As we know, college offers countless opportunities to get involved in a campus community. One of these many opportunities is joining the brotherhood of a fraternity. I joined the Epsilon Lambda chapter of Sigma Tau Gamma my sophomore year of undergrad. Joining the brotherhood of Sigma Tau Gamma was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It afforded me the opportunity to meet the people who would become my friends and ultimately my family. It allowed me to have an amazing social experience, and it facilitated countless opportunities for growth personally and professionally. So many amazing things resulted from my fraternity membership both as an undergrad an alumni member, something that I would never trade. These fantastic experiences came some particularly poor decisions, which seem to be alarmingly common among fraternity men around the country. I hope to offer some perspective on a few of the key issues typically associated with fraternity membership and potentially inspire a conversation on how to move forward in addressing these issues.
Young men join fraternities for a plethora of reasons many of which lead to positive outcomes like: a supportive academic culture, leadership opportunities, and social support. I believe we would be hard pressed to find an 18-22 year old man who didn’t consider gaining greater access to alcohol and sexual opportunities enticing. This concept is colloquially referred to in many fraternity circles as “Booze and B*tches,” or, “B ‘n’ B.” The fact that this so called B ‘n’ B culture exist in and of itself is problematic, however ignoring it as a reality will only help perpetuate this self-destructive system. With that said, let’s talk about it.
B ‘n’ B culture is what people, especially young men looking to rush an organization, understand to be fraternity culture as a whole as a result of popular culture. Films like Animal House and Neighbors and television shows like Greek reinforce the idea that fraternities are cool party hubs that get what they want. A young man looking into joining fraternities already has a cultural bias informing his decision making process. The young man expects to experience all the joys of B ‘n’ B culture if he commits. You can bet that a new member will perpetuate the idea of B ‘n’ B culture, because it has been indoctrinated in them long before they were even initiated. At this point, the culture is pushed along through individual conversations about drinking capacity/sexual exploits, group decisions on social event themes (i.e. sexist mixer themes, drinking game parties, etc.) and overall acceptance of the “this is how it’s always been” mentality.
Relationships for Change
With all of the aforementioned factors constantly bombarding young college men, often times before they even enter college at all, I contend that some of the poor decisions they make are not completely their faults. This is not to absolve all fraternity men for their drunken choices; however I believe we apply social constructivist theories to many situations but not to the development of things like fraternity B ‘n’ B and rape culture. Of course, perpetrators need to be held accountable for their actions when breaking the law, but I believe we need to stop relying on interventionist strategies and focus supporting change in the existing dysfunctional system.
In order for us to support this much needed change I believe we need to do a few things on an institutional level. First, if you are a faculty or staff member without direct contact with a fraternity, take the initiative to reach out to them and show your support for their mission. Supporting their mission is not the same as supporting their decisions and if they are achieving their mission it is likely they are making less dysfunctional choices. For instance, if you are in student activities reach out and see if they are aware of the fantastic events you are hosting on campus. This offers publicity for your office and options for sober events for the fraternity. If you are in service learning or volunteerism, send out an email blast to all organizations about upcoming volunteer options and actively recruit from their ranks for manpower/leadership. Again, a mutually beneficial endeavor. If you are in student health or peer education, ask to help facilitate a workshop on sexual, mental, and overall health for them. Later, ask them to help facilitate these educational components for their peers. This helps to partially address an issue, all while creating a system of accountability for their personal actions. Ultimately, this portion of the strategy is about developing relationships so we can expand our influence on these groups as a campus community.
If you are a faculty/staff member who has direct contact with a fraternity I believe it is your responsibility to act as a positive role model. This sounds simple and obvious but think about it. Fraternities already have a mentoring system (i.e. big/littles) where they have role models. Typically this is a dysfunctional mentoring system; where problematic role models produce similarly problematic mentees, who in turn, contribute to the perpetuation of the system. What we need to do then, is utilize our influence to actively role model things such as responsible drinking, respecting all people (with an emphasis on women) and positive role modeling. To my knowledge, all fraternities need a faculty advisor. These individuals were in organizations themselves and sometimes even the organization they are advising. They have have influence. Alumni who are actively engaged in the chapter have significant influence in this capacity as well. If you find a problematic organization that you want to help but don’t have this direct influence, you may need to do some work and find out key figures who may be influential for the group. This takes time and effort, but will be worth it for the organization and the campus community.
Finally, regardless of our association with the organization we are attempting to work with, we need to remain nonjudgmental when things may not go the way we think they should. This is not to say we need to condone or accept their actions, but these are college students who are going through a hell of a time in their lives. I could imagine they are receiving enough criticism from people in their lives and you don’t need to add to it. Remaining nonjudgmental will only help foster a deeper more influential relationship between you and the organization you are hoping to support. This effort certainly needs to be a partnership if anything is to come of it and successful partnerships are grounded in respect and regard for those you are partnered with.
I hope this article is not perceived as protecting “frat boys” stupid “boys will be boys” decisions. I am by no means advocating for their decisions to be condoned or protected. I also, understand the implications of the spectrum of privilege associated with many of the decisions that have been alluded to in this article. What I hope this article does is give a different perspective of the fraternity experience and to reframe the idea of the “frat boy” as the college man he is, and the well-adjusted, productive, respectful person we can help him become through our efforts. Because although we may be upset, and frustrated by many of the decisions our students make, they are still, in fact, our students.