This is a recollection about fraternities, male privilege, and sexual assault from my freshman year of college. I’m going to use questionable language because that is the language that was used, it’s not an endorsement but rather a necessary detail about what I was exposed to as a 19 year old.
During freshman year of college a friend of mine talked me into rushing some campus fraternities with him. He didn’t want to go alone and I figured, “Why the hell not?” After several parties and social meetings we were both offered a bid by one of the smaller houses on campus. Our chapter was small and pretty nerdy, mostly tame, but still had a reputation for parties. We did throw some good ones, I’m not going to lie.
But during my semester as a pledge I realized that a lot of what the older brothers were teaching us was questionable at best and, in some cases, downright criminal.
I remember one brother fondly talking about “the good old days, when you could run a train in the library” and it was never hard to find a “willing slut.” Now keep in mind this 2001, so he’s talking about the mid to late 90’s at a major university in DC — one that feeds graduates directly into powerful government and lobbyist offices.
There was another brother (actually my big big brother in the fraternity tree) who gave us this advice: if you want to talk to a woman back her up against a wall, put a hand on the wall and get close, and if she tries to break off the conversation or leave simply box her in with your other hand so she can’t get away. There was a hole in the wall in the basement of the house from when he had tried to do this at a party: he was so drunk that he punched through the dry wall trying to box in a young woman, which caused other brothers to intervene. The young woman immediately grabbed her friends and left. I don’t think she ever stepped foot in our house again.
Even as a confused, insecure 19 year-old nothing about that advice made sense to me; nothing about it made me feel comfortable about the people around me who were supposed to be educating me in the ways of being a “man.” I kept my concerns to myself, lest I be seen as not cool enough or causing problems for senior members of the chapter.
We had an overnight with a brother who was a manager for the student center. We locked ourselves in after hours and sat there in the closed student union, drinking shots and swapping stories. At one point the senior brother declared that he was going to give us advice on how to get laid. “Just remember: girls don’t get whiskey dick!” he said, and then laughed and took a shot.
Again this all seemed very off to me. It seemed wrong and it made me feel uncomfortable, but here I was surrounded by people who wanted to be my friends (I thought) and who were constantly evaluating me. I didn’t want to lose their respect or my place in the pledge class, so I kept my thoughts to myself and figured “well, my pledge brothers are smart enough to know this is just a joke, right? I’m sure they are, no one actually believes that…”
Looking back I actually get angry at how wrong I was. One of my pledge brothers is a rapist, he raped his girlfriend multiple times while she was passed out on his Xanax. I didn’t learn about this until well after college, but when I did hear I became sick to my stomach. I was in a car driven by the rapist as he told me this story, told me how bad he felt about it, and asked me for absolution: something I would not give him. I broke off our friendship as soon as I got out of the car, closing the door and knowing I would never speak to him again.
With the revelations about Kavanaugh and The Guardian article reporting the increased rates of sexual assault and rape among fraternity members I can’t help but look back on my own history as a fraternity member and regret that I ever joined such an institution.
After I transferred my old house changed a lot, with the newer members focused on community service and building a healthy environment, but that work cannot erase the legacy of all the harm that came before.
Fraternities probably aren’t completely evil, but none of the good that they do needs to be tied to their patriarchal, exclusive design. Any of the good that they can do could be done better by horizontal, inclusive groups that don’t prey on young men by exploiting their insecurities and promising an education in how to be a proper “man.”
If you know young men headed to college let them know that fraternities can’t be trusted; that such institutions will prey on them, and will use their insecurities to keep them in line and make them accept things they would otherwise reject. Hazing, whether physical or emotional, is designed to break you down and make you forget your center. You are put through a crucible and molded into someone else, someone who is not tied to the person you were or the values you held.
Ultimately, any exclusive system that demands your loyalty cannot be trusted. These ridiculous houses of wealth and privilege should be abolished from our college campuses.