The Feminist War on Fraternities

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The Pope Center’s Duke Cheston has issued what is essentially a call for the abolition of college fraternities, adding a conservative battle cry to a war which hitherto has been largely waged by liberals: feminists, political correctness-besotted campus administrators, and, lately, the Obama administration’s Education Department. In an essay for the Pope Center’s website he wrote: “For the sake of students…colleges should find a way to drastically change fraternity culture–and soon–or get rid of them.” Cheston argues that fraternities, widely regarded as incubuators of binge drinking and–at least in the minds of some feminists (and, apparently Cheston himself)–a campus culture of rape. Citing an incident in which a college friend had shrugged off an alleged rape committed by one of the friend’s fraternity brothers, Cheston wrote: “joining a fraternity had encouraged my friend to think that rape wasn’t that bad.”

Cheston also links to an op-ed article I wrote in June for the Los Angeles Times in which I decried a “scorched-earth war against college fraternities” that I said threatened the freedom of speech and association, not just of members of Greek societies but of all college students. “Left out of Allen’s analysis, however,” Cheston wrote, “is the question of whether or not fraternities are a net positive influence on students.”

I must take issue with Cheston and offer a defense—at least a two-cheers or even a one-cheer defense—of fraternities and the important "positive" function they serve of keeping the banner of political incorrectness, especially as regards feminist victimology, flying on college campuses when few other institutions are willing to challenge the reigning ethos.

I grant—and here's where I agree with  Cheston–that fraternities these days may not be at exactly at the apex of moral and social respectability that they occupied, say, a century or more ago, when nearly all of America’s economic and political elite, from future presidents of the United States on down, belonged to one Greek house or other while they attended college. Tom Wolfe, in his 2004 campus novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” painted a degraded—and undoubtedly accurate in many cases–picture of 21st-century fraternity life, in which the beer-bibing, F-bombing  brothers of the fictional "Saint Ray," having long since trashed the magnificent furniture and walnut-shelved library in the palatial frat house built for them long ago by their Gilded Age forebears, lounge about watching ESPN under the influence of suds and speculating grossly about the sexual favors likely to be bestowed on them by the Greek groupies who regularly materialize around midnight. Study for tomorrow's classes? What's that?"

yale delta kappa epsilon.jpgStill—let me recapitulate the incident that seems to have constituted the Fort Sumter of the campus war against fraternities. In the fall of 2010 some pledges in the Yale chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) were marched blindfolded, as part of a hazing ritual, past a dorm housing freshman women. While marching they chanted, "No means yes, and yes means anal!" and other X-rated poetry expressing a desire to have sex with dead women. A Yale feminist webzine branded the 18-year-old pledges "a moving gang of men, chanting in deep, throaty voices for sexual assault," apparently not noticing that the whole thing was a gross joke. Later, a group of mostly female Yale alumni wrote a letter of complaint to the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights about the Deke hazing and other incidents at Yale. They alleged that Yale had created a "hostile sexual environment" in violation of Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act, which forbids gender discrimination at educational institutions. The penalty for violating Title IX can be loss of federal funding, which in Yale's case is $500 million a year. Perhaps not surprisingly, Yale in April suspended DKE from campus for five years, an effective death sentence for the fraternity's Yale chapter.

I confess that when I read about the Deke pledges' chant, I laughed. Not because I believe that rape and forcible sodomy are anything less than despicable crimes, but because the chant was such a well-placed poke in the eye at the Yale Women's center and the humorless feminists who staff similar campus women's centers across the country. Those feminists on the one hand encourage female students to be "sluts" in the in the name of sexual equality, but on the other hand brand as "date-rapists" male students who assume that just because a girl has taken all her clothes off in his bedroom and then fitted him with a condom, she has consented to sex.  Hence, the "ask for explicit consent at every stage" rule for men that might have been mocked mercilessly on Saturday Night Live when Antioch College instituted it in the early 1990s but which nonetheless remains alive on campuses twenty years later.

I similarly laughed—for similar reasons–at some of the other supposed fraternity-related outrages that prompted the Education Department to investigate Yale. There was a 2008 episode in which pledges of another fraternity, Zeta Psi, circled the campus Women's Center with a poster reading "We Love Yale Sluts." Then there was the time in 2004 that Yale fraternity members sabotaged a Take Back the Night Clothesline project by stealing a "My Rapist Is Still at Duke" and similarly captioned T-shirts off the line and wearing them around campus. Not to mention the "Preseason Scouting Report" email that some Yale upperclassmen reportedly circulated in 2009 rating 53 incoming freshman women according to how many beers it would take to want to have sex with them.

Of course students should suffer severe sanctions for vandalizing a legitimate campus demonstration, even if it consists of something as silly and lugubrious as those Take Back the Night clotheslines upon which college women's centers dote. But marching with posters, writing e-mails, and chanting boorishly while walking past—never into–a dorm as the Deke pledges last fall did are purely expressive activity that on a public university campus would be protected by the First Amendment and on many private campuses, including Yale's fall under explicit administrative guarantees of free speech and expression.

The reason that feminists, campus administrators, the Education Department, and even some conservatives such as Cheston seem to have determined that verbal fraternity hijinks don't deserve ordinary free-speech protection is that they're the equivalent of falsely shouting, "Fire" in a crowded theater. They have bought into what Heather Mac Donald, writing in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal in 2008, called the "campus rape myth"–the ceaseless effort by campus feminists and administrators to gin up incidences of rape out of what are essentially drunken encounters late at night. Thank to feminist ideology, the female students get to pass themselves off as victims who bear no responsibility for their excessive alcohol consumption and provocative behavior, while their male partners who indulge in the same amount of binge-drinking and sexual recklessness are relentlessly punished.

Yet, as Mac Donald points out, the campus rape crisis centers and 24-hour hotlines that are supposed to offer first response to rape victims, actually receive few phone calls reporting rape, and even fewer such incidents are reported to police or prosecutors. One of the rape experts whom Cheston cites is John Foubert, professor of college student development at Oklahoma State University. In a May 6 article supporting the use of Title IX investigations to ban college fraternities, as seems to have been the case at Yale, Foubert wrote, citing studies, that the "population on college campuses with the highest likelihood for committing rape is fraternity men."

Foubert, however, is the founder of a campus-rape-prevention group called One in Four, deriving from an oft-cited alarming statistic that one out every four college women is raped or is the target of an attempted rape by the time she reaches age 25. But as Mac Donald pointed out, the figure comes from a study conducted during the 1980s by Mary Koss, a public health professor at the University Arizona. Koss asked her female subjects only about their sexual encounters and how they felt about them, after which Koss herself classified many of those encounters as rape. In fact, about 73 percent of Koss's designated rape victims did not themselves describe their encounters as rape. Furthermore, "42 percent of Koss’s supposed victims had intercourse again with their alleged assailants," Mac Donald noted—a figure that jibes with subsequent studies of college sex. If fraternity men are supposed to be more likely to be rapists as Foubert asserts,, the truth may simply be that fraternity men are more likely to be at the parties whose aftermath is besotted hookups. Duke Cheston may be chagrinned that a fraternity-man friend of his did not respond with outrage at a rape supposedly committed by one of his housemates—but the reason may well be that the act actually fell short of the felonious violence that prosecutors and juries associate with the crime.

In sum, yes, many fraternity chapters would do well to clean up their acts, and to remind themselves that during the days when both Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were proud to call themselves Dekes, chants of  "No means yes, and yes means anal" were not part of hazing. But in these days of oppressive political correctness on campus, it's at least some comfort to know that there are places where you can actually laugh at the women' center and its pronunciamentos. That's a "net positive."

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Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

5 thoughts on “The Feminist War on Fraternities

  1. Political correctness is a terrible problem; it protects flawed and destructive ideas by placing criticism of them outside the circle of polite discussion. One group willing to step outside the circle, as Charlotte Allen recently pointed out in a critique of my recent article, is fraternity men. (http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=2579).
    By chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal!” and other x-rated slogans, a group of pledges at Yale’s DKE fraternity last year drew attention to college administrations that simultaneously promote the idea of consequence-free sex and campaign vehemently against rape. The Dekes and the administrative reaction they provoked inadvertently illuminated what Heather Mac Donald called “a delicious historical irony… the baby boomers who dismantled the university’s intellectual architecture in favor of unbridled sex and protest have now bureaucratized both [sex and victimhood].”
    Allen also enjoyed the irony, laughing at the Dekes’ antics “because the chant was such a well-placed poke in the eye at the Yale Women’s center and the humorless feminists who staff similar campus women’s centers across the country.”
    As schadenfreud-tastic as the pledges’ chants were, though, I don’t think this is a particularly strong defense of fraternities. Allen doesn’t seem to think so either, writing that fraternities’ usefulness as anti-politically correct agents only constitutes “a two-cheers or even a one-cheer defense” of the institutions. There are other ways to fight against political correctness, and it’s hard to believe that fraternities are a particularly good way to do so. Alternative anti-PC outlets include professors who “hoist the Jolly Roger” after receiving tenure like Harvey Mansfield or anti-establishment conservative student newspapers like Carolina Review or the Dartmouth Review, not to mention outside organizations like Minding the Campus or the Pope Center that regularly assault higher ed’s sacred cows.
    Moreover, the whole point of fighting against political correctness is that it prevents us from approaching the truth, not that there should be no societal norms. Schadenfreude is not a legitimate policy aim, but that’s about all you’ll get from Greeks. Although they may occasionally embarrass university administrations by pointing out their contradictions, the idea that there are contradictions is not even a fully formed thought in their own minds. It’s a bit like an affirmative action bake sale–illustrating absurdity by being absurd–with the key difference that the demonstrators don’t know what they’re protesting against (or that they’re protesting at all). I suspect if we tried to award a medal to the Dekes for outstanding service to the Cause of Truth, they wouldn’t take it. That’s not really what they’re interested in.
    Finally, it’s not enough to merely point out the contradiction in colleges’ approach to sex. It is of course preposterous to say that rape is harmful and casual sex isn’t, like colleges do, but we can’t stop there. Intellectual consistency demands that if we’re going to fight against rape on campus, we must also fight against the hook-up culture. And you can’t expect any help on that front from fraternities.

  2. Really interesting, level-headed article. I graduated this past May from Tom Wolfe’s alma mater–Washington and Lee University–where some 75-80% of the student body (of about 1,800 undergrads) joins social Greek organizations (this, of course, includes the girls, who join one of the six major sororities that exist on campus). I was in one myself and believe the experience to have been one that shaped me as a person tremendously. No less a figure than our Dean of Student Life made a point of saying, whenever she would visit our fraternity house, that we were the organization she would, hypothetically, most like her daughter to date (her daughter is eight, maybe ten years old). Does that sound like a date-rape-happy frat to you?
    With all due respect to Wolfe as a writer, the notion that his portrayal of fraternity life and members is unassailable is laughable. After all, Wolfe was 73 years old when *I Am Charlotte Simmons* was published. The generation gap creates a disconcerting critical distance. I could not make it all the way through *IACS* in part because the portrayal of the frat scene was such a frustratingly shallow caricature.
    At Washington and Lee, the fact that so many students participate in Greek life means that the fraternities themselves are incredibly diverse–ideologically, geographically, politically. My fraternity consists of a lot of particularly politically-inclined young men. The president of the W&L student body last year is a brother of mine. Other fraternities may consist largely of young men from the South or from a given athletic team (lacrosse, football). Each frat is quite different one-to-the-next.
    Am I saying that all of W&L’s frats are perfectly angelic and innocent of all social misconduct at all times? Of course not. But oftentimes, folks like to amplify the negative aspects of social fraternities and largely ignore their greater virtues. And furthermore, a lot of the denigration of the role of the social fraternity comes from people who lack significant experience being in or around them. Therefore, the blanket condemnation of fraternities is an admission of a lack of a nuanced view of them.
    I would encourage those inclined to dismiss the fraternity scene on its face to reconsider their positions, and to dig a little deeper.
    Cheers.
    –Tim Gavrich
    Washington and Lee University, Class of 2011
    Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity–Gamma-Phi Zeta

  3. Obviously a word missing in the essay where it says:
    The penalty for violating Title IX can be loss of federal funding, which in Yale’s case is $500 a year.
    It should say $500 MILLION

  4. There are better ways to counter unwarranted political correctness than to continue to support fraternities. They are, for the most part, beyond salvaging. Students who are truly service-minded find other opportunities to perform service; other types of social groupings can just as easily foster cohesiveness and mutual support.

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