Ending Toxic Culture in Fraternities

Author discusses in her upcoming book why chapter members drink and participate in "rape culture."

January 30, 2019
 

Hazing by fraternity members is long-standing and ubiquitous, despite institutional attempts by some colleges and states to curb such dangerous rituals. Colleges and universities (and court systems) are cracking down on hazing more, but will this help eradicate it from campus chapters? Despite these efforts, fraternity members continue to die alarming and preventable deaths. Alexandra Robbins, a New York Times best-selling author and journalist, explores these issues in her new work Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men (Penguin Random House). Robbins, who has written about Greek life before, followed two fraternity brothers for the book and interviewed hundreds of other fraternity members. Robbins did not identify the chapters or any institutions.

Robbins answered questions about Greek policy and her book, which is out Feb. 5, via email.

Q: What basic rules and policies must be in place for a fraternity to function in a healthy, hazing-free environment? Why do so many chapters lack these boundaries?

A: I think most fraternities technically have the rules and policies in place on paper. The variation is in the national offices’ and universities’ enforcement and the willingness of the undergrads to follow them. Jake, one of the students I followed for a year, was terrified of hazing before he rushed, but was reassured because his college advertised itself as a nonhazing campus and the school’s Interfraternity Council echoed the sentiment during a prerecruitment meeting. But just days later, multiple campus chapters were hazing -- including Jake’s chapter, whose national headquarters is vehemently antihazing. The adult supervision just wasn’t there. Meanwhile, Oliver, another student I followed, belonged to a fraternity with an involved, engaged alumni board; devoted undergraduates committed to maintaining a healthy productive environment; and an embrace of diversity of all kinds -- race, socioeconomics, interests, expressions of masculinity. Those three factors are key. That was the case in the hazing-free chapters for many of the brothers I interviewed nationwide.

Q: Why, in your opinion, do alcohol bans not work for fraternities, though they’ve been tried at some major institutions?

A: Outright bans don’t address the psychology behind why students are drinking. I talked to countless students about drinking. Drinking is often a strategy rather than simply a pastime. Just a few of many examples: guys might drink for the “liquid courage” to be able to talk to girls; to suppress emotions they’re socialized to believe they’re not supposed to express; to cope with being stressed, uncertain or lonely; to prove their masculinity; or because, as a New England student told me, “It’s societal in that we’re told this is how you’re supposed to behave in college. When you see college depicted in movies and pop culture, everyone has a Solo cup in their hands.” Banning alcohol doesn’t get to the root of these issues, and colleges aren’t providing replacements for the rewards students believe alcohol provides.

Q: What should fraternities do to avoid participating in the “rape culture” for which they are often known? With guidelines around Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 changing, is this at all significant or important?

A: Battling rape culture is always significant and important. The brothers I spoke with want to change campus rape culture, and I believe that enlisting fraternities to help lead campus efforts at sexual assault prevention and awareness would go a long way toward improving the problem. Here’s a piece of the puzzle that research and the media miss: on many campuses across the country, students unofficially rank fraternities and sororities, labeling them as top-tier, middle-tier or bottom-tier chapters. Sororities’ tiers are often determined by sisters’ looks and their willingness to party. Fraternities are often ranked by “looks, partying hard, money and hookups,” a brother told me. Many students consider the rankings important because they believe that the higher their rank, the better their recruitment season and the higher a tier their next Greek Week or homecoming sorority partner will be (and vice versa). So they might emphasize mixers, matches and interactions with opposite-gender chapters partly because they feel pressured to couple up. As Jake explained to me, he thought he had to “help the fraternity out by getting the girls. The fraternity would look better if I was more available. You’re better able to throw a big party if guys are willing to socialize.” Part of “being social” in his fraternity, he said, meant that guys were “willing to hook up.” So there is a deep-rooted systemic problem here that universities and national organizations need to solve.

Also, research shows that consent and bystander intervention trainings work. Universities should mandate these programs for all students -- not just one sexual assault prevention lecture a year, but several workshops and seminars that hammer home the meaning of consent and how bystanders can help.

Q: Despite campaigns, why do hazing rituals continue? More often, institutions and courts are punishing for hazing harder -- does this have an effect?

A: Not really. Many students don’t realize they’re being hazed, feel they can’t speak out against the weight of decades of tradition or think they want to be hazed in order to “earn the letters.” But there are ways for pledge classes to bond through hard work that doesn’t involve hazing, and I spoke to plenty of brothers whose chapters, like Oliver’s, were adamantly against hazing. They believed their brotherhoods were stronger than those that hazed. Some of the nonhazing pledge activities brothers described include organizing a community service project, taking classes on how to write a résumé and learning etiquette. A Pennsylvania chapter requires its pledges to join at least one other campus organization. A New York chapter has its pledges cook and serve a three-course dinner for brothers’ girlfriends. A Virginia chapter put pledges in charge of a major annual philanthropy event, which “involved us dividing up tasks based on our strengths, meeting with local business owners and actually running the event,” a brother said. “While some of these assignments were stressful, they emphasized the importance of teamwork. We were never allowed to leave someone behind or let someone do all the work. It really pulled us together as a family, and we learned a lot about each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Q: How does a fraternity chapter separating from an institution influence the culture? Should universities do more to try to stamp out these unaffiliated fraternities, which sometimes (because they are unregulated) see more bad behavior?

A: Because these groups have no accountability to a national group or to a university, they largely aren’t supervised, although theoretically they’re expected to follow their school’s code of conduct. We can’t assume that all nonnational Greek groups are bad agents, though. In 2015, a Brown university chapter disaffiliated from its national organization because the undergraduates didn’t think nationals was serious enough about sexual assault prevention. They are recognized by the university and listed on the university’s website -- and they should be; they’re a good group. When unaffiliated groups cause trouble, universities can still discipline the offenders; in 2017 American University expelled 18 members of an underground chapter that engaged in disturbing behavior. Some colleges have banned participation in underground groups, but because students have freedom of association rights, administrators might believe they are limited in how they can regulate them. But schools can prevent recognized groups -- such as the sororities whom undergrounds might want to party with -- from partnering with them for social functions.

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