I have to admit it: I have never liked fraternities. My undergraduate school had no fraternities, and, so far as I could tell, nobody missed them. I went to grad school at a big university that had a big fraternity row. This was in the late '70s when the film Animal House was a hit. For some reason, the antics of John Belushi and company that were hilarious onscreen were not so funny when acted out live by members of the local Delta House. Really, though, the frat boys needed no inspiration from Belushi. Whenever anything rude, crude or lewd occurred on campus, it was ten-to-one odds that some frat guys were behind it. Now, in the wake of accusations of gang rape at a fraternity house that have roiled the University of Virginia, it is time to ask whether universities should not bid adieu to fraternities.
What allegedly happened at Virginia may have been even uglier than most such incidents, but fraternities have always been ground zero for rape on campus. It was at first funny when the frumpy character on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory complained that she had fallen asleep at a fraternity party and woke up wearing more clothes. It was funny until you reflected on the disturbing reality behind the joke. The reality is that all too often date rape is regarded as practically a rite of passage. The victims of such incidents are strongly pressured not to make an issue of it, and certainly not to make a complaint to the police. The victim fears that she will be ostracized and that, as usual, she will be judged more harshly than the rapist. Didn't she know not to drink so much at a fraternity party?!? What did the dumb girl expect? Duh!
Just as disturbing as campus rape is the typical reaction of university administrators. If, mirabile dictu, such an incident actually makes it into the media, administrators work diligently to protect the university's image and make sure not to accept any responsibility. Justice for the victim is an afterthought, if it matters at all. Underlying the administrators' dedication to covering the university's behind is a "boys will be boys" attitude that puts rape in the same category as a prank. Oh, those frat boys and their zany pranks! Pssst. Rape is not a prank. It is a serious crime and should be treated as such.
Surely, though, it is unfair to judge all fraternities on the basis of some "isolated" incidents. Yet such incidents are not so isolated. Jessica Valenti, writing in The Guardian last September claims that fraternity members are 300 percent more likely to rape than other college males. She reports the following incidents:
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee police are currently investigating a fraternity after several women were found labeled with red and black X's on their hands after they had to be hospitalized with memory lapses from intoxication at a fraternity party. Last year, three sexual assaults were reported at one Texas fraternity -- within just one month. At Georgia Tech, a frat brother sent around an email guide called 'Luring your rapebait.' Wesleyan had a frat that was nicknamed the 'Rape Factory.' In 2010, fraternity brothers at Yale University marched through campus yelling, 'No means yes, yes means anal.'
Still, don't fraternities contribute much to the community and the campus environment? What about all the charity work done by fraternities? What about the fraternal bonds that are formed and can last throughout a lifetime? Universities can be strange and stressful when encountered at eighteen. Don't fraternities provide an accepting, surrogate family for many who would otherwise find university life intimidating and disorienting?
But fraternities have always been more about exclusion than inclusion. Animal House hit this point right on the nose. Early in the film we see that overweight, nerdy or ethnic kids will not be welcomed. Having gone to a college with no frats, I did not learn what a "GDI" is until later on. It means "goddamned independent," the pleasant name fraternities give to those students who are not members of fraternities. Really, fraternities and sororities are just high school cliques translated into a college context. They exist to make a few people feel wanted and many more feel unwanted. Contrast the purpose of fraternities with the rhetoric of inclusion and multiculturalism that issues from the mouths of university administrators.
Again, what about all the charity work and service to the community performed by fraternities? This is admirable indeed. However, there could be many different kinds of organizations on campus that would be open to all and would offer opportunities for volunteering and service without also providing venues for snobbery, alcoholism, and rape.
So, maybe is time for universities to say "so long!" to brothers Flounder, Otter, D-Day, Bluto, and the rest of the lovable (and not so lovable) lugs from the animal houses. At the least, in the wake of far too many incidents like the one at the University of Virginia, all fraternities should be put on "double secret probation" -- the strictest form of probation in Animal House. Where is Dean Wormer when you need him? Really, it is hard to see what place fraternities should have on 21st century campuses.