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.