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Do fraternities deserve their bad reputations?

By Wendy McElroy
web posted May 17, 2004

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 ones.

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 image.

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 acknowledgement 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 violence."

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. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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