Do Fraternities Deserve Their Bad Reputations?
by Wendy McElroy, ifeminists.com
13 May 2004
awareness may have exposed a dark side to fraternities, but it is difficult
to divorce their critique from their more general attempt to redefine campus
politics according to a new feminist vision.
How much of what you believe is based on fact, and how much has been manufactured?
For decades, society has been undergoing a powerful campaign known as political
correctness, which seeks to control the definition and presentation of concepts,
including "marriage" and "the family." The purpose is to encourage allegedly
proper ideas and behavior, by law if necessary, and to discourage improper
A recent news story left me questioning how deeply the ideas in my own mind have been socially engineered.
The news item was on college fraternities -- or "frat boys" -- and their
relationship to violence against women. The Frat Boy. He's the drunken party-animal
who date rapes when he isn't playing childish pranks or hazing. He's the
lowbrow, sports-sated rich kid who is rude to women and minorities. I know
this ... even though the fraternity members I've met do not resemble that
How do I know this? I've imbibed that image through a flood of TV shows and
movies. I know fraternity houses are part of the "rape culture" on campus
because feminist studies, such as the much-cited 1996 "Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture,"
reveal that fact. But how much of the image is real, and how much is a caricature
based on a rejection of the traditional male?
Scant decades ago, fraternities were among the most prestigious student organizations
on campus. Many of today's respected leaders were fraternity brothers, and
fraternities can point to a long history of raising funds for charities and
of alumni money for universities.
Feminist awareness may have exposed a dark side to fraternities and a need
for change. But it is difficult to divorce their critique from their more
general attempt to redefine campus politics according to a new feminist vision.
Such feminist visions, and their underlying research, are notorious for being
politically driven and methodologically flawed.
The news story that sparked my speculation was forwarded by a male friend at the University of New Hampshire: The front-page story
in UNH's student paper on April 30 revolved around that campus' recent Take
Back the Night march. (Take Back the Night is an international event meant
to unify "women, men, and children in an awareness of violence against women,
children and families.")
The focus of the article was feminist outrage at the participation in TBTN
of fraternities and sororities, the latter of which are also targets of PC
caricature. In essence, the Feminist Action League led a protest against
the involvement of Greek organizations in UNH's TBTN, with members carrying
banners addressed to the fraternities. Two of them read, "We Don't Negotiate
With Terrorists" and "Feminists Against Frats."
The UNH conflict has a back story, including a three-year-old accusation
of rape that was never filed as a charge, vandalization of the frat house,
and a subsequent civil lawsuit that was settled out of court.
Perhaps this partially explains why FAL decried the presence of all men --
and even of sorority women -- at the TBTN march. Nevertheless, the presence
of non-disruptive fraternities (and the news story reported no incidents)
could have been viewed as a feminist victory, since they are the very men
from whom feminists most strenuously demand an acknowledgment of sexual
violence on campus.
It would not be an isolated victory. Many fraternities seem eager to reform
their tarnished image. In February, for example, the Interfraternity Council
at Penn State voted to designate all IFC fraternity houses as "rape-free"
zones and require members to receive training about sexual assault.
The conflict at UHN may be extreme, but it reflects a tension that exists to some degree on most campuses across North America.
The root tension may not be resolvable. The Women's and Gender Studies Program
at Kenyon College in Ohio states, "Male bonding in groups like fraternities
that promote traditional views of masculinity furthers the risk of sexual
How can the foregoing be resolved with the self-descriptions of many fraternities?
The mission statement for members of Alpha Phi Alpha at Texas Lutheran University
is typical: "... to prepare them [members] for the greatest usefulness in
the causes of humanity, freedom and dignity of the individual; to encourage
the highest and noblest form of manhood; and to aid down-trodden humanity
in its efforts to achieve higher social, economic and intellectual status."
A possible explanation is that both images are true and no stereotype of
a "frat boy" exists. Another explanation is that the frat boy controversy
is part of an ongoing ideological war on campuses.
Former Dartmouth Review Editor Steven Menashi
has written of the controversy, "even though fraternities have been around
for two centuries, it's only recently that colleges have launched a concerted
effort to destroy them. In the last decade, anti-Greek initiatives have emerged
at Dartmouth, Bates, Trinity, Bowdoin, Hamilton, and Bucknell -- to name
only a few."
Menashi concludes that a main reason fraternities are under attack is that
they "have become a sanctuary for campus heterodoxy." For example, fraternities
tend to be critical of affirmative action and so-called diversity policies.
Thus, "the war on fraternities isn't about ending drinking or bad behavior,
it's about ending dissent."
Is Menashi correct? I don't know. But I am increasingly uncomfortable with
the automatic snicker that accompanies the mention of "frat boys." And I
wonder at the vicious image I carry in my mind of an entire category of people.
Where does it come from?
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. Her
new book is Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century.
Reprinted with permission of ifeminists.com.
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