David Reitan believes the bad behavior in fraternities happens because that is how men think they are supposed to act when they get there.
Fraternities may differ a lot in appearance, but on paper they are all created to serve the same necessary function: to provide means for young men to grow as leaders and productive citizens. If done correctly, the time spent in a college fraternity can be truly rewarding and sentimentalized for decades to come. Having just recently attended the 150th anniversary of my chapter, I can say this with complete honesty.
Sadly, there are plenty of examples today that speak to the contrary. The one that has been on my mind is the email sent from a member of the Phi Kappa Tau chapter on Georgia Tech’s campus. Yes, the email is offensive and downright disgusting. And yes, unfortunately there are plenty more guys who will say the same kind of foul crap behind closed doors. (I heard my fair share in college and admittedly know it still continues.) Why do men in fraternities say these things and act in such stupid ways? Because that is what they think being in a fraternity is about. It needs to stop.
If you do a simple internet search of “fraternity” or any related subject, your screen is destined to fill up with news from colossal parties, date rape, drug abuse, and pictures of that infamous John Belushi character. Fraternities, it seems, are not about creating strong bonds between members, practicing self-governance, or growing as individuals. Rather, your existence as a fraternity member is to booze, hook-up with sorority sisters, and judge those who are not Greek and/or not part of your isolated group. If that is the case, then it is easy to see why there are sites like Total Frat Move or webseries like Life According to Jimmy. I understand that a lot of the material in such media is satirical, but it is only to a point. A majority of the content found on these webpages are just recycled stereotypes. These articles, pictures, and videos only show a sliver of a fraternity experience, but it is reposted at such a high volume and with no evidence to the contrary, that this media only serves to perpetuate the behavior found in the actual college campuses. This may help to explain why the Georgia Tech email author wrote the repulsive words he did. (However, this does not, in any way, validate or excuse his actions.)
Furthermore, if all somebody hears about fraternity life is just repeated accounts of house parties and sexual assault, then that is all they will come to expect from it. Prior to attending my alma matter, the only thing I associated fraternities with was binge drinking and polo-clad gangs of muscleheads with elitist mentalities. Thanks to my premature beliefs, on top of my cousin’s horror stories about his pledge process, (He dropped out because of the stupid, painful shit he had to endure just to be “accepted.”) I didn’t want anything to do with those groups. And if the behavior I described was really what these guys did, who could blame me?
Thankfully, I can say that my fraternity experience was not centered on the deplorable acts you have read or heard about. The guys of my chapter (Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity) were, and continue to be, involved individuals. Like so many other fraternity men, they took their academics seriously. They volunteered, assisted with research projects, were varsity athletes, held full-time jobs on top of a heavy class load, were leaders in other organizations, hosted potential students, and did countless other things. Bottom line: there was more to their lives than simply counting down the days until the next chance to blackout.
There are plenty of young men who want to take advantage of the opportunity to be part of this kind of brotherhood and there are many good reasons to. Greek organizations, like all undergraduate student groups, are a practice in self-government. Such experimentation is crucial for a student’s development. Fraternities present chances for leadership roles, scholarships, networking occasions, and the prospect to form tremendous friendships. It is a real shame that the idea of joining a fraternity today is met with notions of hazing, womanizing, etc.
This was not always the case, nor was it ever the goal of any fraternity or its founders to be affiliated with these concepts. Phi Kappa Tau, the fraternity this email writer belongs to, looks to “to champion a lifelong commitment to brotherhood, learning, ethical leadership and exemplary character.” In his apology, the Georgia Tech student admits his actions were wrong and not reflective of his organization. Some may take that as just a guilty man trying to amend his mistakes. I think it suggests that he truly knows better, wants to be better. I am willing to bet that there is a plethora of guys just like him who want to hold themselves to the standard their fraternity establishes. Some could be in a situation where they do not feel that it is possible to act as such for fear of rejection or receiving hostile threats from other brothers. Others simply might not know how because this is how they have always envisioned what being in a fraternity means. Most of all, I am certain nobody wakes up and wholeheartedly wants to be known as a beer-chugging idiot.
A couple things need to happen. First, young men found in these stereotypical “frat houses” have to change their idea of what being in a fraternity is about. The present model is unhealthy, wasteful, and even deadly. The future of their chapter, and personal lives, depends on remedying the outright brainless attitudes and actions. Second, for those who belong to a chapter that lives up to its mission and values, continue to excel and take great means to make your successes known. Start a blog, tell your friends back home, publicize your chapter’s awards and special recognition, do anything to help combat this typecast that has been slapped on our gatherings and traditions. Finally, educate yourselves. Learn how to behave respectfully in social settings. I am not saying that you should never party again or become celibate. (I would be a huge hypocrite for saying so, believe me.) I am saying that a large portion of these degrading stories of fraternities come from party environments. Contrary to what our Georgia Tech friend said, this article has some excellent information on how one ought to behave with women at a party. There are also ways to host sex-positive parties. More can always be done, but please get started.
Two weeks ago I attended the 150th anniversary of my fraternity chapter. I was in a room filled with people I trusted and admired. I remember thinking how unique it was that we all got to be included a group whose sole mission is to better the man that joins it. The feeling that accompanied that moment was a pure sense of both acceptance and achievement. I hope all fraternity members have the chance to know what that feeling is like, and they will, so long as they are willing to leave the contemporary methods behind and match the standards set for them.
photo by andydr / flickr