Over 40 years ago the college fraternity system was practically on life support, when the brothers of Delta Tau Chi came to its rescue.
Fewer than 5 percent of male students belonged to frats in the ’70s. Then Animal House was released in 1979, and that film, about a hard-drinking, hard-partying group of tight-knit bros who made toga parties a national craze and were obviously having the time of their lives, contributed to an increase in Greek membership practically overnight.
“When Animal House came out, there became more of an expectation that college was a place to drink,” says Alexandra Robbins, author of the new book Fraternity: An Inside Look At A Year Of College Boys Becoming Men.
After Animal House, says Robbins, who has also written about sororities in her best-selling book Pledged, “beer companies started marketing on campus. Then when the drinking age was raised, students couldn’t drink out in the open, so they changed where they drank, and frat houses offered those places away from law enforcement.”
The result? By the early ’90s over 80 percent of frat brothers were binge drinking, and today nearly one in every eight male students belongs to a social or cultural fraternity.
But Robbins emphasizes in her well-researched, even-handed book that the Greek life is not just about drinking, or the sexual victimization that can happen at out of control frat parties. “The main thing frats are providing that universities are not,” says Robbins in an interview with The Daily Beast, “is a safe place for men to confide in, and feel safe with, other men.”
Fraternity contrasts the “good” houses, where racial and cultural diversity are part of the mix, philanthropy is part of their mission, and women are not victimized, with the frats where hazing, binge drinking, and sexual assault are all too common. Fraternity also uses the experiences of two boys to describe the divide that separates the good from the bad and the ugly—"Jake” (only first names are used), who pledges a house that veers towards the hard partying, bro side of the spectrum, and “Oliver,” who chooses a more serious frat that prides itself on racial and sexual diversity and a solid sense of public charity.
And here things get interesting. Although national fraternities like Sigma Chi and Alpha Gamma Rho are heavily into philanthropy, these socially beneficial efforts are barely acknowledged in the media. Instead, it’s the horror stories of deaths, rape, and lawless hazing that get big play.
You know, like the 2017 hazing death of Penn State student Tim Piazza, whose life-threatening drunkenness wasn’t reported to the authorities for hours. Or the 2015 case of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, convicted of felony sexual assault for having sexual relations with a drunk and unconscious woman following a frat party.
Robbins understands why the media tends to report on the bad frat news, because basically “they are not going to report on the nice guys. But if someone is butt chugging, that’s a headline. But from the fraternity brother’s perspective, the headlines represent a minority of frat members, and leads people to make generalizations about [fraternities as a whole].”
Yet despite its admirable reportorial balance, Fraternity can also be seen by non-Greeks (known as GDI’s, or “goddamn independents” in the frat world) as a cautionary tale about the stupid, sadistic things frat boys—who, says Robbins, are more likely to be white, wealthy, and conservative—do to each other. Like the frat that locked 30 pledges into a room and wouldn’t let them out until they had consumed 200 cans of beer and 30 bottles of vodka. Or the Greek house that blindfolded pledges, told them to strip, stuffed their mouths with Limburger cheese and whipped them so violently that doctors had to remove one pledge’s injured testicle.
If all this sounds as if fraternity hazing and bullying are akin to the brutalities of military basic training, that’s because they are. “There is a lot of hazing in the military too,” says Robbins. “They want to break you down to build you up again, and fraternities do that too—they want a pledge class to bond by facing adversity together.”
“Hazing works,” says one former frat member in the book. “[It] creates an unusually strong bond between people who weather tough times together, and the toughness also creates the illusion of reaching a worthwhile goal.”
Fraternities also echo the military in their cultish aspects, reliance on arcane rituals, and mindless conformity. As Robbins points out, “teenagers are more susceptible to conformity than any other age group. Fraternities took the lunch table concept of high school and built a house on top of it. That’s one of the dangers of fraternities, the echo chamber that can cause a good guy to do, say, or condone things he normally wouldn’t.”
So, even though fraternities raise millions of dollars for charity, and overall the Greek GPA is higher than that of non-Greeks, some statistics gleaned from Robbins’ book can make fraternity life look lawless and out of control.
· Between 2010–2017, 72 boys died in fraternity-related incidents, 17 from hazing that involved drinking, humiliation, isolation, sleep deprivation, and sex acts.
· From 2010–2018, about 2,000 incidents were reported involving sexual assault, hazing, death, racism, alcohol abuse violence, and vandalism (Robbins emphasizes that only about one quarter of white frat houses—the emphasis of her book—were involved in these incidents).
· Fraternity members drink more than any other group of students. And after drinking, they are more likely to have non-consensual sex. Fraternity members are three times more likely to commit rape than other students.
· “The objectification of women and tolerance of racism are massive problems in fraternity culture at large,” says Robbins. (In April 2018, to cite just one example, a Syracuse University frat was suspended for a video that was judged “extremely racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, and hostile to people with disabilities.”
Robbins says the number of negative Greek incidents has declined in the past three years, but the causes are unknown: Is it because of increased university or national fraternity vigilance? Public outcry due to social media coverage? Pressure to shut down bad chapters? Or a new sense of accountability on the part of frat brothers and their chapters?
One thing is for certain. In houses where there is little or no adult oversight, you’re basically talking about organizations run by 18–20-year old males with raging hormones, where expectations of masculinity include suppression of emotions, physical aggression, winning at all costs, and multiple sex partners. Toxic masculinity can easily lead to a toxic frat house atmosphere.
Robbins’ solution to cut down on the bad actors out there? “You need more resources to make the membership more diverse, racially and economically, which is a way to reduce group think,” she says. “Also, universities should require predominantly white fraternities to partner with other social and cultural groups, which would expose them to other ways of thinking. And instead of traditional means of pledging, frats should go through some third-party masculinity program, which could show them there is more than one way to be a man.”