Many decades ago, when I was a boy living in Durham, North Carolina, I’d wander across the Duke University quadrangle and look with awe at the fraternity men. I’d watch them convened in front of their Hillsborough bluestone houses, grilling hamburgers or leaping over hedges with insouciant ease to toss a football with a friend. In those days, they were all white, and they all seemed to have blond hair and winning smiles. As far as I was concerned, every last one of them was captain of the football or basketball team, or could be if he wanted. If only I could ever be such a man.
The male half of the Greek system has a long history on many campuses, and a significant mystique. Yes, they’re about housing, bonding and brotherhood. And yes, for some groups, like Jewish or black students, they were a place to belong. But they were also about preserving status: class status, race status, gender status. And, as it turns out, too many fraternities are a virtual pantheon of racism, hazing, homophobia, fatal accidents, truly dangerous levels of drinking, misogyny and violence against women.
Given the problems that beset fraternities like a nasty rash that just won’t go away, I’ve been asked: Shouldn’t we just ban the damn things and move on?
I certainly don’t believe all fraternities are dens of hazing and date rape. But there is that nasty rash, isn’t there? Which means we need a treatment of some kind.
Over the years I’ve been brought to many campuses to speak about issues of gender equality, consent and sexual violence, and some of those talks have been sponsored by fraternities. I’ve done events for interfraternity councils. I’ve met a lot of terrific and concerned young men in the Greek system, and I know there is a diverse fraternity culture. There are some fine frat houses that really are different. I certainly don’t believe all fraternities are dens of hazing and date rape.
But there is that nasty rash, isn’t there? Which means we need a treatment of some kind. We can’t let the rash rage unchecked ― or worse, continue to spread.
Fraternities gained momentum in the mid-19th century, a time when more middle-class men were entering higher education (although relative to today, college enrollments were small). Fraternities were reserved for the elite within the elite. As my friend and sometimes co-author Michael Kimmel recounts in his magisterial Manhood in America, fraternities became a means to reproduce class, race and gender privilege as the demographics of college campuses became more diverse.
That historical reality is at the root of our contemporary problems. A university should be an egalitarian institution, a collegial place that obliterates barriers to getting ahead in life. Fraternities, which are institutions within institutions, do the opposite: They are exclusive social networks through which the chosen few meet the “right” people, people who can grease the wheels of success. Everyone else is left out in the cold. This puts the lie to the liberatory promise of a higher education.
Young men are too intimidated to speak out because they’re desperate to prove they’re not only one of the boys, but one of the select boys.
It seems obvious, but it’s worth noting that fraternities are fundamentally men’s institutions. I don’t simply mean that only men can join the club. I mean fraternities are part of the firmament of patriarchal privilege, power and preparation. They are one of those institutions where a privileged group of young men can negotiate the journey of becoming a man. That journey is about assuming your supposedly rightful place at the top of the power and status structure — not only in your ranking over other men, but in your ranking over women. I still hear stories of sorority sisters cleaning fraternity houses, organizing parties for the boys or acting as props for pledges.
Brothers are encouraged to adopt a code of silence about abuse. Mere membership confers status in the campus social pecking order. All this is part of the culture of entitlement that too many fraternities have nurtured for too long.
But the journey for a young man is also about dealing with the harmful demands of masculinity on men themselves. Our dominant forms of manhood aren’t only about power over women or power over other men, but about your ability to take the pain and roll with the punches. And that’s the reason for the pledge system and hazing with its history of degrading, dangerous and even deadly practices.
This journey to manhood requires that young men support, or at least acquiesce to, behaviors that they know damn well are harmful to themselves and others, like drinking themselves into oblivion and turning a blind eye to verbal abuse and sexual violation. The trail of sexism and racism, of accidents and death, is a reflection of a fraternity culture where young men are too intimidated to speak out because they’re desperate to prove they’re not only one of the boys, but one of the select boys.
Given all this, it’s easy to see why banning fraternities seems like a solution, one that sociologist Lisa Wade and others suggest. True, we’ve had thoughtful criticisms by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who argues that we need to focus on addressing the underlying issues, and an exposé by John Hechinger, who says banning frats just isn’t feasible. And, of course, fans of fraternities will tell you they are swell just the way they are.
But let’s turn the tables. Let’s have fraternities prove they have a healthy place on the campuses of the future.
Can they not only reform themselves, but transform themselves? That will require a complete end to pledging and hazing, even in their more benign forms. It will mean their membership must accurately reflect the diversity of the campus — for each to start looking like the diverse, multicultural society we’re building around us. It will demand they jettison the boys club ethos and become co-ed, so they actually help prepare young men for the workplaces and families of the future. They will need to immediately boot out members who engage in sexist, homophobic and racist behavior and banter — that stuff has no place in our hallowed halls. They’ll have to grow up and end the dangerous drinking culture.
As for interfraternity councils, they’ll need to make sure that fraternities take responsibility for each other’s actions. Their role can’t only be to police those who step a mile over the line. I’d say that if a single member fraternity can’t live up to a transformed existence, if a single incidence of hazing or date rape happens, then that should be the moment all fraternities on campus should be dissolved. After all, in a brotherhood, we’re supposed to be our brothers’ keepers.
A co-ed fraternity? A racially and economically diverse house? A Greek system without pledging and barf-athons? You may argue that these new fraternities will no longer be the fraternities we’ve known and loved. Some might say they’ll no longer be fraternities at all. But then again, a few things have changed over the past 200 years. Certainly our ideas about who belongs at the leadership table and who should wield power in society have changed, as have our ideas about the massive problem of violence against women and the ever-growing problem of economic inequality. All our institutions, including fraternities, must stop swimming against the currents of progress.
Brothers, the ball is in your court.
Michael Kaufman, Ph.D., is an educator, writer and co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, the largest effort in the world of men working to end violence against women.