What Is Wrong With Fraternities?

BlogHer Original Post

According to Buzzfeed, Amherst College finished what it started in 1984 (when it cut ties with on-campus fraternities and sororities) and—30 years later—banned off-campus affiliated and unaffiliated fraternities and sororities, too. The reason? Problems with sexual assault. Even though the Amherst situation includes off-campus and unaffiliated fraternities, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, a survey conducted by an insurance company that insures fraternities listed sexual assault as the number-two problem with affiliated fraternities, as well, right after assault and battery. Another insurance company has handy printable .PDFs for accidental death forms. What is the deal? Why does all this bad stuff happen in fraternity houses?

Greek row

Credit Image: Taber Andrew Bain on Flickr

When I was in college (and in a sorority at a Midwest party school), the so-called adult in the room was often missing at fraternity parties. Bad stuff—really bad stuff— happened sometimes. I watched the aftermath when one of my boyfriend's fraternity's pledges died after choking on his own vomit in his sleep. It wasn't intentional, for sure, and his death rocked the campus and the Greek system. But it ... happened.

That was the worst thing I remember. Sometimes, the stuff that happened was just ... weird. I remember watching a guy eat more than 30 live goldfish out of a fountain at a party at a different fraternity. People drank shots out of dentist chairs and punch out of bathtubs. I once went to a beach party with the basement floor covered in actual sand. (This made the stairs, well, treacherous.) My boyfriend was kidnapped and taken to an undisclosed location in the back of a U-Haul with his pledge class the night he was supposed to take me to a ballet. There were black lights and neon-painted walls and togas and fruit launchers. I did not realize at the time, having never been to college before, that this was not everyone's university experience. If I'm honest with myself, there was often an undercurrent of this-could-all-go-badly-at-any-moment that poured adrenaline all over the alcohol flowing inside fraternity houses.

With the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, I realize now that shit was weird. It was weird then and it is either getting way worse now or the advent of the Internet means we're able to research fraternity meltdowns with ease unheard-of in 1995.

fraternity google

You hear about people drinking themselves to death. You don't hear as often about boys falling off roofs and lighting bottle rockets in their rectums. There's definitely something unusual going on at fraternity houses, something bizarre and extreme and jaw-droppingly wrong.

And it's not just these people endangering themselves. Rape is the most common violent crime on college campuses, period, which means that is a problem all over college campuses, including in fraternity houses. According to a 2014 White House report, "7% of college men admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, and 63% of these men admitted to committing multiple offenses, averaging six rapes each." I wish I could say that rape is unusual or bizarre on college campuses, but it's just not, nor is it limited to fraternities.

What is it? Why do these things keep happening after all these years? Is it all the movies featuring can-crushing college kids bonging beer that makes even people not in fraternities or sororities expect to party like a rockstar the minute they walk through the front door of any house containing men wearing Greek letters? Do pop cultural ideas about fraternity parties cause young adults to throw out both social mores and the laws of physics? Is it a situational problem, like the Standford Prison Experiment? If fraternities had an employed, non-affiliated individual living on-site (like dorm resident assistants or sorority house moms/directors or hotel front desk clerks), would that remove the element of crazy?

What do you think? Does banning work? And what is going on?

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the deputy editor of BlogHer.com. Find more at www.ritaarens.com.

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