification of women. While this claim is not unfounded and is certainly true to an extent, it also does nothing to address the problem. I’m not trying to claim that all fraternities promote sexism, or that all fraternity brothers objectify women, but there is nothing isolated about these instances; fraternity men are three times more likely than other male students to rape according to a study published by John Foubert, a faculty member in the School of Education at Oklahoma State University, and two of his colleagues, Jerry Tatum and J.T. Newberry. Equally disturbing is the fact that less than 1% of assailants receive any form of disciplinary action from their universities.

In addition to the negative implications of a misogynistic cultural climate within fraternities, the very foundation of fraternal institutions proves problematic in its exclusivity.

The American College Fraternity movement began in the late 18th century when a group of young, academically excellent, wealthy, white Christian males decided to band together in brotherhood to represent the ideals of loyalty, leadership, companionship and philanthropy. On the surface, this might sound great. There is something inherently problematic, however, about a group of people in a position of extreme privilege that are not faced with the perspectives of those facing ranging levels of oppression (such as people of different abilities, classes, gender identities, religious affiliations and races).

The aftermath of the culturally, religiously, socioeconomically and racially homogenous founding of American Greek life has rippled through time and still finds itself at the root of modern-day frat culture.

The most obvious display of this concept would be seen through reports of class and race distribution in fraternities across the country. Unfortunately, it is pretty difficult to find data containing such distributions since the North American Interfraternity Conference has no demographics published on any of its nearly 70 fraternities. Instead, we’ll look at a specific university for reference.

The Student Government at Princeton University collected data on the racial and income distribution of students in Greek life and found that 73 percent of fraternity members were white and more than 25 percent of Greek students came from families whose incomes are in the top 1 percent of America (less than 5 percent of participants were from middle/lower income families). While these statistics may be skewed by the overall income and racial distributions of the entire Princeton student body, which may not be representative of many other universities in the country, they still serve to provide sufficient evidence in shedding light on the unequal racial and socioeconomic access to fraternities.

This indication of racial/socioeconomic exclusion may not be sufficient enough to fully showcase that the whitewashed founding of fraternities still manifests itself in today’s frats, but don’t fret; it only takes a short ten second YouTube clip to see fraternal homogeneity on its A-game.

In 2015, a video was published on YouTube of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity laughing and pumping fists as they exuberantly chant, “There will never be a n----- SAE; you can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me.” Shortly after this video was leaked, The Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy provided multiple other examples of blatant racism within Sigma Alpha Epsilon in a commentary on the ramifications of the "exclusionary roots of Greek life."

“In 1992, Texas A&M University fined its chapter $1,000 after it threw a 'jungle party' attended by frat brothers in blackface. Then in 2002, Syracuse University suspended its chapter after one of its members went to a bar in blackface. As recently as 2013, the fraternity got suspended following allegations it had photographed African American students while pledges recited rap lyrics laced with racial slurs.”

With so many instances of blatant racist and sexist behavior, it is obvious that there is a big difference between the ideals that fraternal institutions represent and the ideals that they exemplify. Leadership, brotherhood, character development, chivalry and social experiences turn into classism, misogyny, racial inequality and sexual assault. But why does it matter?

Here’s why.

Fraternities have historically sustained cycles of wealth and privilege, and the fact that this already problematic cycle is laced with racism, sexism and other oppressive institutions makes it all the more frightening. We live in a world where men disproportionately hold positions of power, and those who are in those positions are disproportionately fraternity members.

To cite one example of many, fraternity men dominate every branch of the American political sphere (NJIT). In the House, 76 percent of Senators and Congressmen belong to a fraternal organization. In the Judiciary, 40 of 47 Supreme Court Justices since 1910 have been fraternity men. In the Presidential Cabinet, over 60 percent of members since 1900 have also been members of a Greek organization. Some sources even claim that all but two of our presidents since the founding of the first fraternity have been fraternity men.

As scary as this is, there are still many fraternities today swimming against the current, working towards increasing the diversity of their members and leveling a historically unequal playing field. Students, faculty and fraternity advisors at Southern Methodist University recently banded together to launch a Greek Life Diversity Task Force in response to an increase in publicized cases of racial discrimination in Greek chapters at universities across the country. According to an article from The Daily Campus’s Christina Cox, this organization serves to examine the four Greek Councils on SMU’s campus (including the Interfraternity Council and National Panhellenic Council) in an attempt to encourage the near 50 percent of SMU’s undergraduate population who participate in Greek life to carry out the same cultural and ethnic diversity that the campus as a whole embodies. It is becoming far more common for fraternities to start initiatives like these, and that trend will hopefully continue as younger generations gain knowledge regarding the consequences of homogeneity and exclusion.

Some of the most unique, kind-hearted, respectful people I know are members of fraternities. These are people that I know dedicate themselves to helping the community, supporting their fraternity brothers and other friends, and focusing on their academic success while actively opposing many of the negative stereotypes associated with frats. While I don't think this should be overlooked because of the problematic history of the institution, we should still be careful to never forget the roots of the fraternity system and the fact that there are still many fraternities today that have a long way to go; recognizing this is important in ensuring that everyone, especially college students, continues to critically examine Greek life in universities and the system’s overarching societal implications to improve circumstances for future generations.

Lead Image Credit: Shadywood Road Productions

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Ken Cavanaugh - Loyola Marymount University

Ken is a freshman at Loyola Marymount University where he studies Sociology, Economics, and Women's and Gender Studies.

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