Caitlin Flanagan calls for the end of fraternities

This weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Caitlin Flanagan, in which she discussed the appallingly high incidence of sexual violence perpetrated by fraternity brothers, and called for the dissolution of fraternities “for young women’s good.”

I was surprised to find myself agreeing with Flanagan at certain points in this article. I usually take issue with the way she writes about young women and sex, but in this case, I think we see eye to eye on a number of points.

She’s certainly correct in her belief that fraternities can breed a noxious, violent culture in which young masculinity is measured in pitchers consumed and women fucked. And she’s certainly correct that fraternities can be dangerous places for women. For thorough analyses of the culture of drinking and date rape that Flanagan is writing about, I suggest you read Guyland, by Michael Kimmel, and Pledged, by Alexandra Robbins.

In short: fraternities, generally speaking, are bad news for women. I certainly agree with Flanagan’s observation there. But I’m not entirely sure I agree with her conclusions. Because you know what else is bad news for women?

Lots of other parts of American college campus culture.

Yes, date rape happens at frat houses. It also happens at marching band parties, and at crew training camp, and in ROTC barracks and at chess club away meets. This is not to minimize what happens in frat houses or to tell women who have suffered sexual violence there that their experiences don’t matter. It is simply to say that sexual assault happens all over college campuses. And that’s what we need to change.

It is true that sexual assault more likely to happen at a frat house or at the hands of a fraternity brother. But my concern is that shutting down the frats would leave us with a false sense of security. Does frat culture need to be changed? Yes, frat culture desperately needs to be changed. Will scape-goating fraternities, and imagining that by closing them down, we can eradicate rape culture, help in the long run? I don’t think it will.

The problem here is rape culture, which is particularly pronounced within fraternities. But rape culture exists in many places on college campuses. Again, this is not to excuse it or to argue that many wrongs make a right. Rather, I propose that the more productive solution of keeping fraternities intact, while working to change the particularly egregious rape culture that they so often foster, which is simply a more concentrated version of the rape culture that exists on so many campuses – even those with no Greek life at all. That means studying the cultures of specific schools and specific fraternities, not just implementing a one-size-fits-all sexual violence prevention curriculum. It means that Panhellenic organizations and campus administrations must be prepared to take allegations of sexual assault seriously, punish them severely, and not hesitate to let them be taken off campus and into the court system. It means teaching fraternity brothers about consent and respect and empathy and demonstrating to them in no uncertain terms that they will be punished if they fail to properly learn those lessons.

There are also a lot of factors that she does not consider. For example, when Flanagan says “fraternity,” she’s talking about a particular kind of fraternity, one in which membership is bestowed according to wealth, social connections and general likeability. She doesn’t mention social justice fraternities, academic fraternities or religious fraternities, which, though not immune to the endemic cultural problems she describes in this article, are a different breed of animal and should be treated as such.

Finally, Flanagan’s article misses one giant point which I hope she would have included had she had more space to make this argument. She says that the reason to shut down fraternities is that they do such harm to young women. And that is undeniably true. But I think it’s important to remember that this kind of toxic, misogynistic masculinity hurts men too.

I’m not suggesting sympathy for the rapist here; if you commit sexual violence, you’ll get nothing but disgust from me and, I hope, discipline from law enforcement. But I think the best possible argument for shutting down the fraternities is that they enforce patriarchy: a system in which anything feminine is denigrated and in which masculinity – violent, misogynistic, homophobic masculinity – is lauded above all else. That system benefits no one, except the straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied, wealthy men who dominate women and any man who deviates from that rigid definition of what it means to be a real man.

This is patriarchy. This is rape culture. It is so much bigger than the fraternities. And as difficult as shuttering the frats would be – and believe me, there would be uproar were anyone to try to make this happen – it would be the easier solution. But it wouldn’t be the right one. Changing rape culture on entire college campuses will be far more difficult than closing the fraternities. It will be the more difficult, more time-consuming, and far more confronting solution. But in the long run, it will be the right one – for women and for men.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/decius/ Dan

    Additionally, removing any official status of fraternities wouldn’t change their culture. Patriarchy is not inherent in the fraternity model.

    Perhaps the best start would be to enforce a prohibition against hazing in fraternities. Change the initiations from those which degrade the individual, to those which enrich the siblinghood of the organization; perhaps landscaping, repainting, or gardening for the house. Also, try to remove any gender or sex requirement to join.

  • http://feministing.com/members/socialjustice88/ S

    Amen, sister.

    Great post.

  • http://feministing.com/members/seabrookr/ Rita

    When I was a senior in college I wrote an editorial in our student newspaper about the role of fraternities in creating a ‘rape culture’, one in which attitudes condone or excuse sexual violence. I went to a small college in a rural area, and fraternities controlled most of the public spaces on campus and therefore had a lot of power in creating the social scene. I argued this power makes it difficult for women to come forward against these groups if assaulted, because they may be intimidated or socially ostracized. When the article was published, fraternity members distributed my picture and phone number to the entire student body, encouraging people to harass me; they mooned me, threatened me, took pictures of me without my permission, and otherwise made me feel unsafe. Essentially, they demonstrated my point that women who challenge the status quo can face significant repercussions.

    I think there are many things that need to be done to eradicate our rape culture, and getting rid of any organization that bases its membership on gender, such as fraternities, is one important step. These organizations help perpetuate gender stereotypes, and the privileges afforded to fraternities (better housing, lodges for throwing parties, and a network of men who are encouraged to protect their brothers no matter what) place them in positions of higher power in the college social scene. Peggy Sanday does a wonderful job describing how these all-male groups can help perpetuate a rape culture, and I would encourage any one interested in this topic to read some of her work.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ladybug/ ladybug

    Just as a point of anecdata, I went to a college that didn’t have fraternities, and I apparently had a very different college experience than most of my peers. Yes, patriarchy is a systemic problem, and treating the symptom isn’t the same as treating the disease, etc… but institutionalized incubation is far more effective than ad hoc incubation, which sometimes fails to even happen of its own accord.

  • http://feministing.com/members/chickachicka90/ Chavez

    WHAT A CROCK OF SHIT!!!!!! This notion of frat boys all being rapists is as stereotype as old, annoying and offensive as man-hating, lesbian feminist one is. YES there is rape in frat houses, that being said there is also rapes in residence (Kyle Payne anyone?) perhaps we should get rid of them as well. I’m pretty sure these guys would have probably raped with or without greek lettering so getting rid of fraternities on a whole does not solve the problem anymore then it would just shifts their focus. It really pisses me off when these “progressive” individuals come up with such narrow minded solutions to such complex problems. YES some guys in Fraternities are rapists but i can assure you they do not in anyway represent the over all majority of guys, but if we’re gonna just an entire population based on the actions of the minority then perhaps we should judge that all Muslims are terrorists and therefore we have to dismantle every single mosque in the country for the sake of National Security’s good? No? I thought not

    Fraternities and sororities are an amazing place to meet a whole network of people and form lasting friendships that extend far beyound the college years. They are also a way to truly maxamize your college experience, not socially, but philianthropic and academically. Rather then take everything you read about fraternities and sororities on blogs at face value, i encourage you to get out and meet some local greeks, have a conversation with them. You might find that they are not all that different from you.

    My main point here is that you should never judge an entire population based on the actions of a few, thats called prejudice. Frat boys number in the hundreds of thousands (in the US alone) and to say that they are all rapists based on what a few bad apples have done is PREJUDICE, pure and simple. I really hope the Caitlin Flanagans of the world read this and realise that perhaps its possible that not everything is the way we view at first. That there are deeper, more complex issues at hand and ‘dismantling fraternities’ is no more a solution to rape then banning violent video games is the solution to school shootings.

    • http://feministing.com/members/james/ James

      I’m pretty sure these guys would have probably raped with or without greek lettering

      Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Does fraternity culture form, reinforce, or amplify the attitudes that lead men to rape women? If so, then one can certainly suggest that some of those men would not have raped if they hadn’t put themselves (and let’s be honest, it was their choice to join a fraternity) into a culture that promotes, reinforces, and amplifies attitudes among men that lead men to believe that raping women is acceptable.

      Certainly rape happens at universities outside from Greek life; I don’t think you’d find anyone here who would dispute that. But the operative question here, I think, is whether or not Greek life as a whole (and I don’t think you can reasonably compare membership in a fraternity or sorority to religious identities like Islam) is a net positive or negative not only for those who choose to join the fraternities or sororities but for a university culture or surrounding-community culture as a whole. (To talk only about what fraternities/sororities do for their members is insufficient; the wider communities have a stake, and I’d argue a much more significant stake, in the argument as well.)

      If the answer is that it’s negative—and I’d suggest that not only the prevalence of rape culture within many fraternities in addition to the rapes that are committed by fraternity men, but also other negative social effects from Greek life including hazing and the Othering that results from social exclusivity, would lead me to the conclusion that in many places it is—then the question is how best to deal with that.

      Can the negatives be mitigated, either through stricter regulation of Greek life, some kind of requirement that fraternity members in particular engage in some kind of gender and sexuality education, or through strong punishment (including dissolution or expulsion of leadership) against fraternities in which rape culture takes hold (either through the occurrence of actual sexual assaults or through the prevalence of other rape-culture emblems like that “chart the women you’ve had sex with” thing at a USC fraternity several months ago)? If one believes that, then it behooves him or her to advocate for those policies to be put in place, because the status quo is unacceptable.

      However, if one believes that (a) Greek culture as a whole is a net negative for the university or surrounding community and (b) these negative effects cannot be mitigated, then the solution that presents itself—given the unacceptability of the status quo—is to shut it down and give those students other (more positive, less exclusive, and less rape-culture-y) options for forming cohesive social bonds.

    • http://feministing.com/members/raincity/ Vicky

      ” It really pisses me off when these “progressive” individuals come up with such narrow minded solutions to such complex problems.”

      Actually, Caitlin Flanagan is conservative, not a “progressive.”

  • http://feministing.com/members/cassius/ Brüno

    So by that logic, a woman should not go to America, because Americans rape women. Everything said about Fraternity Houses can be said about America. We need to dissolve America, for the good of women o.O .

    What would be the alternative though? A use of avaiable accomodations, where the genders are mixed? That sounds even worse imo.

  • sex-toy-james

    I would think that the culture that concentrates itself in fraternities would just gather elsewhere if they were banned, and nothing builds solidarity like feeling under siege.
    The point that fraternities are a focal point of a culture that’s unhealthy to women might have other implications. Basically you’ve got thousands of petri dishes full of concentrated culture you’d like to change. No doubt there have been many many attempts at different colleges over the years and many different results. I’m just wondering if you filter through that data, if you can find best practices for reforming frat culture? If you can find an effective weapon, there are plenty of targets. I’m just wondering if there’s more of an opportunity for a positive cultural change.

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    Though I was never in a fraternity in college, by deliberate choice, I did nonetheless observe frat culture. Fraternities, at least at state schools, seem to be hierarchical in nature. There’s a pecking order. Certain frats at the top are more coveted than others. And it’s these top echelon frats that reek of entitlement and pedigree that are often the worst offenders.

    In larger colleges and university, there’s always a slot for someone who wants to be part of the Greek system, but if you’ve got no money, connections, last name, or anything especially desirable, you’ll be forced into a frat that caters only to people who couldn’t get into anything “better”. I don’t know if such behavior exists in those quantities there, but based on observation, they are not nearly so prone to unacceptable, illegal behavior like you mentioned.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ferrette/ Jennifer

    Hmmm… I disagree with the author’s conclusion. Because saying we should just close all fraternities not only lumps all of them together in one stereotype ( I knew of at least two houses on my college campus that didn’t fit this mold), but also perpetuates the belief that all men are sexual beasts unable to contain themselves.

    And isn’t that what led to this culture of slut shaming and that whole “she was asking for it” idea?

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    I only hope that the entire Fraternity and Sorority system is reformed. It may be reaching for the moon, but heck, it’s worth it

  • http://feministing.com/members/tamanosou/ Ariadne

    I wish fraternities would kick out brothers who committed hate crimes like rape or various homophobic crimes. Because as long as the support structure for hate remains it doesn’t matter how much societal sanction the perpetrators get. But, the minute they’re sanctioned by their own group the psychological and social effect of it could cause them to reevaluate. In the meantime it will give frats a better reputation and make them more conducive to par-TAY!

    And frankly, I’d go to way more frat parties if I knew I didn’t have to bring along a boyfriend or designated buddy to every single one just to avoid date rape etc. Same goes for most women I think.

  • http://feministing.com/members/zeenacheda/ Dan C

    I’ve personally always hated most of the qualities of Greek life. Poor college students are shelling out insane amounts of money, acting like nutty cultists during probate ceremonies and engaging in all sorts of other embarrassing shit, all because… they’re that desperate for some friends? Yikes.

    As far as banning them? Doesn’t that sort of blanket indictment usually cause more harm than good (prohibition, prostitution, etc)? Would banning frats (as Chloe pointed out, it’s not that easy to simply define ‘frat’) decrease the amount of rape on college campuses? Almost certainly. However, as long as we’re wielding power that bluntly, there are some other social ills we can tackle. Is there a certain style of music that seems to encourage violence and mayhem? Ban it. Is there a particular ethnic group that seems to always stir up trouble? Ban them from your side of town. Christians, Jews and Muslims killing each other in the name of God? Ban religion. Hmmm. Have any of these ideas been tried before?

    Wouldn’t it make more sense for colleges to do a better job of regulating Greek organizations? It might help with solving the real problem; misogyny. I remember when I was a freshman at school, they brought us all into an auditorium for a very passionate and effective talk by a date rape survivor. For a fairly naive young man who – privilege badge gleaming – wasn’t really even aware of what date rape was, it was a very important talk. Perhaps, in order to be recognized by a college, frat brothers and sorority sisters should have to routinely go to such talks. Or, they could required to assist with campus events such as Take Back the Night or the Vagina Monologues. It’s worth noting that there are fraternities and sororities – mostly sororities, I’m sure – that already participate in these things.

    People – men and women – could just stop going to lame frat parties altogether. That would also be helpful.

  • http://feministing.com/members/cvolny/ Chris

    I’m sad to hear such negative things said about fraternities, I truly love my fraternity, my brothers, and the values we were founded upon.

    In the Greek System, we use the phrase “values adherence” to describe what we’re supposed to be doing as fraternity men and women. Fraternities were founded upon values (usually they’re something like Honor, Courage, Integrity, Friendship, Character, Brotherhood, etc) and members are to make it their life’s aim to adhere their lives and actions with these declared values. We’re tasked with holding each-other accountable to the values we swore to uphold and helping one another become better people to build a better world.

    I breaks my heart to read about what this group or that group did on this campus, but it hurts much more to hear folks rallying to abolish a system that has helped myself and others so much.

    I can’t offer a quick and easy solution to these issues, but I can say that there would be less excellent people in this world if they didn’t have the the environment my chapter provided for them to grow, learn, and develop into the men they are today.

    I’m not able to speak from the women’s fraternity side of fence because I’m not a member; much like I can’t really speak for how men in other fraternities or chapters act.