Fraternities’ problem isn’t the partying—it’s the toxic masculinity at their core

High-risk fraternities foster toxic, hyper-masculine behavior.
High-risk fraternities foster toxic, hyper-masculine behavior.
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Owen Rapaport pledged Delta Sigma Phi in 2014 at Dickinson College, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Rapaport recalls that at another fraternity’s event during rush week, not Delta Sigma Phi’s, current fraternity members asked his group of freshmen, “What’s your dream threesome?”

To Rapaport, this echoed the kind of behavior fraternities are notorious for encouraging, in movies like Animal House and Neighbors. Rapaport thought it was the weirdest question to ask freshmen, and immediately knew he didn’t want to join that fraternity.

Johnathan Jones had a similar experience. He pledged Kappa Sigma in 2012, also at Dickinson College. By the time he graduated in 2015, he said these negative masculine norms pervaded his fraternity experience. (Both Jones and Rapaport were also people of color at predominantly white fraternities.) “There was such a presence in terms of who has sexual prowess, who’s hooking up with who, who can drink the most, and then who’s partying the most and whatnot,” Jones told Quartz.

Jones admits that he acted this way in college, too, but soon realized it was out of character. “Without a doubt, you fall into those things and do those things, and don’t really think about it until way later,” he said.

For impressionable college-age men looking for a place to belong, fraternities can offer a strong sense of kinship or community. Rapaport made meaningful connections at Delta Sigma Phi and considers some fraternity brothers lifelong friends.

But there’s a growing sense that this pervasive, narrow definition of masculinity doesn’t always fit the men in these fraternities. Jones said many of his fraternity brothers are starkly different now, with some also involved in women’s and equality rights, making him think there was something about the fraternity environment that forced people to act a certain way. (This article uses “fraternities” primarily to refer to formerly all-white men’s social fraternities, not other, newer types such as professional, multicultural, or religious fraternities.)

Rapaport agreed. “That entire [fraternity] culture itself is just kind of steeped in this white male masculinity stereotype,” Rapaport said.

In recent years, there have been situations far worse than those Jones or Rapaport detailed, including a slew of high-profile hazing deaths and sexual assault cases. Just this month, two fraternities at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania voluntarily disbanded after leaked documents, allegedly written by Phi Si fraternity members active between 2013 and 2016, showed racist and homophobic jokes, as well as references to another fraternity’s “rape tunnel.”

Many critics argue that Greek life should be banned altogether. But there’s a growing feeling among fraternity experts and current students that the problematic gender norms that fraternities enable need to—and can—change. While college administrations, larger Greek organizations, and even courts are pushing for reform within fraternities, it seems to be the leaders of individual chapters themselves who can make the most progress.

“Fraternities are going through a kind of real crisis,” John Hechinger, senior editor at Bloomberg News and author of True Gentleman: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities, told Quartz. “The behavior that they’re exhibiting, from hazing to offensive racial episodes to sexual assault, is really out of step with what a lot of the rest of the culture on campus is trying to promote.”

Seeds of change

Not all fraternities are toxic, even if consistent news of alarming behavior makes it feel that way. In a 2015 report published in Sociology Compass, Kait Boyle, a professor of sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, distinguishes between low-risk fraternities—those less likely to exhibit problematic behavior like binge drinking and misogynistic attitudes—and high-risk fraternities, where that behavior flourishes. High-risk fraternities often have underlying qualities that allow or normalize such behavior.

“When we talk about high-risk fraternities, there are a number of different working pieces related to partying behaviors, masculinity, and aggression,” Boyle told Quartz. Members of these fraternities may have restrictive views of masculinity that value behaviors like excessive partying and sexual dominance, for instance.

There’s a growing sense that fraternities with high-risk cultures may be on the decline. Alexandra Robbins spent more than two years researching her book Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men, and found that there are fraternity members striving for change. The widespread view of fraternities as “bastions of toxic masculinity” overlooks chapters challenging hyper-masculine standards, she argues in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times. Within fraternities, there are plenty of “nice guys” who are challenging gender norms and trying to foster an inclusive culture, Robbins argues in another editorial for The Atlantic and in an interview on CNN.

Change, at least on the surface, seems to be gaining momentum. Numerous fraternities across North America have also introduced educational programming to set new standards of masculinity. For example, in January this year, the University of British Columbia required all fraternities to take workshops on sexual consent and healthy masculinity. In February, the Interfraternity Council at California Polytechnic State University ran its second annual “Healthy Masculinities Week” with events and workshops dedicated to “redefining the bro code.”

“[Healthy Masculinities Week] allows the men to critically examine their own identities and definitions of masculinity, men’s mental and physical health, and gender-based violence,” Shawnna Smith, lead coordinator of fraternity and sorority life at Cal Poly, as well as the university’s interfraternity council (IFC) advisor, said. Surveys and assessment results to gauge the event’s success were very encouraging, she added.

“There’s no question that things are changing,” Gentry McCreary, managing partner and CEO of Dyad Strategies, a Greek life research and advisory firm, told Quartz. “You’re seeing conversations about alcohol-free housing, around eliminating the pledging period… A lot of that has to do with the increase in media scrutiny and some pretty high-profile hazing deaths.” McCreary said it’s reasonable to suspect a counter culture to these changes in some pockets of fraternities, “but on a whole, frats are taking a lead in terms of providing education.”

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Blame it on the alcohol

To get a sense of the kinds of initiatives that some fraternities at universities are trying, look at the efforts around alcohol.

Alcohol is a good place to start because it plays a role in some of fraternities’ most toxic behaviors. There have been more than 60 fraternity-related deaths in the US since 2005, many of which involved dangerous alcohol consumption. A study published in the Psychology of Men & Masculinity also found a strong link between fraternity members who subscribe to hyper-masculine norms and binge-drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption has also been linked to increased sexual aggression, and a recent study found that consuming alcohol at “drinking venues,” such as bars and fraternity parties, made sexual aggression more likely regardless of how much someone drinks.

Focusing on alcohol can make a difference—Rapaport, maybe surprisingly, had a dry hazing thanks to strict campus rules, and since the university strongly enforced this no-alcohol policy on freshmen, Rapaport said parties felt safer.

National organizations of fraternities can have an outsized impact on student life. For example, the North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) introduced a policy last year to ban alcohol above 15% ABV (most types of hard liquor), unless sold by a licensed third-party vendor, at the 6,100 chapters across its 66 member organizations. This means fraternities must spend more money hiring external vendors, and the licensed third party—not the fraternity—is in charge of ID-ing partygoers, which makes it harder for underage students to drink to excess. Campus administrators and fraternity leaders enforce such policies, which puts pressure on chapters to be constantly accountable in a way that educational workshops cannot.

Judson Horras, CEO and president of the NIC, said his organization’s research showed a hard liquor ban keeps students safe while maintaining their buy-in, which makes it more effective than a complete alcohol ban. “It was very clear that this would make the biggest change and [have] the most buy-in” from undergraduate students and college administrations, Horras said. The NIC works directly with local interfraternity councils on campuses to adopt these guidelines.

Horras said that by giving students a say in these policies, they’re more likely to be effective. “The best advice I got from a college student is, ‘Mr. Horras, don’t talk at me. Talk with me. Help me solve this problem, give me the chance and ownership,’” Horras said.

But there’s a gap between what fraternities seem to be doing and what the lived reality of a fraternity member really is, especially since fraternities often observe codes of silence and secrecy when it comes to their rituals and behaviors. Jones points out, “there’s a difference between public relations actions and the actions to actually elicit change.” Most universities and fraternities have programs related to alcohol abuse and sexual assault, for instance, and fraternity members are sure to show up. “But you could be at those events and still exhibit the opposite attitude,” Jones said. That is, just because you attend a workshop doesn’t guarantee your behavior improves.

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Changing the definition of fraternity

Perhaps some of the toxicity that often comes with high-risk fraternities would be reduced if the definition of fraternity changed altogether. Some university students believe that making fraternities co-ed might do the trick. In February, three female Yale students filed a class-action lawsuit against the university alleging they were groped at a fraternity party. The lawsuit argues women should be allowed into fraternities, in part to mitigate a sexually predatory culture, and also to give women the social capital—including powerful alumni networks—that fraternities have. Some universities have already started to make this change. For instance, Wesleyan University decreed in 2014 that fraternities must allow women to join, mainly as a way to create safer fraternity spaces and change fraternity culture.

A different way to hold fraternities accountable when there is problematic behaviour, whether or not they’re co-ed, is to make conduct records easily accessible to the public. Doug Fierberg, a school violence attorney with extensive experience working on fraternity-related cases, suggested to Slate that schools should be forced to list all the hazing and sexual assault claims against a fraternity so that parents and prospective pledges can make informed decision about which fraternity to join, if any. Penn State is one of the first institutions making this happen: The university publishes a scorecard for each fraternity and sorority chapter, which lists the organization’s collective track record related to everything from alcohol infractions to hours of community service. For larger Greek organizations, regular and comprehensive scorecards are an effective way to monitor whether programs and policies to improve fraternity culture are actually working.

Some pundits have suggested abolishing fraternities altogether, which liberal arts colleges like Middlebury and Williams did years ago, and some students protesters—such as those at Swarthmore College angered over the recent scandal—also demand a fraternity ban. But Hechinger says that fraternities are simply too powerful and too popular to ban completely, especially at public universities, which makes strict monitoring even more important. “You have to move away from the idea of a ban toward the idea of reform and closing chapters, chapter by chapter, [and enforcing] regulation and policing that shuts down [harmful chapters] for years,” Hechinger said. “If there are in fact fraternities that are safe and providing a valuable service, they shouldn’t be afraid of regulation because they’ll survive this. There’ll be fewer, but perhaps better fraternities.”

By strictly regulating and policing bad fraternity behavior, as well as enforcing punishments where necessary, college administrators can essentially ensure high-risk fraternities that cause harm are aptly penalized while the low-risk fraternities, or those that are actively trying to change their culture, continue to act as a social avenue for students.

Since hyper-masculine stereotypes often take hold before college, discussions about masculinity and bad behavior are a critical part of this process. “A lot of these conversations really need to start much, much earlier,” Boyle said. “Kids need to learn about consent. Kids need to learn about bodily autonomy and how to respect other people and that sex isn’t something you take… that’s why so many people push for comprehensive sex education, which is not prevalent in the US.” Comprehensive sex education, Boyle said, includes information about sexual assault, healthy relationships, and non-heterosexual relationships.

But the true onus of reform still falls on fraternity brothers. They are the ones who can most effectively start and maintain these conversations, as well as intervene when their brothers participate in behavior that’s not acceptable

“The hardest part of fighting these types of battles is that the people resisting you are your brothers, and people you’ve shared intimate experiences with,” Rapaport said. “It’s hard because you have to change people that you’re close to and that’s not always easy and it doesn’t always feel good.”

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.