The blank stare that comes after you tell someone which fraternity you're in is something you get used to pretty quickly. To non-Greeks, we all seem to swim in this foreign alphabet soup that blots away any distinctions. In the end, people will fall back on the examples that come most easily to mind to characterize us.
Bluto from Animal House comes up more often than Dr. Seuss.
This is a mental shortcut called the availability heuristic. It is the same shortcut that connects fraternities to sexual assault. As a community, we have given the public plenty of examples to strengthen this association. Earlier this week, the Sigma Nu chapter at Old Dominion University, was suspended after pictures of sexually suggestive banners hung briefly from a house where four of their members live, began to circulate online. One tweet added the caption "We're the driving force behind college rape culture and we should be banned from campus."
Question: What role does Greek life play in rape culture?
As much as national fraternities and sororities stress a desire for diversity in their chapters, there is a strong heteronormative underpinning to much of Greek life. For example, a tie exchange is a common fraternity-sorority event, where each girl selects their date for the evening by picking a tie out of a box. As fun and innocent as this seems, this tradition and many others like it confirm traditional gender roles, and prevent students who identify differently, in terms of gender or sexuality, from participating. In addition, Malamuth et al. found in 1991 that "men who belong to groups that advocate male dominance may be more comfortable committing acts of sexual aggression than men without peer support for such behavior."
It has been shown by Loh et al. that fraternity men are over three times more likely to commit sexual assault than other college men. Furthermore, men who have committed sexual assault in the past are nine times more likely to be repeat offenders. As easy as it would be to say that sexually aggressive men seek out the fraternity environment for the unmonitored heavy drinking that facilitates sexual assault, that doesn't quite cover all of it. By reinforcing these traditional ideas of masculinity, the same ones that make it seem reasonable to hang the sort of banners that were seen at ODU, many chapters promote and reward this sexual aggression. However, studies also indicate this can all be changed by one word: diversity.
Professor of sociology Elizabeth Armstrong, after an intensive study into class relations and sexual assault in a Midwestern college, noted that multicultural, gender-inclusive, and traditionally African-American fraternities were "less threatening" than white, affluent, elitist fraternities. While it's going to take a lot more than simply being less menacing to repair the image of Greek life, it's a start, and one that needs to happen sooner rather than later. The "boys will be boys" mentality that has explained away this behavior in the past, has been used up. Although there once was a majority of Greek alumni in the ranks of college officials, this is no longer the case. Few people remain to protect us from ourselves. Even the resources of the national fraternity can no longer bail out a chapter that has brought negative media attention to the organization. Nor should they.
Last week, University of Montana officials also removed suggestive signs, which specifically mentioned the Grizzly football team. Although much more anonymous than the ODU banners, these signs produced a vague sense of fear by targeting female students at a very vulnerable point in their college career.
This can propagate distrust of typically dangerous groups to the point of shielding other would-be rapists. When people have a scapegoat, they are often content blaming the "devil they know." The truth is, 9 out of 10 sexual assaults are perpetrated by repeat offenders. These serial rapists were also likely to engage in other forms of violence such as abuse or battery. These are not the loud, aggressive braggarts who advertise their presence nicely with signs. They are charismatic, cunning individuals who know how not to get caught. Targeting fraternities, who account for no more than 2 percent of the American male population, narrows the focus drastically.
I have had many opportunities to engage with the national chapter of my fraternity. In the last year and a half, I have seen the tone change rapidly. Where once we talked of thriving, we now talk about the survival of the fraternity system. It's a shocking thing to hear the Grand President tell you that unless we do something soon, we could see the end of fraternities and sororities in America in the not-too-distant future.
For many readers, this would have much the same effect as a tree falling with nobody around to hear it. It is important to remember, though, that whatever group you focus on -- fraternities, college athletes, politicians -- their actions reflect the attitudes of society at large, and banning fraternities won't make the problem of college rape culture disappear.
The most important thing I learned from my fraternity is that you have to define yourself -- as a man and student -- and you have every choice in what that looks like. When we say, "boys will be boys," what definition of "boys" are we comfortable with? Will we let our discomfort with challenging tradition maintain dangerous, outdated and ultimately exclusive values?
Or, are we ready to confront what it means to be a man?