I was wearing my black dress, small enough to reveal my 18-year old body still fit from high school sports, and high heels that I had to borrow from an older “sister” as my high school closet didn’t have any that fit the profile of “clubbing shoes”. Running from my dormitory in the 4 o’clock sun, sweat running into perfume running into hairspray, I made it to the line-up of women outside of my sorority house.
It was our “Announcing Day”, the sorority ritual in which the sorority parades their newest members around Fraternity Row, performing a song and dance number, while the fraternity men feasted on their food and our bodies and whooped and bleated. We had been practicing the number since we were inducted, a coy song-and-dance in which we shook our hips and showed our legs and winked while proclaiming how very sexy and compelling we were to garner favor for our social ranking.
We got to the last house, where we were met with silence, a contrast to the normal barbarous applause. We continued on with the song while the men sat in silence and when we finished, one man offered a shrill whistle. This apparently was the cue for the rest to stand up, flip their tables and begin yelling and throwing their food at us while their whistling leaders shot-gunned beers in the center of the dining room. We took in this scene in horrified silence and left in shame, covered in food, to be told only that “they were our Homecoming partners so they could do whatever they want”.
“Whatever they want” acts as an explanation, a warning, a justification for the fraternity world. In the face of “whatever they want”, sorority presidents and concerned older sisters explain how to protect your drink and which men to avoid, assign sober sisters for socials to ensure that women got home safely, host sexual assault trainings from men who can teach us how fight off the inevitable, give pink pepper spray as Secret Santa gifts. In the face of “whatever they want”, sororities explained that we inherited a responsibility of sobriety (we couldn’t have alcohol at our houses and getting too drunk was dangerous because of predatory men) and dignity (we had to orient our well-mannered behavior around their animalistic advances). “Whatever they want” explained their violent hazing, breaking young men’s bodies and minds to build them up again in their new state of consciousness. “Whatever they want” continues to foster their privilege, when they stand up in courts and blame women for provoking their own violent assaults. “Whatever they want” allows them to laugh in the face of the gravity of rape culture, convinces them that holding signs like “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal” is even remotely okay. “Whatever they want” follows them as they move into their respective “Boys Clubs”: business schools and Wall Street and Silicon Valley, where the light of gender equality is just beginning to dawn on (read: threaten) their otherwise insufferably masculine and toxic spaces.
These last few weeks have begun to reveal the extent of abuse women face within these “boy clubs”, across sectors, across careers, across lifetimes. Our dialogue now includes refrains about women speaking out and men speaking up and ending this violence. We are formulating thoughts on how to hold these abusers accountable, how to stop blaming victims. To effectively have this conversation, it is imperative that we talk about spaces that engender these norms.
From an American domestic perspective, enacting some very serious, large-scale reforms in fraternities is a necessity to seriously address gender-based violence on campuses in America. Three separate studies have shown that fraternity men are three times more likely to rape women than men not involved in Greek life. These same studies showed that fraternities provide the male peer support for violence against women, championing treacherous behaviors through groupthink. These studies conclude that joining fraternities increases a man’s propensity to engage in sexual violence. Notably, sexual violence is more pervasive on college campuses than in other spaces: in a NSRVC study of undergraduate women, one in 5 women are sexually assaulted on campus. Worryingly, more than 90% of sexual assault victims on campus do not report the assault a testament to the very real existence of rape culture, victim shaming and power structures on campus. While not all men in fraternities are rapists and misogynists, these spaces certainly provide a more tolerant space for sexual violence and misogynistic practices.
There has to be a change. It is definitively the responsibility of universities, particularly instruments of the university like fraternities, to have gender-inclusive, meaningful discourse on gender, rape, sexual violence and rape prevention. But this cannot be a one-time event, held at the beginning of the collegiate career. This has to include long-term, meaningful programming, which addresses toxic masculinity and holds men accountable for policing their behavior and the behavior of their friends and “brothers”. “One in Four” is an example of an effective Men’s Program which is meant to help engage fraternity men by having male peer education programs that “help men understand how to help women recover from rape, increase bystander intervention and to challenge their own behaviors”. These programs should be in every fraternity, without a shred of a doubt, and their significant donor base would do well to fund such programming. Likewise for the universities, whose campus sexual assaults can cost the campuses millions of dollars of lost revenue, not to mention long-term reputational damage and smart women choosing to take their talents elsewhere. Moreover, I would expect that if the fraternities did not abide by these policies, that they would be permanently banned.
There has to be penalties, there has to be consequences. “Whatever they want” cannot be the system in which young people are educated.