In January this year, Stanford University athlete Brock Turner sexually assaulted a 22-year old woman at a fraternity party.
The way that that case was handled, with Judge Aaron Persky eventually handing down what’s been widely viewed as a very lenient sentence of six months, has raised questions about the privileges afforded already-privileged, young, white scholars and athletes.
Brock wasn’t in a fraternity, so it’s perhaps a leap to say that his behaviour was symptomatic of any frat culture. The fact that this assault took place in the setting it did, however, could be another slur to add to the already-damaged reputation of the American fraternity.
In 2014, Caitlin Flanagan wrote a fairly damning account of fraternity culture for The Atlantic. Some of what Flanagan records is high-jinx taken too far - stuff that wouldn’t look out of place in a Will Ferrell movie - like when West Virginia Freshman Travis Hughes inserted a bottle rocket into his anal passage and fired it from thence. Caught in the fallout was Hughes’s friend Louis Helmburg III, who was blasted/fell off a ledge nearby and injured himself. He then filed a lawsuit against the university.
Since 2010, there have been at least 14 recorded cases of death during hazing (part of the initiation process for frats). And then there are the other records of rape and sexual assault. In 2013, Jessica Valenti asked whether we should ban frats, looking to statistics which claim that fraternity brothers commit 300% more rapes. Obviously, these kinds of statistics are always problematic. The study used was taken in 2007 and it's hard to draw absolute conclusions, especially around crimes that don't always go recorded.
It would be simplistic overall to declare from all of this a direct correlation between fraternity membership and sexual assault, or even between fraternity membership and reckless, irresponsible behaviour. The United States is a large place and cultures vary not only between states, or universities, but also between individual fraternities. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking whether these mostly all-male foundations, based on rules devised mostly around a century ago, foster or encourage problematic behaviour.
To get a better understanding of fraternity culture, we spoke to some recent alumni from big fraternities around the States. We’ve changed their names in order to protect identities.
Mark was part of a member of a Michigan chapter (a campus-based organisation that belongs to a National fraternity) of Delta Kappa Epsilon, “until they got kicked out of campus”. He spoke to us about what the pledging process requires.
"Some of the events are focused on trying to break your mind. One of my friends had to do a pledge where around thirty of them were put into a room in a basement, with a strobe as the only light and Cher’s 'Do You Believe In Life After Love' playing on max volume and on repeat. The Pledge Masters poured a box of coloured sprinkles onto the floor and the freshmen were told to sort them by colour. They were down there for 24 hours.”
One may be moved at this point to ask the question, “but, why?” To this enquiry, I received the same response across the board, “I refer to pledge term as the best part of my life that I’d never want to do again”.
The idea of building camaraderie through a shared adversary isn’t exactly alien. What’s more, it’s important to mention that the young men we spoke to all emphasised the academic and moral instruction that formed an important part of the pledge process.
Simon (not his real name), was a member of Pi Kapa Phi.
Tim (again, not his real name), was also part of that fraternity. What do they make then of frats getting a bad rep?
What do the public make of fraternities?
"If you ask any person on the street, who wasn’t involved in Greek life, i.e. in a fraternity, I think they’d say that fraternities are full of rapists and just the most terrible, horrible people."
Is behaviour - sexual assault included - policed within fraternities?
"Our chapter had a pretty robust monitor for Greek life, who was responsible for managing us. There were very clear delineations of what was acceptable behaviour. You’ve probably come across stories of young men being injured or killed during rituals. I think a lot of that has to do with the overall culture on campus."
"At a typical party, one of the roles of some of the pledges is to be a sober monitor.
"In theory, if there’s a guy taking a girl upstairs and she’s way too drunk, the sober monitor is supposed to say something. Whether or not that actually happens in practice, I’m not really sure. I would probably say not very often."
How has frat culture and regulation of behaviour been affected, if at all, by cases like Brock Turner’s?
"In a lot of ways, it’s a question of judicial legitimacy and how the public views this. It’s also difficult for a lot of people to see a young man like that, who came from a very privileged background, given such a lenient sentence, especially if you were to compare him to, say, someone from an inner city, lower-income background who committed a similar violation."
"I would say that I don’t think that really affects the way people feel about fraternity culture. There are fraternities kicked off campus every few years because of sexual assault issues. There’s some stat that like one third of women on college campuses feel that they’ve been sexually assaulted, which is terrible. I think that that’s hard to avoid, with the drinking culture on campus. Fraternities obviously don’t help this, but if fraternities didn’t exist then people would still find a way to drink way too much."
"It took place at a fraternity party, yes, but I think that could just as well have happened at any random house party or bar. I don’t see the fraternity as being particularly culpable there. In the court of public opinion though, I’m sure it doesn’t help when somebody hears he was at a fraternity party."
There are a high percentage of sexual assaults on campus though - is alcohol the problem or is it attitudes?
"I can only speak from experience. I don’t know a single guy that would do something like that when sober. There are people I know who’ve pushed the line. I’m not saying alcohol is the ultimate reason for these things, but it’s a high contributing factor. I think one of the main issues is the fact that under 21s are drinking in fraternities and it’s less casual drinking that way."
Are fraternities culturally misogynist?
"Again, I can only speak from personal experience. At my university, that wasn’t a problem. Everyone was generally respectful of women. You’re probably thinking, 'oh, of course you’d say that', but I am being honest. It was something we were renowned for both on and off campus. I also think that it helps if there are disciplinary measures in place. Most fraternities have a standards board, which is not exactly a judicial system with due process, but it is a way of addressing wrongdoing internally, as well as if there were any external ramifications."
"I don’t think intrinsically. Certainly not - not if you look at why these organisations were set up. I understand the perception, but my school was probably made up of the nerdiest kids you could ever imagine. Those kids were certainly not misogynist or just out to look for girls. I understand why that would be the broader perception. Macho culture manifests in different ways and, while fraternities can certainly be a harbinger for that culture, I don’t think that’s unique to us."
"I don’t think that’s the case. I think some are, but, in the same breath, I’ve been part of sports teams that are misogynist and some that aren’t. It depends on the culture of the school probably. I went to school in the mid-west, but I do have friends who went to frats in the south and in Texas, where they have reports every month of chants about women or using the n-word. I think it just depends on the culture."
But frats are all male. Also, how do frats cater for LGBT?
"That’s a good question. I think that a lot of fraternities are making good strides in that. In Pi Kap, we had at least one or two, maybe more gay members. I think there were other gay members of other chapters. They may not have been open, but I think they were accommodated. I’m not aware of any transgender members. I also think that that’s a generational question."
"I would say it’s incredibly rare. I was a member of a traditional, social fraternity. There are also multi-cultural fraternities. We’ll have like a black fraternity and an Asian fraternity. There are also fraternities by interest group. There’s a dental fraternity and engineering fraternity.
In terms of social fraternities, I know there are gay people in my fraternity. They’re not open about that with the whole fraternity though and I would say that it would incredibly difficult to go through the whole pledge process if that was the case – just because there’s a decent amount of gay slurs being used, as well as the fact that a lot of the fraternal relations are based on going to parties and trying to hook up with girls."
It sounds like a huge part of being in a fraternity is about hooking up with girls. Isn't that problematic?
"I think that’s a huge reason that people sign up. It provides opportunities for formals where people bring a date. You don’t have to bring a date, but most people do."
Can fraternities continue to operate with autonomy?
"There was a period in history when fraternities operated more under the radar and I think that could be negative - just because there’s then less oversight. Formal recognition and affiliation with a National organisation provides a lot of checks. We had risk-management processes in place. It’s about keeping as many filters on as possible.
I am sceptical though of the ability of fraternities to continue to operate as they do today. Not just on the issue of sexual assault - I think there are other issues around discrimination on the basis of sex. There are several universities that now allow men and women to join fraternities. I think that, as we see greater calls for gender and sexual equality, you’ll see fraternities change."
Of all three of the young men we spoke to, Mark seemed to be the most sceptical about what frat life represented in modern America. He spoke about "silly fun". He also alluded to discomforts he had with some of the homophobic slurs that could be bandied around.
Simon and Tim were both keen to emphasise that fraternities can serve the community by association with national charities, which surely does sound like a positive impact.
None of these young men seemed comfortable around the issue of exclusivity, but expressed hope that this would transform over generations.
Overall, there still remains the question, "why join a frat?" The resounding reply was that it was that the fraternity was where these men met their best friends.
"Those are my best friends in the world and they’re all really good people. All really successful people." Simon.
That mention of 'success' is telling. Mark explained that, amongst alumni at his fraternity were seven previous Presidents. Clearly, they're still a breeding ground for powerful men. That's possibly a case of chicken and eggs, but the fact remains that many of these young Freshman who will be firing bottle-bombs out of their anuses or subjecting friends to torture by Cher will go on to become very important figures in their county. If the fraternity is where they learn leadership values, should we be worried?