In a previous post I made a glib reference to fraternities as likely sites for rape to occur. While I agree with brinkmanship’s criticism that I tarred all fraternities with a single brush, I will also say that the stereotype of them as places conducive to acquaintance rape isn’t unfounded. It has a pretty firm basis in reality.
That’s not to say all frats are the same. They’re not. Some are vastly safer than others. And even in the higher-risk houses, there are lots of great young men, most of who wouldn’t dream of violating a partner’s consent. I’ve had many wonderful students – both men and women – who were involved in the Greek system. My brother and sister each had good experiences with it, too.
That said, certain cultural and social practices in fraternities make it easier for rape to occur. Way back in the late 1980s, Patricia Yancey Martin and Robert A. Hummer outlined some of the reasons for this in their much-anthologized article, “Fraternities and Rape on Campus.” They noted that norms of masculinity, expressed in a desire for members who could drink heavily and withstand hazing, tended to exclude men might hold more critical views. They observed that practices of brotherhood, including loyalty and secrecy, sometimes trumped allegiance to ethics and the law. The commodification of women, seen too often as sexual prey, can lay the groundwork for trying to extract sex from women instead of viewing sex as a mutual pursuit of pleasure.
Martin and Hummer got the big picture right, and I don’t think all that much has changed in the past two decades. But I also know that when I was in college, I felt a different vibe coming from some houses and some guys. The Alpha Delts, for instance, were more into getting stoned than drinking heavily. I don’t remember ever hearing of anything untoward happening there. My students, too, know very well that some frats are dicier than others.
So how can you assess the risk in a given house? Well, I’m gonna go all academic again and cite another widely anthologized study, this time from A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade, “Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places for Women?” (pdf) They list a host of factors that distinguish higher-risk from lower-risk atmospheres. Their study goes for bars, too, so it’s very broadly useful, though generally speaking most bars fall into the lower risk-category. In high-risk settings, you’ll find:
- Highly skewed gender ratios at parties
- Less respectful behavior toward women (rating them, dropping trou)
- Conversations based on flirtation, with meaningful one-on-one talks a rarity
- Open hostility on the part of men, and also more aggressive behavior from women such as pushing and name-calling
- Heavier drinking and less dancing
- Higher noise levels
- Bragging about sexual exploits the next morning
- Distinctions between girlfriends, who are respected, and faceless conquests, who are seen as objectified
- Cleaner women’s bathrooms!
The high-risk houses tended to have larger membership, more varsity athletes, more disciplinary incidents (including property damage and harm to persons), and lower participation in rape awareness programs.
Obviously, one ought to trust one’s own observations and instincts more than a list of characteristics. Still, I think Boswell and Spade provide a useful starting point for assessing risk.
Saying that fraternities are often sites of elevated risk isn’t equivalent to calling all fraternity members rapists. Far from it. Recent research shows that most acquaintance rape is committed by a very small number of repeat offenders. While this research doesn’t look at Greek life (as far as I know), it seems highly likely that those few extremely rotten apples seek out environments that provide some cover for them. Fraternities do this, however unwittingly. At the same time, getting rid of the Greek system wouldn’t solve much, either, because – as Boswell and Spade note – the high-risk party environment would likely move into private houses. I don’t have a pat answer, but I know that any solution has to involve education and changing attitudes, not just in frats but in the dorms, too. Education probably won’t deter the most predatory rapists, but it sure could make it harder for them to find cover.
Note: Both of the articles I cite can be read in pieces through Google Books, but I couldn’t find the full text for Martin and Hummer.