Monday, May 9, 2011

Guest post: Fraternities and Gender Equality

Today's guest post comes courtesy of Justin, who writes for the Education Database Online blog at If you're interested in writing a guest post for Spare Candy or cross-posting something, check out the guidelines or send an e-mail to rosiered23 (at) sparecandy (dot) com.

"No means yes!" This and other misogynist phrases were chanted by a group of fraternity members, walking through the residential section of none other than Yale University. Some of the boys were blindfolded, chanting rhyming sexual slurs. Though the fraternity was immediately condemned by the Yale Women's Center for "hate speech" and was reprimanded by the university's administration, no further action was taken. In fact, fraternities on campus later retaliated by taking picture of each other in front of the Women's Center with signs that read "We Love Yale Sluts."

You don’t need an education to see that fraternities promote gender inequality. Their very existence excludes women. Incidents of sexual violence toward women and men during hazing rituals are only the tip of the iceberg. Drug busts, cases of alcohol poisoning and even deaths continue to occur under the auspices of Greek life and the noses of university administrations.

Why are these male bastions that permit gender inequality and sexual violence still a part of modern university life? The answers are not easy. Fraternities are descended from Freemason societies, and some date back to the American Revolution. Originated to promote and sustain culture, music and philosophy through their organizations, fraternities morphed along with society through world wars and decades of cultural and political upheaval. Relationships formed in fraternities became lifelong networks among the nation's elite, reaching the very top of society in both business and politics.

Today, fraternities are primarily social organizations and do little to promote academic excellence. Frequently, their abuses are overlooked, ignored or lightly punished. College administrators who are also fraternity members are reluctant to believe the worst of these young men. They may also be loath to punish fraternities for their actions due to the influence of affluent families. As a result, it takes a death from alcohol poisoning, beating or rape for action to be taken.

Though fraternities are not alone in promoting gender inequality and the objectification that leads to sexual violence, they are a critical social link between boyhood and manhood for all who join them. Yet, it's worth noting that the roots of the problem grow well before a person goes to college.

Consider the cultural influences on a potential fraternity pledge. By the time he's a teenager, he's likely gained access to Internet pornography, learning to see women as objects, not people. He's been saturated with violence toward women on television and in movies, video games and on the daily news. Perhaps he's witnessed or suffered domestic abuse. All of these experiences are carried into college life, where the boy encounters fraternities.

In 2008, pornography use was surveyed among 62 percent of fraternity men attending a popular Midwestern college. The survey concluded that these young men were significantly less likely to intervene when confronted with a rape situation and were much more likely to participate in rape themselves.

Date rape is a far-too-common occurrence on college campuses throughout the United States. From the first moment a freshman girl arrives at school, eager to make friends and in an unfamiliar and exciting world, she is a target. Fraternities don't exist to exploit her, but they can place her in a position of emotional and physical vulnerability. Statistics show that between 15 and 30 percent of college women have been victims of date rape. The very idea that college fraternities should need to enact a pledge against violence toward women indicates how deep the problem runs on today's college campuses.

Forced alcohol consumption and drinking games are common in fraternities, sometimes with lethal consequences. When young women are invited into that mix, inhibitions are lowered and sexual violence or unwanted sexual contact is far more likely to occur. A memory-erasing drug like rohypnol, slipped into a drink virtually assures crime, with lifelong consequences for the victim and the perpetrator.

Hazing also encourages sexual abuse. The very nature of hazing is demeaning, a method of breaking an individual in order to bring them into the fold of a "brotherhood." Bonding is achieved through abasement. Rituals that include sexual abuse, humiliation, nudity, piercings and substance abuse are protected by arcane codes of silence. A boy that completes a hazing ritual is initiated into an atmosphere of loyalty, permissiveness and protection that would be unavailable anywhere else. The competition for entry into these fraternities is fierce because the benefits of loyalty and protection extend well beyond graduation, into business relationships and other aspects of life after college.

The wider implications for society after these young men graduate are apparent. What they learn at a fraternity, they carry into boardrooms, courtrooms and marriages. All three are places where gender inequality is entrenched. If these men enjoy the loyalty and continuing privileges of fraternities, are they likely to hire or promote a woman? In the United States, women make only 77 cents compared to a man's dollar for the same work. They remain underrepresented and underpaid in math, technology, engineering and science jobs.

The fraternities of today are but a shadow of the values they once upheld. Some universities have banned fraternities because their nature is exclusive and works against a spirit of inclusion of races, gender and sexual preferences. At other universities, Greek organizations no longer exist in their traditional form, but promote scholarship and service without the trappings of old campus houses, traditions and hazing rituals.

According to the Norman Transcript, in January, 2010 a female student at Oklahoma University was raped at a fraternity party. Yet since she did not file charges within 30 days, she was told the maximum penalty of expulsion could not be enforced. That the university's policy is now being "updated" offers some hope. That it took a student rally and news coverage to bring it about shows the length of the path to change.

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