L. Neil Smith's
Number 271, May 16, 2004

Remember: You are the most powerful force in history!

Do Fraternities Deserve Their Bad Reputations?
by Wendy McElroy

Special to TLE

The Frat-Boy. He's the drunken party-animal who date rapes when he isn't playing childish pranks or hazing. He's the low brow, sports-sated rich kid who is rude to women and minorities. We are all familiar with this image of the frat-boy from a flood of TV shows and movies that have revealed him to us. We know frat houses are part of the "rape culture" on campus because feminist studies such as the much-cited "Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture" (1996) tell us so.

But how much of the image is real and how much is a caricature based on the rejection of the traditional male and the dominance of political correctness on campuses?

Scant decades ago, fraternities were usually the most prestigious student organizations on campus. Many of today's respected leaders were fraternity members in their student days. Fraternities pointed to a long history of raising funds for charities and alumni money for universities.

Feminist awareness has permeated campuses since then and it may have exposed a dark side to fraternities and the need for change. But it is difficult to disassociate such critiques from a more general attempt by feminists to redefine campus politics and institutions according to their own vision. It seems unfair to outright reject "the frat-boy" on the basis of feminist research, which is notorious for being politically driven and for its poor methodology e.g. the use of biased questions or definitions.

My speculation on frat-boys was sparked by a news item forwarded to me by a male friend who attends the University of New Hampshire (UNH). The front-page story in UNH's student paper (04/30) revolved around that campus' recent Take Back the Night march. TBTN 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 news item was the outrage of campus feminists at the participation in the march of fraternities and sororities, the latter of which are also targets of caricature. In essence, the Feminist Action League (FAL) led a counter protest 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. In February 2001, a woman identified as "Sarah" claimed to be sexually assaulted at a frat party. Charges were never filed due to a lack of evidence and what the county attorney called "hazy" testimony. The fraternity was placed on a year-long probation based on its abrogation of "bystander responsibility" in connection with Sarah's extreme intoxication, not based on the alleged sexual assault. Feminists were outraged. Sarah's subsequent civil lawsuit against the fraternity was settled out of court. The frat house was vandalized.

It is difficult to understand, however, why feminist rage three years later caused FAL to decry the presence of all men and even of sorority women at the March. Although FAL members claim to have been afraid of the frat-boy presence, the news story reported no incidents. Arguably, the presence of non-disruptive fraternities should 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 to require that members receive training about sexual assault.

The conflict between feminists and frat-boys at UHN may be extreme but it reflects a tension that exists on most campuses across North America.

At its root, the tension may not be resolvable. The Women's and Gender Studies Program at Kenyon states, "Male bonding in groups like fraternities that promote traditional views of masculinity furthers the risk of sexual violence."

How can the foregoing description be resolved with the self-descriptions of many fraternities. For example, the mission statement for members of Alpha Phi Alpha at Texas Lutheran University reads, "to prepare them 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 there is no true stereotype of a "frat-boy." Another explanation, which is not mutually exclusive, is that the frat-boy controversy is part of an ongoing ideological war on campuses.

A few years ago, Dartmouth Review Editor Steven Menashi wrote a fascinating analysis of the controversy. He observed, "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."

Without dismissing valid criticism, Menashi concludes that the 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. "In truth, the war on fraternities isn't about ending drinking or bad behavior, it's about ending dissent. It's about enforcing prescribed values."

I don't know the extent to which Menashi is correct. But I am increasingly uncomfortable with the automatic snicker that accompanies the mention of frat-boys. And I don't intend to maintain a vicious image of an entire category of people unless it is proven beyond reasonable doubt that the individuals deserve it.

Visit my home page and blog, drop by ifeminists.com, For photo (05/02/02)


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