In a controversial ruling, Wesleyan University recently decided to force its residential fraternities to become co-ed organizations within three years after a slew of sexual assault incidents occurred in fraternity spaces. Wesleyan's rape incidents did not occur in a vacuum; on campuses across the country, protesters and activists have increased awareness of the dire nature of the sexual assault epidemic. A White House Task Force determined earlier this year that a staggering one in five college women suffer sexual assault during their time on campus, and universities have all-too-often allowed serial rapists to evade punishment and terrorize women with impunity. Despite good intentions, Wesleyan's decision to abolish traditional fraternities is a misguided and counter-productive approach to ending the sexual violence epidemic.
Fraternity houses should be the safest places on campus for women, but they are too often among the worst. At Wesleyan, a student reported being raped in front of on-looking fraternity brothers at Psi Upsilon, and the Beta Theta Pi house there is now referred to by many as a "rape factory." The sexual assault epidemic that so often finds a home in fraternity spaces results not from any intrinsic evil arising from male-male bonding, but from rape culture, the set of beliefs and practices that suggests that women's bodies are not their own. Scapegoating all-male organizations does little to combat the very real and pervasive threats women face on virtually every college campus across the country, at Greek events and in dorm rooms. Given the proper training, fraternities can fight rape culture, instead of exacerbating it. One recent study shows that fraternity men are less likely to show hostility to women than their unaffiliated counterparts, perhaps because of training fraternity members often receive. One of the co-authors of the study, Charles S. Corprew, an assistant psychology professor at Loyola University New Orleans, suggests that training against sexual assault may be more effective in all male settings than in co-ed ones, because getting men in a room full of their fraternity brothers may allow them to discuss consent and gender in the most honest and vulnerable way possible. Mandatory consent education and bystander prevention training are key steps that can be taken to make college campuses safer, and fraternities should be on the front lines of these efforts. Universities should harness the organizational power of fraternities to disseminate rape prevention education. All-male fraternities across the country must be reformed, rather than eliminated, enlisted rather than vilified.
The abolition of Wesleyan's all-male fraternities is indicative of a larger decline of pluralism on college campuses. Embracing liberalism historically has meant allowing free organizations to flourish and offer diverse experiences and viewpoints. A crucial part of associational freedom is allowing organizations to embrace some degree of exclusivity. Safe spaces exist not only to combat oppression, but also to allow students to enjoy a comfortable environment with others who share their background. Organizations for women, African Americans and LGBTQ students serve the double purpose of allowing a safe place on campus for oppressed minorities and facilitating relaxed social interaction. Fraternities admittedly do not serve the purpose of combating bigotry, but it is myopic to make historical injustice the only determinant of whether an organization can rightfully exist. Male identity exists outside of sexism, just as Christian identity exists outside of anti-Semitism. Gender is not like race, a nonsense category invented entirely for the purpose of oppressing people of color; gender has been constructed across time and space for a whole host of reasons, some linked to patriarchy, but others linked to cultural flourishing. All-male fraternities thus do not exist to oppress the way all-white institutions once did; they often serve as positive spaces for growth and development, as well as philanthropy.
Students assemble not only to evade persecution, but also to experience joy, to deepen friendships, and to acquire an extended family at a time when they are far from home. For a college student leaving home for the first time and experiencing a new level of independence, unconditional bonds with other men that exceed the expectations of mere friendship can offer a crucial foundation of support. Institutionalizing male bonding allows for the creation of organizational structures that function sociologically much in the way that families often do. Like a family, there is an implicit understanding that everyone must learn to get along, despite differences of background and opinion. You must be there for your fraternity comrade because he is your brother, not because he is necessarily your best friend. The ideal of unconditional support is a laudable one, and is often most easily attainable in small groups with shared social patterns. A close friend of mine who transitioned last year from female to male considers joining a fraternity the single most beneficial step he took towards feeling comfortable in his own skin with his new identity. If even a single individual can derive so much meaning and support from a fraternity, every effort must be made to preserve that organizational structure.
Of course, fraternities are not for everyone. Not every male would derive enjoyment, happiness or social skills from involving themselves in a fraternity, and there are far too many fraternities that fail to make themselves sufficiently welcoming towards homosexuals and trans-men. Still, if we are to aim, as John Stuart Mill suggested in Utilitarianism, for the greatest happiness for the greatest number, we must be vigilant against dissolving organizations that provide students with meaning and support. Non-believers should respect the desire of Christians to organize in a way that allows them to derive enjoyment and spiritual sustenance from their faith, even if this means excluding non-Christians from their leadership; male bonding should be allowed to flourish, even if not everyone can understand what makes the fraternity experience so meaningful for so many men. True pluralism must reflect not only diverse backgrounds, but diverse desires, and accommodate as much as possible the institutions and beliefs that provide meaning and community for students of all genders, sexualities, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. The maximal amount of freedom of association is essential to creating the greatest possible happiness on campus.
With the proper reforms, universities can harness the organizational power of fraternities to combat sexual assault while also allowing male-male bonding to flourish. A pluralistic approach to campus life that combats rape culture, allows for maximal freedom of association and makes all students better off -- now that would be progressive.