Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Caitlin Flanagan argues that fraternities by their inherent nature can create a threatening atmosphere on campus.
(Thanks to the SITD reader who tipped me off to this.)
The Greek system is dedicated to quelling young men’s anxiety about submitting themselves to four years of sissy-pants book learning by providing them with a variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women. A 2007 National Institute of Justice study found that about one in five women are victims of sexual assault in college; almost all of those incidents go unreported. It also noted that fraternity men—who tend to drink more heavily and frequently than nonmembers—are more likely to perpetrate sexual assault than nonfraternity men, according to previous studies. Over a quarter of sexual-assault victims who were incapacitated reported that the assailant was a fraternity member.
Flanagan’s argument is initially compelling, both because she provides a horrific anecdote to begin and because many of us (myself included, frankly) are inclined to believe the worst about fraternities.
But let’s consider the first sentence of the paragraph above, particularly the line about “young men’s anxiety about submitting themselves to four years of sissy-pants book learning…”
This kind of thing raises red flags for me, not least because if a man wrote with such a broad and stereotypical brush about women’s organizations, that writing would rightly be decried as sexist and boorish. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
On top of that problem, is this really what fraternities are about? A “variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women…”?
ESPN-watching is he-man? My self-image just changed.
Truth is, I don’t know if this is an accurate description of frat life; I was never a member of a fraternity and am not sure I’ve ever even been inside one. Neither, I suspect, has Ms. Flanagan. But of course men are easier to stereotype than women are, because men are perpetrators and women victims. In this construction, anyway.
(By the way, the woman who falsely accused several Duke fraternity members of rape is now being charged with murder after the boyfriend whom she repeatedly stabbed died.)
I’m being provocative here, I know, and deliberately staking out a position somewhat more aggressive than I generally feel. But I’m doing that in part to suggest that, if you used language as broad and discriminatory about women as Flanagan just does about men, it would appear deeply wrong. So why is the reverse okay?
Flanagan tells this incident from her own past, in which she, having transferred to the University of Virginia, visits fraternity row:
My fourth night at school, I went with some friends to Rugby Road, where the fraternity houses are located. They are built of the same Jeffersonian architecture as the rest of the campus. At once august and moldering, they seemed sinister, to stand for male power at its most malevolent and institutionally condoned. I remember standing there thinking I’d made a terrible mistake. It wasn’t worth it, I decided. The next day I withdrew from the university.
Part of me understands her reaction; I can well believe that fraternities at UVA represent a tradition of male hierarchy at that university. (What did she expect from UVA—Wesleyan?)
On the other hand—she withdrew the next day? This is a gentle flower.
(Flanagan perhaps should not look too closely at the names on the Wall Street Journal masthead, lest she run screaming from its pages.)
Flanagan concludes with this bit of nonsense:
If you want to improve women’s lives on campus, if you want to give them a fair shot at living and learning as freely as men, the first thing you could do is close down the fraternities. The Yale complaint may finally do what no amount of female outrage and violation has accomplished. It just might shut them down for good.
Why is this silly? Because, as any campus administrator will tell you in response to a simple question, universities don’t control the fraternities. They are private organizations acting on private property—just as sororities are.
It’s also silly because we still don’t know what the Yale complaint says. Flanagan, like all other commentators on the subject whom I’ve read, is drawing on three widely reported incidents of asinine male behavior. Deeply wrong, yes. But a hostile culture? This is demonstrably undemonstrated.
I may not give the impression, but I am sympathetic to much of what Flanagan is saying. Get a lot of young men together in a room, add (too much) alcohol, and sometimes bad things are going to happen. There’s no excuse for that. Everyone should feel safe everywhere all the time.
But given certain legal and constitutional realities, abolition of fraternities—preceded by a theoretical rationale based entirely on discriminatory generalization—isn’t an option.
Perhaps instead there’s an opportunity here for universities to promote their raison d’etre: education. Universities can’t ban frats, but they could probably make life a lot harder for them—unless, say, the frats agree to participate in various programs, conducted in the fraternities, to teach them about why getting drunk and abusing women is a terrible idea.
Then having all those impressionable young men together in one place might actually be a help rather than a threat….