The Greek System’s Jerk Problem

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What is wrong with fraternities lately?

It may have been that nasty Yale lawsuit but lately it seems like the Greek system just can’t catch a break.

Caitlin Flanagan writes in the Wall Street Journal that:

The Greek system is dedicated to quelling young men’s anxiety about submitting themselves to four years of sissy-pants book learning by providing them with a variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women. A 2007 National Institute of Justice study found that about one in five women are victims of sexual assault in college; almost all of those incidents go unreported. It also noted that fraternity men—who tend to drink more heavily and frequently than nonmembers—are more likely to perpetrate sexual assault than nonfraternity men, according to previous studies. Over a quarter of sexual-assault victims who were incapacitated reported that the assailant was a fraternity member.

One wonders how this happened. Until roughly the middle of the twentieth century, it seemed like everyone was Greek. At most schools if you weren’t a member of a fraternity or a sorority you couldn’t really live on campus at all, or have much of a social life.

And then something changed. Fraternities now seem to signal something else. Critics like Flanagan suggest that fraternities foster disrespect for women. Samantha Wishman over at the Daily Beast agrees, writing,

[The Yale lawsuit] follow[s] similar incidents at other universities, including a recent uproar at the University of Southern California, where a widely circulated email from a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity referred to women as “targets,” explaining that “they aren’t actual people like us men.” While the U.S. Department of Education recently released new guidelines for how to deal with assault on campus… there is one place universities should start now: the Greek system. While these fraternity brothers must be held accountable for their actions, the Greek system as a whole must also be held accountable for what it teaches college students about women—that women are weaker and less capable than men.

The title of Wishman’s article is “Frat Culture’s Woman Problem.”

Still, it seems hard to extrapolate from either article that there is something distinctive about “frat culture” and that it really fosters trouble for women. If there’s any problem here, it seems like it’s not really about gender at all, it’s just about respect.

Fraternities are different across American colleges. At some schools Greek life totally dominates campus. At other schools most students are unaffiliated and being in a fraternity or sorority is rare.

Over the last 40 years, in fact, Greek affiliation across the country has been in decline. (This information comes from an article in The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors. Yes, there’s a scholarly publication.) This trend could perhaps have implications for gender relations on campus.

Or maybe not. At every school with a Greek system, students quickly figure one thing out; some of the houses are good, and some of them are terrible. It’s the terrible houses, those with a reputation for low grades, vulgarity, dirtiness, that tend to get caught up in awkward problems like this. And these problems get covered.

But most fraternities are fine. Gender relations are only one component of fraternities. It’s not that fraternity culture creates disrespect for women; it’s that jerks join fraternities that have problems. And then they cause more problems after they become members. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer