Molly Gonzales | Rising Editor-in-Chief
Content Warning: Sexual Assault
It almost seems like years since the Brett Kavanaugh trial bombarded our newsfeeds, running a complete monopoly on all the headlines. The story captivated the American public as we watched hysterical 54-year old Kavanaugh throw a tantrum on live television. His eventual swearing in unveiled a much larger, systematic problem the United States has promoted for centuries. Kavanaugh is not a unique hysterical man and he is not the only cis-gendered, white, heterosexual male from an upper class background who committed atrocities and got away with it. Our society is built just for the Brett Kavanaughs of the world, the one’s untouched by rules or laws. However, colleges and universities play an integral role in spawning Kavanaughs. Greek life, specifically fraternities, perpetuate a social power hierarchy that ensures those who start at the top, stay at the top. According to Cornell University, “while only 2 percent of America’s population is involved in fraternities, 80 percent of Fortune 500 executives, 76 percent of U.S. senators and congressmen, 85 percent of Supreme Court justices, and all but two presidents since 1825 have been fraternity men.” The purpose of fraternities is not to, “cultivate long lasting brotherhoods” or “pursue meaningful community service,” as their members may claim, but to sustain a culturally enforced hierarchy of power that revolves around misogyny, elitism, classism, homophobia and white supremacy. Kavanaugh, a brother of Delta Kappa Epsilon, is just a mere speck in the grand scheme of this oppressive system, however his life term to the bench makes this problem impossible to ignore. When talking about fraternities it is important to distinguish between connotation and denotation. By definition, fraternities are groups of men dedicated to leadership, community service and brotherhood, however the connotation, or the additional meanings or feelings that a word invokes attached to its cultural significance, revolves around alcoholism, repulsion from politically correct culture and loud chanting. What do you think of when you hear the word frat? Probably beer, drinking, and hazing. These cultural definitions, or connotations, prove much more tangible and relevant to discourse on the fraternity system, however are not stagnant and can change.
Fraternities originated in the United States in 1827, as a place for white, upper class, Christian men to gather without affiliation to the governments of their school. They were meant to exist as an elite and secretive society that would provide spaces for men to debate politics and pursue academia outside of the classroom, similar to groups like the Freemasons. However today, imagining a bunch of frat dudes discussing literature, art, or philosophy seems more like a paradoxical SNL skit than any real life scenario. Most people wouldn’t assume literacy upon meeting a boat shoe-clad member of any given fraternity, so what happened? When did frats turn from an elitist academic society to an elitist social group, effectively changing their connotations?
During the early 1900s Greek life spread rapidly, only dipping during the world wars and the Vietnam War. The growth of greek life coincided with the growth of Americans enrolling in colleges, meaning these fraternity brothers had to find a way to stick out from the crowd and prove their status as members of high wealth and class. They quickly moved away from spaces meant for academia and toward spaces meant for social gatherings, an arena with more room to gain power. Through organizing elitist events where attendees were highly selective, they created spaces in which they would always be in power. The very organization of fraternities is rooted in elitism with steep membership dues ranging from $500 a semester at Boston University to $5,300 a semester at Kansas University. Tremendous dues like this are only accessible to the wealthy, guaranteeing the only people welcome in Greek life are those from middle-to-upper class status with expendable incomes. Combine these inaccessible standards with the immense power bestowed upon members and you have the current crisis the United States is in; a university supported, elitist complex that instills a hierarchy of power.
There have been countless Brett Kavanaughs before, and if we don’t make serious changes now there will be countless Brett Kavanaughs in the future. These individuals do not work hard for their success, but rely on networking based on keeping high class and status names at the top. Put more bluntly, it ensures that the only people allowed in high paying positions or high power political positions are white, heterosexual, cis-gendered men from wealthy backgrounds. Regardless of your political party affiliation, anyone could see the hysteria oozing from Kavanaugh’s testimony made him a horrible candidate to be a supreme court justice as he pointed fingers at democrats while violently waving around his hands, yet he will remain on the bench for the next few decades. Many wonder, how could this man ever find work in a law profession? This is the fraternity system at work!
Fraternities perpetuate danger and terrorism on every single American college campus. According to a study in Time magazine, men in frats are 3x more likely than non-fraternity members to commit sexual violence and rape. The Phi Kappa Psi chapter at the University of Virginia was merely fined for its countless rape charges including gang rape. The frat is so notorious that their house on campus is coined the “rape house,” by students. Wesleyan is also home to a similar structure, the “Rape Factory,” as it so cleverly nicknamed is run by Beta Theta Pi. This frat, again, paid a few fines and remains a unit of power and terror on campus. In 2010 fraternity brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon at Yale University, the same fraternity Kavanaugh was a member of, lead a march through campus where they chanted, “no means yes, yes means anal”. While Kavanaugh was a brother of this particular fraternity, a picture of members with a flag made of women’s underwear appeared on the front page of their college newspaper captioned, “DKE at Play.” This tongue-in-cheek headline implies that the photograph does not exhibit a horrifying display of rape culture, but simply frat dudes doing what they do best. The horror stories go on and on, resulting in fraternities invoking terror on women and the members of their communities. Go ahead and ask female college students for their experience with men in fraternities on campus. I promise you it is the reason most carry pepper spray and pocket knives. The facts are, if any given university truly cares about making their campuses safe for women and free of sexual violence and rape, fraternities cannot exist. There is no reform, there is no reconstruction, the very existence of a fraternity means women have to be fearful. These anecdotes and statistics are frightening, and they only seem to be getting worse.
Not only do fraternities invoke terror on women, but they invoke terror on their own brothers. CNN reported in 2018 there have been more than 77 fraternity-related deaths across the country since 2005 as a result of hazing. It seems like every month a new story about a pledge dying or having to seek serious medical attention from hazing breaks the news. These stories tell of pledges having to chug lethal doses of alcohol, perform dangerous and often times violent stunts and willingly participate in their own beatings. The violence perpetuated not only onto innocent women but also onto their own members, has become a cornerstone of fraternity culture. While most fraternities claim to be free of hazing, why are nearly 100 families mourning preventable losses in the span of barely two decades? These stories of hazing are not new, in fact there are records of fraternity related hazing deaths and extreme injuries since as early as 1873, when Mortimer M. Legget pledged Kappa Alpha at Cornell University. He was blindfolded and taken to the woods where he fell into a gorge and died. More recently, the story of Timothy Piazza’s death at Penn State in 2018 led to 18 brothers charged with manslaughter. Despite Penn State mandating Beta Theta Phi to be a dry fraternity, Piazza was forced to participate in the “gauntlet” where excessive alcohol is consumed as quickly as possible. Piazza fell down a flight of stairs while intoxicated as his brothers propped him up on the couch to finish their party, however, Piazza died from severe injuries to the abdommine the next morning. Schools simply mandating dry status or fining these institutions has never proven successful as more pledges are seriously injured and die each year from hazing. If frat dudes know anything, it is how to obtain alcohol, how to consume alcohol, and how to perpetuate and endure violence while Universities sit idly by and watch.
Anthropologist Michael Messner discusses the reason groups of men always seem so eager to beat eachother up for purposes of initiation, whether that be sports team related or fraternity related hazing in his book, Taking the Field. Messner identifies something called, “The Triad of Violence,” as a way to understand the social structure groups of homogenized men who exhibit traits of toxic masculinity like hyper competitiveness, homophobia and aggressiveness exhibit. He points to a number of factors relating to the increase of violence perpetrated by groups of men most notably the sense of “dominance bonding,” where homophobic, misogynistic and hyper competitive language are central. In carrying out this type of language , they effectively suppress empathy towards others, specifically women who are made out to be objects in the competition of their dominance bonding. The empathy they suppress towards others, themselves and women result in the enabling of violence against women and fellow members. “Dominance Bonding” can mean fraternity brothers bonding over homophobic jokes in order to seem “tougher” or bonding over physical domination of women. These groups are made of, according to Messner, Leaders, Audience members and Marginals. The leaders participate in hazing, bullying, sexual assault and aggression however are motivated by adoring and cheering audience members and marginals who, “support leaders with their silent complicity.” The triad of violence, therefor, describes the suppression of empathy in three arenas: to themselves, to other members, and to women. The triad of violence relies on bystanders to feed the leaders, whether that be through laughing, applauding or supporting dangerous behaviors. Universities play the bystander roll as they uphold the Triad of Violence by supporting the institution of fraternities.
So how could any institution let something as horrific as fraternities continue? Greek life is allowed to commit atrocities because of the alleged service they claim to be working on. That’s why universities have let countless women experience unforgettable traumas, for that great community service Greek life always seems to be talking about. University of Pittsburgh, for example, has nearly 100 service organizations purely dedicated to giving back to the community. It’s a shame, if any single member of Greek life wanted to participate in service they have had countless opportunities to do so free from supporting a crippling system of power hierarchy. So why don’t they? Maria Konnikova from the Atlantic who has done extensive research and writing on the subject says, “Fraternities don’t breed leaders so much as leaders breed and perpetuate the fraternity system.” No it is not about the service, no it is not about the “brotherhood”, it is about rich white men staying in power. They’ve created a system that not only promotes this, but also ensures they will always be the most qualified candidate for a job, even if they absolutely are not. Just by watching Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing we can see he is a completely unqualified individual to serve a life term on the Supreme Court bench, but the fraternity system is working and that is why he is.
There are copious amounts of anecdotes across the internet describing terror invoked by fraternities, it almost seems like a no brainer to eliminate the organizations responsible. Caitlin Flanagan published an article in the Atlantic in 2011 called, The Dark Power of Fraternities, where she explains the safety threats greek life poses on campuses. Additionally, Flanagan talks about why these systems will never disappear anytime soon: donor money. “At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters.” Universities are well aware of the statistics linking fraternity alumnus to higher and more frequent donations. It is the reason why fraternities can get away with terror without abolishment but a mere fine, these universities do not want to upset their highest paying donors. Closing down fraternities, however many atrocities they may have committed or however much danger they possess, would upset those sending the Dean checks. Every time you read about a pledge dying or a fraternity brother charged with sexual crimes, know that your university is partially responsible for ignoring history to pursue the bag.
Maybe someday University of Pittsburgh will be brave enough to join schools like Rice University, Boston College, Amherst College, University of Notre Dame, and countless others in banning Greek life.These universities have taken the necessary steps to ensure safety on their campus while preventing white, male, high class superiority systems from dominating collegiate life. Additionally, I encourage students to pressure their universities into holding their greek life systems accountable with serious repercussions, rather than just dishing out fines for the terror they invoke. There is no reform there is no reconstruction, if we don’t want another Tr*mp or Kavanaugh, we must destroy the systems that enable their hysterical power trips: fraternities and Greek Life.