THE BLOG

Stop Minimizing Fraternity Misogyny

05/07/2015 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016
KristinNador/Flickr

Note: This article contains explicit language and descriptions of graphic violence

Why is our mainstream media still making fraternity misogyny family-friendly and failing to communicate the connections between racism, sexism and violence?

Feminists United, a group at the University of Mary Washington, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education asserting that their school did little or nothing to address death and rape threats made on Yik Yak after they protested a rugby team's sexist chant and argued that there was a connection between Greek culture and sexual assault. Sexual assault ranks second in fraternity insurance claims, men in fraternities are three times more likely to rape than their non-fraternity peers, they consume more objectifying content and are more accepting of rape myths. The connection is entirely valid and well-documented; it's just that no one likes the information.

Feminists "protesting song" sounds so inane until you read the actual lyrics or consider the threats made in response to the women's safety concerns and exercise of free speech. Online, these rape and death threats are always very focused on necks, hanging and oral rape, ways to physically silence women's voices and express sexualized, gendered dominance. Consider, now, that on April 17, 20-year-old Grace Mann, a student at UMW who served on United's board, was killed. A male roommate was arrested and charged in her death. A plastic bag was found crammed down her throat.

The song sung by the team to celebrate a win begins with: "Finally found a whore. She was right and dead," and ends, "Finally got it out. It was red and sore. Moral of the story is never f*ck a whore!"

USA Today, who didn't publish the lyrics, described the song as "inappropriate." Others called it a "sexually offensive" "necrophilia song." None of which captures the objectifying, discriminatory, competitive, and dehumanizing public consequences of disparagement "humor." As one fraternity brother at American University succinctly put it, "Dumb bitches learning their place."

In the UMW case, the fraternity in question was the rugby club, not part of the Greek system or the military. Last month, a military sexual assault filing against the Department of Defense cited an "unofficial songbook" used by members of the United States Air Force. It contained more than 70 songs with titles such as, "Will You Suck Me Tomorrow," "The Hair on Her Diki-Di-Doo," and "The Kotex Song." One of the songs, "The S & M Man," was similarly referenced in a sexual assault trial involving Phi Kappa Tau fraternity brothers at Georgia Tech last year. If you heard about this song, the lyrics were almost certainly described with some variant of the anodyne word "offensive." Here it is:

Who can take two jumper cables
Hook 'em to her tits
Turn on the juice and electrocute the bitch...

Who can take a blender
Stick it in her cunt
Turn the sucker on and purrate her little twat
Who can take some acid
Pour it on her twat
Then watch the cunt muffin rot
Who can take a bottle
Shove it up her ass
Hit her with a bat and shatter all the glass
Who can take a tight slut
F*ck her 'till she cries
Then pull it out real fast and skeet into her eyes...

Does reading that affect what you think in a way that reading "offensive song" does?

The cheerful singing of this song by roomfuls of boys and men has repeatedly failed to make national news or elicit public outrage. As a matter of fact, lawyers in the Georgia Tech case argued that it was ridiculous to use this song as an example of rape-supportive misogyny. Campuses today, they argued, echoing a common theme, are plagued by "hypersensitivity." Feminists are so thin-skinned... but perhaps it makes singing about flaying them easier.

Media did something similar in terms of softening ugly truths several weeks ago, when covering a racist chant sung by Sigma Alpha Epsilon members at Oklahoma University. The song mentioned lynching, used racial slurs, denigrating language and specifically mentioned barring black men from the fraternity. Many outlets refused to publish the actual words. There was, however, finally, a swift and strong public response. Two men were immediately expelled from the school and the fraternity rolled out an "anti-racism plan."

SAE, the largest fraternity in the country, is as plagued by misogyny as it is racism, which is usually the case considering that they mutually construct one another.  SAE is hardly alone. In March, for example, employees at a restaurant in North Carolina discovered a notebook left behind by Pi Kappa Phi members, the text of which included: "It will be short and painful, just like when I rape you," "If she's hot enough, she doesn't need a pulse," and "That tree is so perfect for lynching." This was described, in classically unhelpful understatement, as "racially and sexually charged language."

SAE, known colloquially, as "Sexual Assault Expected" on college campuses, is often implicated in sexual assaults and harassment. During a period of just a few weeks at the end of 2014, while media disproportionately focused national attention on the idea that women lie about rape, SAE chapters werenamed in charges of campus sexual assaults at Emory University, Iowa State University, Johns Hopkins, and at an off-campus frat house at Loyola Marymount University. In the past year, the SAE chapters have been put on probation and suspended because of issues related to sexual harassment. The New York Chapter of the National Organization of Women publicly requested that the fraternity president "establish a national plan of action to end the normalization of sexism and predatory behavior." NOW confirmed that no one from the fraternity, or the media, followed up on their public statement, despite its being widely distributed. Calls to the fraternity for comment were unreturned.

In the recent SAE case, the problem of fraternity racism was explicitly about white men excluding black ones, something, finally, increasingly openly talked about.  What remains not talked about, however, is how, historically and still today, the rapes of women have been used, by men and women both, to effect that exclusion or to challenge it -- in either case, women remain systemically subjugated by gender and race both. The connection, in the United States, between gender and race, sexism and racism, is profound and consequential.

Women can't separate, rank and grade elements of their identities the way media do when they experience harassment, assault and hate, but they can themselves be separated, ranked and graded by racist sexists. Take this 2011 Kappa Sigma "Gullet Report," produced at USC by a member of the fraternity. It was written to "strengthen brotherhood and help pin-point sorostitiutes." He described women's bodies in terms of meat and sperm envelopes and instructed frat members to refer "to females as "targets." "They aren't actual people like us men." In describing how to use alcohol to rape women, he provided this key:

Blackberry: A black target,
Blueberry Pie: half-black/half-white,
Pumpkin Pie: A latin/Mexican target,
Pecan Pie: half-white/half-latin,
Strawberry Pie: white target,
Cherry pie: A young white target,
Lemon Meringue: Asian target....
Don't f*ck middle-eastern targets. Exhibit some patriotism and have some pride. You want your cock smelling like falafel? Filth.

Too many people are still happy suggesting that "nice boys" singing or writing about raping women -- dead or alive -- is a "harmless" way for boys and men to bond. At Amherst, for example, a fraternity had T-shirts made depicting a woman wearing only a bra and a thong. She was bruised and had an apple stuffed into her mouth, was bound to a split and being roasted over a fire. The caption? "Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847."

Add to these cases the fact that drunk boys and men on college campuses, in a semi-ritualized way, are vomiting on and urinating on women for "fun." They may be doing this as individuals, but it's a social issue that they do because they learned, fully sober, not only to express their masculinity by degrading girls and women, but that they'd be socially rewarded for doing so. That has nothing to do with sexual pleasure, by the way.

Recently, Kappa Sigma fraternity issued a statement about a "vulgar" email written by a member at the University of Maryland. The email contained references to "nonconsensual sex," otherwise called "rape," which did not make it into the headline or the text as such. The Baltimore Sun headline read, "UM College Park investigating email containing racial, ethnic slurs."  Kappa Sigma is the fraternity that Snapchat CEO Evan Speigel belonged to at Stanford when he wrote similarly leaked emails, which he'd signed, "Fuck bitches get leid" and, "Hope at least six girls sucked your dick last night." He called of the school's dean "dean-julie-show-us-your-tits" and described urinating on a woman in his bed. When Speigel, who is 24, apologized for what was characterized as youthful indiscretion, the Washington Post called the texts "obscene," described his industry, notorious for sexism and misogyny, as "unfriendly to women."

Minimizing words like "unfriendly" or "boys clubs" and euphemisms like "offensive jokes" don't capture the reality of cultivated sex-specific leadership or the relationship between certain types of masculinity, power and gendered, frequently raced, violence. This connection is relevant regardless of the institution or the sex of the victim. Consider, for example, how sexualized hazing rituals are or the dynamics of rape in the Catholic Church and in the military.

More often than not, episodes like these, when they are covered, are treated by media as "rotten apple" instances of childishness, irresponsibility or immorality, a problem with a particular person, frat or team, instead of dimensions of a larger systemic problem having to do with the exclusion of women from power.

Like many other frats, Kappa Sigma and Sigma Alpha Epsilon invest in and promise leadership training for members. In a competitive push, Kappa Sigma just completed a "Decade of Dominance in recruitment." That word choice isn't an accident. Fraternities are a pipeline to power in the United States and sex-based dominance is the result.

Today, it looks like this:

 

Fraternity men are less than 2% of the male population of the United States, however, according to the Center for the Study of College Fraternity, they make up vastly disproportional number of our leaders:

  • 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices...
  • 63 percent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900
  • 76 percent of U.S. Senators,
  • 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives
  • With the exception of four men, every President and Vice President since 1825 has been a member of a fraternity.

Women do not benefit in anywhere near equal measure from the Greek system, and they pay a high price being part of it. An estimated 40 percent of women in sororities report rape or attempted rape, much higher than those who are not in sororities. Almost 50 percent report unwanted, nonconsensual sexual harassment and contact. The National Institute for Justice lists being in a sorority as a primary factor in increased sexual assault risk.  In the meantime, despite women's academic achievements, the top job for women in the United States today is what it was in 1950 - administrative assistant.

Some say it is unfair to tar all fraternities and sororities with this brush. Most fraternities and the men in them do not behave in the ways or openly endorse the behaviordescribed above. Many are trying to be part of constructive solutions. However, even where there are good intentions, and there is not overtly sexist behavior, institutions can and do produce racist and sexist outcomes. It's entirely legitimate to suggest, as many have, that the entire system be scrapped. Regardless, however, at the very least, people should demand more from their media.