09/25/2014 11:46 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

It's the End of Frat Life As We Know It, and I Feel Fine

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I'm going to begin by saying that, during my time as an undergraduate, I knew several men who were members of the three residential fraternities at Wesleyan, and most of them were, to the best of my knowledge, lovely people, if not average ones.

And, still, I wholeheartedly support President Michael Roth and the Board of Trustees' decision to require fraternities to become fully co-educational, which may lead to their total dissolution on the Wesleyan campus.

The takeaway: these two conditions are not mutually exclusive. The fact that they're so often discussed as such reveals how conversations about the American fraternity system have become dangerously obscured by sound bites like "freedom of association," and "true gender equality," when we really should be talking about one thing: privilege. Specifically, that Big Kahuna of privilege, the white heterosexual male kind.

Let's talk about what fraternities really are. They're vestiges of the old guard, those Americans for whom colleges were actually founded: namely, the white guys who could afford them. In her investigation into the history of violence and injury among fraternities in the United States in The Atlantic earlier this year, Caitlin Flanagan documents their inception steeped in elitism, exclusivity and -- you guessed it -- privilege. Secret handshakes, Freemason symbolism, Greek letters; these rituals were designed to consolidate an ideal of the college man, who asserted his autonomy against the institution itself by organizing outside of it. Today, but also even then, as Flanagan writes, a fundamental aspect of that assertion is partying, what you might think of as a kind of right to pleasure now synonymous with the college experience. Though Wesleyan fraternities don't look exactly like they did in 1865, they are still, obviously, all male; they are still predominately white; they are still predominantly straight.

All of this might seem pretty benign if you let it. When I studied for my graduate degree in the UK this year, I found myself running around local Tescos on the 4th of July for what the English call "red American party cups," emblems of our national party-hardiness. I helped make a makeshift beer pong table out of cardboard. It was all in the name of fun, but, like many seemingly harmless parts of being an American, if you just start to scratch the surface of our tacit endorsement of fraternity culture, you'll find that what's underneath is ugly.

Wesleyan's decision comes at the end of several years of turmoil surrounding its three campus fraternities, mostly stemming from two lawsuits filed by female victims of two separate violent sexual assaults in fraternity houses. In 2012, a former student filed suit against the school and Beta Theta Pi's Mu Epsilon chapter for failing to protect her during and after a 2010 attack by a non-student in the Beta house, a suit that employed the now infamous term "rape factory" to describe the fraternity building's reputation. This March, another student filed a Title IX suit alleging that she was raped in the front room of the Psi Upsilon house, in full view of dozens of witnesses, by a fraternity pledge. Throughout, the fraternities, especially Beta, have attempted to retain their relative autonomy on the campus despite the horrific events; through 2010, Wesleyan did not formally recognize Beta as program housing, so the public safety officers it enlists to protect their students could not police events there. The final straw seems to have come this month, when a female student fell from a third floor window of Beta and was seriously injured. The house is now off-limits to Wesleyan students; the national organization of Beta Theta Pi suspended its Wesleyan chapter. And, now, residential fraternities -- Beta, Psi U and Delta Kappa Epsilon -- have three years to adopt co-education.

Just this past weekend, a 19-year-old Rutgers student died of alcohol-related complications after attending a Delta Kappa Epsilon party. The results of enforced co-education of fraternities at Wesleyan will reverberate throughout the U.S. as part of a national debate on such groups of men, in other liberal arts schools and in those places where Greek life is vastly more prominent. When considering what role, if any, a network of centuries-old, male-only groups should play in our contemporary higher education system, we cannot view fraternities inside a historical vacuum, no matter how uncomfortable it is to face the truth. And it is imperative that we face it, because the terrible consequences of maintaining the status quo on fraternities are evident in the pattern of sexual violence that is endemic to them.

Defenders have argued against charges that fraternities accept a pervasive rape culture that only a small percentage of members actually commit these crimes. This is a deflection, in which the most important figure in these cases is absolved of any wrongdoing: that of the privileged fraternity space, its most salient identifier, the iconic Animal House. Because this is where that right to pleasure darkly manifests. At Wesleyan, the fraternities throw some of the biggest parties and music performances on campus because their members live in buildings of the appropriate size and capacity. Regardless of the culpability of individual members, a space in which men control the party passively sanctions the same dominance over attending female guests, in its most cruel and tragic form in their rape and sexual assault. In that passivity, all individuals are inevitably complicit, including members of the surrounding community who ignore the fundamental problems of this male-controlled model.

Defenders will also say that a decision like Wesleyan's to enforce co-educational membership infringes upon members' rights to congregate where and with whom they desire, rights that belong to the members of any student group. They might even compare a fraternity to a union of students of color, or female-only housing, and that's where you might hear something about "freedom of association" or freedom of expression. This is a deflection, too, and it disregards the inescapable racialized and gendered history of the very concept of the fraternity. As a female, I would remind them that my freedom to associate and to express myself is not the same as a fraternity's: mine was won as late as 1970, when Wesleyan finally allowed women to matriculate once and for all. And a person of color, who would have first been admitted around the same time, might feel similarly. Or a queer Wesleyan student, for whom special interest housing became available only in 1991. For some campus groups, many more than I've named here, the right to congregate at Wesleyan would more accurately be described as the right to feel safe and protected in their own community.

In an email statement, a Beta Theta Pi spokesperson said that it still "seeks to strongly underscore its belief that there is a purposeful place on college campuses for young men to come together and forge the bonds of fraternal brotherhood as they develop academically and prepare for a lifetime of civic duty." The language here feels as vague and as stale as "freedom of association," when used without regard for historical and social context. I challenge the men of Wesleyan's fraternities to give us a more detailed account of their need to come together, one that faces their institutional flaws honestly and courageously, and responds to the deep wounds the community has suffered.

All Wesleyan students inherit part of its all-male, Methodist foundation; we have been known to challenge it, to keep it weird. A modern fraternity should be as equally porous, flexible to change and critical of its past. That fraternity might include women, and it might not have a house. It might be better than nothing; it will certainly be better than the empty, hard plastic of a red party cup.