May 11, 2011

Could Backlash From The Yale Incident Mean An End To Fraternities?

After the incident at Yale, a group of 16 people filed a complaint against the university for their "inadequate response" in "eliminating a hostile environment"

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Last semester I blogged about an incident that occurred at Yale University in which men from the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity marched around campus chanting misogynistic and sexually derogatory slogans. In this blog I questioned why these men thought this behavior was funny and why our culture continues to accept such behavior. I am not interested in the question of whether the men were legally allowed to engage in their chanting; I know they have the right to free speech. But instead I am very interested in the question of whether they should have engaged in such behavior, especially given that what they were chatting continues to be real life fears for women (i.e. having their refusals to sex ignored and being forced into sex against their will). To be frank, I was very disappointed in the way Yale administration handled the event and I continue to be saddened by the response I get from university students who think that the incident should be considered a light-hearted joke. And it seems I am not alone as others are also questioning the way Yale handled the event. Recently, a group of 16 individuals filed a Title IX complaint against Yale University for their response to this event. In fact according to an article in Time Magazine, others are going even further and questioning the very existence of fraternities on college campuses in the US.

A Rape Supportive Culture at US Universities

In an article from the New York Times, author Dr. Nicholas Syrett from the University of North Carolina, stated that universities should be held responsible for the behavior of fraternities which reside on their campus. Therefore if fraternity members engage in behavior which is threatening to women (i.e. going around campus chanting no means yes, and yes means anal, etc.) and the university does not adequately step in to prevent the behavior or reprimand those who participated in the behavior after the fact, then the university is condoning such behavior. In fact, researcher Dr. Elizabeth Armstrong at the University of Michigan conducted an ethnographic study at a large “party school” in which she described how the party environment at such universities contributes to and reinforces a rape supportive culture. Her findings indicate that a large part of the party rape culture is due to the gender inequity in partying that occurs on many college campuses via Greek-life. For example, she cites that men/fraternities can host parties at their houses with alcohol whereas women/sororities are not allowed to host parties with alcohol (and at some universities women are not even allowed to have houses). This drives women to party at frat houses where the environment is unfamiliar and controlled by men in nearly every aspect from the type of alcohol served, to who gets served, to who is allowed in and in some cases to the attire allowed (which often results in women dressed in very little clothing). Such rules, which promote double standards, are enforced by the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Armstrong argues that because the university endorses the IFC as the governing body of Greek-life, the university itself is actually endorsing the gender inequity that occurs in the party environment which she states is a contributing factor to the party rape culture.

The US Fraternity Guy

Research has demonstrated that men in fraternities engage in more binge drinking and sexually aggressive behavior that their non-Greek counter parts. Yet the trajectory is unclear—is it that men who are more prone to engage in sexually aggressive behavior and binge drinking opt to enter into fraternities or is it something about the frat environment that contribute to this kind of behavior and mindset. I would argue probably a little bit of both. Perhaps men who are more interested in engaging in socializing, partying and binge drinking opt to join frats and through their involvement in a male gendered group who epitomize the denigration of women and consumption of excessive alcohol, they begin to develop like-minded thinking in order to fit in. So with that in mind, I think the question posed by the article in the New York Times is an appropriate one to ask given recent events and frats’ histories of aggressive behavior—should fraternities be disbanded for the sake of the safety of college women?

The Safety of College Women

According to a brief opinion piece in the New York Times, “On Thursday, the group [who filed the Title IX complaint] said the school’s [Yale] “inadequate response” failed to eliminate a “hostile sexual environment on campus,” which violated the federal gender-equity law Title IX. It also accused Yale of failing to properly address previous cases of harassment and assault.”

I personally believe that calling Yale’s response to the incident inadequate is being generous. To me what occurred that day was a hate crime. (According to the Williams Institute, hate crimes are defined as bias-motivated crimes which occur when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her perceived membership in a certain social group, usually defined by race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, class, ethnicity, nationality, age, gender, gender identity, social status, or political affiliation.) I have heard some argue that the Yale fraternity men had the right to conduct their chant, even if it was hurtful. My response to that is— why are men intentionally being hurtful to women and intentionally creating an intimidating, hostile environment? As a young woman, I am not sure what would be more intimidating and hostile than men’s chants which state that your “NO” to sex should be disregarded because it actually means yes to me.

Hate crimes against any group should not be tolerated and the fact that hate crimes against women (who are often in the statistical majority on many college campuses) are tolerated to the extent that they are is devastating to me. For example, there was an incident featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes in which at least two women were raped by three male basketball players in the same fashion (i.e. both women were brought home from a party and locked in the closet while the men took turns rapping them). One of the women did not even bother reporting it and based on the punishments the men received and the emotional trauma the woman who did report faced, it is no surprise why. The woman who did report her rape was a very popular, well liked individual who was on the women’s basketball team herself. After she reported she left the university for a semester. Upon her return she was ostracized by her friends and teammates and blamed for causing a ban on socialization between the male and female basketball teams. In the 60 Minutes feature it also seemed as though a great deal of victim blaming was going on as people at the university, both students and administrators, had stated that she was asking for it. The men were found guilty of rape, but their punishments ranged—one was suspended for a semester, one for a year, and one was expelled. But guess what? The student who was expelled was picked up by the University of Idaho with a full basketball scholarship and the other two men were on the starting line-up for the basketball team upon their return from their suspensions—way to really enforce a punishment for a felony crime!

What’s the Solution?

In an article in the journal, Violence Against Women written in 2007, researcher Dr. Bruce Vogel and colleagues stated that “settings that place a high value on “masculine” qualities such as power, toughness…may contribute towards negative attitudes towards women.” College campuses have been historically male-dominated both in terms of students and leadership positions, and fraternities exemplify such characteristics to an even further degree. Take a look around many colleges in the US, especially large universities where significant partying occurs and Greek-life is ominously present. Who dominates the party culture of those campuses?—It is not surprising to find out that most of the time it is men, and through their domination, aggression and abuse of women is not only permitted and ignored, many times it is often glorified (for reference check out Dr. Alan DeSantis’ book Inside Greek-U: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Power, Pleasure and Prestige).

Caitlin Flanagan concluded her piece in the Wall Street Journal with the following quote: “If you want to improve women’s lives on campus, if you want to give them a fair shot at living and learning as freely as men, the first thing you could do is close down the fraternities. The Yale complaint may finally do what no amount of female outrage and violation has accomplished. It just might shut them down for good.”

I am not as confident as Flanagan that the backlash from this incident will be strong enough to close down frats at Yale, let alone frats around the US. I don’t even think that is the solution. I think the way in which we rear young men and then tolerate their aggressive behavior (e.g. sports and pop culture accepted Ben Roethlisberger and Chris Brown back into the lime light with open arms post committing rape and domestic abuse) teaches men that there are no repercussions for their actions. As I said in my earlier blog, there is a need for a cultural shift in our attitudes towards men, women and sex, and that incidences of sexual violence will only begin to decrease when we begin to acknowledge that sexual violence is an issue in our culture, not just in the bedroom. I think if we want to look for the silver lining in the Yale incident though, at the very least, it has brought national attention to the outrageous, sexist, egregious mistreatment of women at institutes of higher education across the country which often goes entirely unnoticed. Perhaps the outcomes of this event will result in a tiny inch toward that cultural shift!