Fraternities vs Colleges

Lena Wang compares the cultural parallels between two historically problematic institutions.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Many shades of dehumanisation colour the practices of both US fraternities and Australian residential colleges. US sororities and fraternities are subject to equal parts condemnation and gruesome fascination. Amidst the booze and hedonism, however, is a history of violence, sexual assault and insularity.

Being a ‘frat bro’ requires performance, one where shotgunning beer and bragging about ‘piping’ girls is expected. Gaining admission to a frat involves a process known as ‘rushing.’ Candidates visit various houses and attempt to impress existing members by emulating their every behaviour, hoping to receive a ‘bid’ from that frat house. Once obtained, these frat boy candidates become provisional members, or ‘pledges,’ and must undergo a range of initiation rituals. These range from the benign — moving into the house for a week — to sexist, alcohol-fuelled events, some designed to teach pledges how to ‘score.’ And then there are games that prove to be fatal: for instance, a sophomore from Penn State University died in 2017, after consuming massive amounts of alcohol and falling down the stairs, and incurring irreversible brain stem damage.

Being an Australian college boy also requires performance.  For example, recent reports from the University of Newcastle describe hazing rituals like “drinking booze from older students’ genitals and eating vomit.” St John’s, a USyd college, has also made headlines recently, for a misogynistic hazing ritual where incoming female students are ranked by ‘attractiveness.’ The five students that are rated most attractive are labelled the “fresher five” and singled out as particularly desirable sexual conquests.

Rigid power structures are another feature of college life. Freshers are marked as inferior, even after they are no longer subject to the degradation of hazing: freshers are admitted last into all college events, including every meal, and are judged by their ability to contribute to their colleges. Similarly, frats have an inbuilt hierarchy, though perhaps one involving more camaraderie than in Australian colleges: older members are encouraged to be mentors, or ‘bigs,’ to incoming pledges.

Drinking is involved in both mentoring relationships. Colleges have their own bars and will serve heavily-subsidised alcohol one night a week. Frats throw in-house parties with vats of free alcohol. Unlike college events, which are usually restricted to college students, frat parties are generally open to anyone — or, rather, to any women. Men who have not been  invited by ‘brothers’ of the house cannot enter. Frats justify this by pointing out that these strangers have not completed courses on sexual assault and consent, and therefore could pose a danger to female partygoers. Another explanation, however, is that the brothers want to regulate a skewed male to female ratio, so as to increase their chances of ‘scoring’.

Nevertheless, the ubiquity of frats has fostered an atmosphere of relative openness and acceptance, when compared to Australian colleges. According to one former student, the elitism of USyd colleges “oozes from the walls,” isolating colleges from the non-college world. Residents allegedly distinguish mark themselves off from the masses by referring to non-college students as ‘muggles.’

Despite a record of horrifying practices, colleges and frats continue to exist. Supporters cite the benefits of a ready-made community and the sense of belonging it can bring. Parties can be fun, for some, but many of these parties have problematic undertones. Themes of past parties have been morally dubious. : In 2015 USyd’s St Paul’s College specifically hired  people of colour as waiters for their ‘British Raj’ night. Frats have also implemented questionable, if not explicitly colonial, themes for their parties, including nationalistic celebrations of ‘the fall of communism’ and, simply, ‘USA’. Frats, however, can also function as autonomous clubs, like the Asian-American only and African-American only frats at UCLA, and the religious frats. Alternatively, sororities, as an extension of particularly antiquated rules, are legally unable to throw parties at all.

No article could analyse fraternity and college life without exploring the misogyny and sexual abuse they have become associated with. The series of incidents of sexual harassment and assault on campus is too long to list. In 2010, Yale students marched while yelling “no means yes, yes means anal.” Phi Kappa Tau at Georgia Tech was disbanded for circulating an email with the subject line “luring your rapebait.” In Australian colleges abuse has ranged from online misogyny, like when  a St Paul’s student compared sex with a woman to “harpooning a whale,” to flagrant public humiliation, such as an entry in a Wesley’s journal that detailed female students’ sexual history. Shockingly, St Paul’s residents once ran a “pro-rape, anti-consent” group on Facebook.

At USyd, it wasn’t until 2016 that the colleges were shamed into action and joined the inquest into sexual misconduct at USyd, commissioned by Elizabeth Broderick.  The Broderick review found that 25 percent of women across colleges had experienced sexual harassment, though these numbers may be conservative as the report was widely regarded as inadequate for neglecting one-one-one interviews. St Paul’s initially opted out of the review, instead choosing to pursue its own internal initiatives, until the the weight of mounting scandal forced them to join. St Paul’s could do this because the University, which supported the review, has limited control over the colleges; they are each governed by their own councils and constitutive legislation. Fraternities at UCLA, in contrast, are governed by both the University Interfraternity Council (IFC) and various national councils. It was the IFC that banned all UCLA frat houses from holding in-house parties or serving alcohol,  in response to reports of an alleged sexual assault by the president of one UCLA frat. Various consent modules are also compulsory for frat members, as well as for all incoming UCLA students. To this extent, UCLA seems more willing to acknowledge incidents of sexual assault as evidence of a systemic problem, even to a shallow level, rather than as isolated incidents that are dissociated from the college as a whole, as is the case with USyd’s colleges.

It is clear that while the culture in fraternities and colleges is different, the two institutions show the same insidious disrespect. Rape culture rests on everyday microaggressions, and is enshrined in hazing rituals that emphasise dehumanisation and humiliation. Institutional responses to incidents must therefore address the root of the problem. It is difficult to see a world in which exclusive, male-dominated clubs like fraternities and non-autonomous colleges will not inevitably lead to incidents of abuse, regardless of nationality.

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