Racist and sexist fraternities have been in the news a lot recently, publicized for promoting various offensive chants and parties. College and University campuses should be safe places for students, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, but some people feel frats inherently compromise campus safety. University of Victoria students recently upheld their campus ban on fraternities and sororities, with 63% of over 500 students voting against frats. Arguing against frats, organizer Jaraad Marani said they’re “counter productive to the university’s mandate and the University of Victoria Student Society’s mandate on creating inclusive and safe spaces.”
I went to school at UBC, which has fraternities and sororities. When a student club I belonged to wanted to hold an event in a frat house, I objected, arguing frat houses don’t constitute safe spaces for women. Historian Nicholas L. Syrett estimates that as many as 70 to 90 percent of reported campus rapes are committed by fraternity members. My argument didn’t get a lot of support in the club and I ended up sitting out the event, but the more I read the more I believe it’s no coincidence we’ve seen the following reports associated with frats (not even close to an exhaustive list):
1. In 1988 an 18-year-old freshman at Florida State University was gang-raped by three frat members who scrawled fraternity symbols on her thighs and left her unconscious in a hallway.
2. In 2001, an edition of Dartmouth’s Zeta Psi newsletter promised: “Next week: [Brother X’s] patented date raping techniques!”
3. In 2007 a Texas State University frat’s MLK party on Martin Luther King Jr. Day devolved into a celebration of racist stereotypes with “some fraternity members and others eating fried chicken, drinking malt liquor from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags and dressed in faux gang apparel.”
4. This September, two women reported being date raped in two weeks at a University of Minnesota frat house, with one 20-year-old woman being trapped in a bathroom by a male frat member. The following weekend a 19-year-old also reported being raped at a different U of M frat party.
5. Earlier this month Yale’s Delta Kappa Epsilon frat became infamous as videos went viral of frat members marching while chanting, “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!”
6. Two weeks ago a Harvard Sigma Chi “Conquistabros and Navajos” party drew criticism for romanticizing genocide of North American Aboriginal peoples, forcing an apology from the frat.
7. In March 2010 a 19-year-old University of Kentucky student was charged after wrapping a frat pledge in toilet paper and lighting him on fire.
8. The University of Alberta suspended one fraternity chapter this week after hazing allegations surfaced, with frat members accused of forcing pledges to eat their own vomit and confining them to plywood boxes.
9. This month the University of Kansas suspended a fraternity’s rights after allegations of hazing, including forcing pledges to wear women’s costumes such as “Fairy Godmother” in order to embarass them.
Fraternities have been plagued with these types of news stories because they tend to promote a vision of elitist hypermasculinity that has to be constantly proven through rituals that reinforce the exclusion of “others”, usually women, gay and trans men, and non-whites. Even though these are extreme cases, they’re just magnifications of the types of things that go on every day on North American campuses. I remember at UBC being told that one of the big Greek fundraisers for the year was a musical revue put on by the sororities and judged by the fraternities. “So we basically just fight to see who can come up with the sluttiest number,” a friend in one of the sororities told me.
At the University of Michigan, student groups complained about fraternity shirts picturing sperm racing toward an egg with the slogan “Only the Strong Survive” and banners with Playboy bunny logos on them. Syrett’s research also found homophobia ubiquitous in fraternity culture, despite a seemingly contradictory level of homoeroticism in many frat rituals.
But some people think fraternities can change to become safe and inclusive spaces. If society gains greater acceptance for racial, gender, and LGBT equality, will frats begin to mirror that acceptance? Amanda Hess has reported on frat boys at George Washington University taking steps to eliminate rituals associated with aggressive masculinity and eject members who spread homophobia and sexism.
I’m sure there are other fraternities attempting to take similar steps and I applaud them, but I’m skeptical about the possibility of meaningful change. Fraternities are, by nature, gender-segregated. To some extent, you can’t maintain that segregation without policing the masculinity of participants. Historically, fraternities have also been white organizations, and the continuing examples of racist frat parties shows fraternities are still having trouble shaking their legacy of racial exclusion. Why would they have any more luck with their gender issues?