What with widely reported allegations of rape, hazing and alcohol abuse, fraternities are not generally thought of as bastions of humility or respect for women. But a new study suggests that a characteristic commonly associated with fraternity members – hypermasculinity – is actually more problematic for non-Greeks when it comes to sexually aggressive attitudes, or beliefs that “sex should be indiscriminate, rough, coercive and non-consensual.”
“I do not want to say that sexually aggressive attitudes are not apparent in fraternities – they were,” said study co-author Charles S. Corprew, an assistant psychology professor at Loyola University New Orleans. “But when we add hyper-masculinity and hostile attitudes toward women, the non-fraternity guys seem more threatening.”
In other words, hypermasculinity -- defined as “an exaggerated adherence to traditional male gender role beliefs” – was generally a predictor of sexual aggression for all men except those in fraternities. The study will be published in the Journal of College Student Development.
So what accounts for the difference? Fraternities tend to have at least some level of education about the importance of sexual consent, assault and alcohol abuse, the chapters’ executive board members told Corprew, usually at mandatory events such as off-campus retreats.
“A lot of these organizations are very cognizant of what’s going on on college campuses and the fraternity and the hook-up culture that goes along with that,” he said. “They know that, the threat of their chapter and charter being revoked if anything nefarious happens.”
But on campuses more generally, Corprew said, that’s not always the case.
“We often talk about, how do we address the issues with women post-sexual assault,” Corprew said. “There’s not a lot of programming on college campuses that actually addresses what’s going on with men.”
What education does exist is mostly done through non-institutional groups like Men Can Stop Rape and A Call to Men, said Michelle Issadore, executive director of the School and College Organization for Prevention Educators. Despite being a positive (and fairly recent) development, she said, the reach of organizations like those is limited.
Corprew’s findings could add to the evidence that that fraternity-style training is effective and should be broadened to the entire male student population, Issadore said, noting that mandatory education sometimes makes people uncomfortable. (The study notes research showing that consent training in fraternities has decreased the likelihood of sexual assault in those communities.)
“If it’s information that we feel our students should have, then I think we’re well within our rights to have some mandates, whether it’s part of new-student orientation or a four-year strategic plan,” Issadore said. “I’d love to see more schools exploring that model of a positive education mandate for prevention efforts.”
The study, co-written by George Washington University graduate student Avery Mitchell, notes previous research finding that fraternity members demonstrate higher levels of disinhibition and hypermasculine attitudes, both of which are precursors to sexual assault. So, the authors hypothesized a correlation between all three, which would in turn translate to more hostile attitudes and sexual aggression toward women.
That did not hold true. What did stand out was non-fraternity members who showed a positive correlation between hypermasculine attitudes and hostility toward women. For fraternity members, there was no relationship. (No notable pattern emerged with regard to disinhibition.)
The sample included 217 male students, 81 of whom self-reported as fraternity members, from three Southern universities (two privates and one large research). A “Southern culture of masculinity” could limit generalization of the data, Corprew acknowledged, but he also noted that despite the close proximity of the universities, the students included in the study come from all over the country.
For non-fraternity members, hypermasculinity seems to be a coping mechanism for men as they balance their developing identities with gender labels and stereotypes, Corprew said. It might provide some social capital.
“No one wants to be perceived as the sheep among wolves,” he said. The key is getting men into situations where they feel comfortable being honest and maybe even a little vulnerable – a room full of fraternity brothers, perhaps? – to talk about consent and gender roles and how interactions with women are made and perceived. Corprew explores these topics in his course, psychology of men and masculinities.
Corprew also praised the work of those independent groups working to educate men on campuses.
“I think the universities kind of need to follow suit and say, yes, we are addressing the needs of women, but we also need to address the needs of men on campus,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s done universally.”
It’s not, Issadore said – at least, not in an overarching way. But growing enthusiasm for bystander intervention programs, which teach both men and women to step in when someone’s at risk, is a good sign.
“It is hard to get some administrators to understand why you’re trying to educate men and not just women,” she said. “It’s so important to not just target our efforts at women and say, ‘Don’t get raped,’ but rather treating men as bystanders and not just potential rapists.”