Down with the Frats

An exclusive excerpt from Grigoriadis’s Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus.

By Vanessa Grigoriadis

Illustration by Grace Molteni

There is one extremely obvious action that would make an enormous difference in ending, or at least stemming, college assault. Destroy the frats. Or coeducate the frats. One or the other, and they may go hand in hand.

Over the past few years, many collegiate activists and the American media have dinged universities for mishandling sexual-assault claims, but they’re aiming at the wrong target.

Universities are perhaps not as bad on this score as they once were. The officers who deal with sexual assault, who are predominantly female, are getting better at judging and handling these cases all the time. “Every single university is better on this score than they were five years ago,” a top expert tells me. But there’s somewhere on campus the true patriarchy persists — the fraternity.

The central role frats play in college sexual assault has been understated. There’s no evidence that the majority of predators are frat brothers. But on Planet College, the Greek system dominates social life, and deforms it. I believe sexual assault happens in large part because of cemented gender norms that tell guys they must pursue girls at all costs, and many girls don’t know how to say no but don’t want to say yes. So having institutions with cemented gender norms controlling social life on campus seems like a really bad idea.

What about athletics? Do I want to shut down sports teams, make students sit around all afternoon playing Super Mario Brothers instead of whipping balls during baseball practice? No. Big time college athletes are campus celebrities, yet in terms of personal interaction, they have little truck with student culture; at Syracuse University, where I reported extensively in the mid-2010s, I rarely met a student who had even been to a party with the members of their powerhouse basketball team. So while there’s no question that sports culture at a university like Baylor is a repository of malignantideas about women, in terms of sheer numbers, there simply aren’t enough athletes to influence campus life.

Fraternities are a uniquely American creation and closely tied to the production of young American masculinity. In The Company He Keeps, a fascinating history of historically white fraternities (which make up a majority of frats nationwide, in a system that is still highly segregated), University of Northern Colorado professor of history Nicholas Syrett ties these two entities together, beginning with the establishment of the first frat at tiny Union College in 1825.

Syrett identifies four distinct types of young men dominating four eras. The initial fraternal ideal was the original, unreconstructed scholar and a gentleman, a stoic, stellar academic with a code of chivalrous restraint that served his own emotional repression as much as female virtue. But after the Civil War, this began to change. In the late nineteenth century, scions of wealthy industrialists refashioned the ideal into a more youthful and vigorous figure, a young man who also excelled in athletics and politics, leading staffs of both the yearbook and the newspaper. In the 1920s, as Victorian standards eased, Jazz Age decadence went mainstream, and enough colleges went coed for male competition to express itself in l’amour. The ideal frat brother shifted again: metrosexual avant la lettre, this man was dashing but not quite carnal. He participated in a new consumer culture of pomades and lady-killer Gatsby suits and excelled in attracting the fairer sex. Fewer than half of his brothers made whoopee, and those who did so did it strictly with social subordinates like waitresses and prostitutes.

The fourth and final type, Syrett argues, arose in the 1950s, when GI Bill undergrads returned from foreign wars with notches on their belts to face Eisenhower’s moral strictures at home. Enter the Hawaiian shirt, panty raid, and pursuit of coitus. With some percentage of their female classmates now potentially their willing partners, sexual congress became the paramount goal. Closet virgins would compensate by projecting outsize virility, and a display of machismo also distinguished the fraternity brothers’ tribe from the other young men known to share close quarters, chiefly Communists and homosexuals. Secret hazing and pledging rituals took on multifarious forms of sexual humiliation; by surviving, pledges became members and earned the right to exhibit the same behavior —sometimes discreetly, sometimes not —toward women.

Syrett marks this era as the one when date rape metastasized at America’s universities. Sociological studies of college sexual behavior in the 1950s records that 50 percent of female students felt uncomfortable with male sexual behavior, and 20 were the victim of forceful sexual intercourse. College men believed that a female student who presented herself as a “bad girl” or had a reputation for putting out had an obligation to be sexually available, a duty that was suitably enforced.

Universities benefit from the Greek system. It’s a tool for the recruitment of high-school boys; a strong emotional tie for contributing alumni, who can pull up at the house when they visit campus and crack beers on the front lawn; and, at a time of high anxiety over the legal liability of alcohol on campus and in dorms, the primary location of unsupervised drinking. The frats also remain a magnet for a valuable economic tier—students who pay near or full freight. These kids tend to make fewer demands of faculty, have fewer learning disabilities (or have gotten a decent primary education that’s helped them develop coping skills), and, overall, have higher GPAs. Universities are also deeply reliant on the Greeks for housing. “They’re hotel-motel-Holiday Inn—if the fraternities and sororities closed, students wouldn’t have any place to sleep,” says Peter Lake of Stetson University; he calls them a sprawling hospitality industry within the ivy-covered walls. “They’ve killed it on a lot of campuses. They outcompete university housing.”

But this isn’t enough of a reason to keep them, or to keep them single- sex. It’s also true that the more power that frats exert on campus, the higher the rate of unseemly, unhealthy, and even criminal behavior. We know from insurance companies that cover frats that claims about sexual assaults are led more frequently than any other kind except those concerning physical altercations, like fistfights. By the way, the sheer number of claims across the board is why insurance rates for fraternities can be as high as they are for companies performing toxic-waste removal. Frat members abuse alcohol more than any other group of students, and most fraternity-related crime occurs when these members are rather less than compos mentis. In 2000, 175 chapters of Phi Delta Theta went alcohol-free and have since reported a sharp decline in the insurance rates that fraternities pay to cover rape, hazing abuses, and accidental death in their houses. As a USC grad who I interviewed mused to me, “White man is drunk, and where does it start? College. Why does it start? Tradition.”

When I asked Title IX expert Brett Sokolow for his prediction about the Greek system, he said that he believed disbanding frats could potentially chase the most sexually predatory members into other organizations, like sports teams, where they’d find shelter and camaraderie. “You can eliminate the structures, but it’s always going to be more effective to try to shape the culture,” he said. But he also added, “I think the Greek system is weakened. Whether it will survive depends on the forces trying to reform it from within, but if they succeed, the Greek system will not retain its current form anyway. Evolve or perish is the choice they are facing. I predict they will evolve.”

The Rape Factory

At Wesleyan, the evolution has been particularly sudden.
 That’s the small liberal arts college in Connecticut where I went to school, and where I reported much of my book.

As much as the new progressive radical chic that I experienced when I reported at Wesleyan felt unfamiliar to me, it’s certainly an outgrowth of the way a slice of students were acculturated when I was there. What I was more surprised to find was that, much as Syracuse and other big universities have been having an upsurge of progressive activism, Greek life at Wesleyan had also grown more robust, even as campus politics in general had become more incendiary. Hundreds of students belonged to one of the school’s three all-male frats, which have been housed in mansions at the center of campus since the nineteenth century. Like many frats these days, they’re associated with specific sports, creating another level of comradery: Beta Theta Pi is lacrosse, soccer, basketball; Delta Kappa Epsilon is football, baseball, ice hockey; and Psi Upsilon is rowing and cross-country.

The centrality of the frats to Wesleyan’s contemporary social life was not just my impression. President Michael Roth told me that he, too, was shocked at how popular the frats had become.

When he took office at Wesleyan in 2007, he assumed they were vestiges of a minor tradition that would continue, quietly, to endure through his tenure. “I’m a historian,” he said to me. “I take seriously things that have been around for a long, long time—be careful when you change them.”

But Wesleyan’s millennial student body embraced frats. “I was very surprised,” Roth told me. “I spent my career, up until coming back to Wesleyan, in California, at a women’s college for twelve years and then an arts school that didn’t have frats either. If someone brought frats up, it would have been part of an arts installation and very ironic. So it never crossed my mind. Partly, I thought it was probably just a very tiny group of people who like that thing.”

At Wesleyan, not everyone wanted to be a brother or sister, but the frat parties were attended by most students on campus, even radical elements — even Chloe, a middle-class student from New Jersey turned campus’s uber-activist who I spent a lot of time with, which blew my mind. I doubtless would have gone if I were a student. Big parties, live bands, Molly, a hot room, the crush of bodies; it’s popular now because it’s fun but also for the same reason that live tours are ever more lucrative even as streaming services put successful musicians be- low the poverty line—we’re human and we crave other humans; we can’t be on the Internet every minute of the day.

The fraternity story at Wesleyan began in 2010 when John O’Neill, a visiting high-school lacrosse teammate of a Beta Theta Pi brother, raped a female student from Maryland at the frat’s Halloween party. The alleged details astonish: O’Neill, living in his mother’s basement and recently arrested for selling pot out of an ice cream truck, cornered the woman, pushed her down on a couch, and forced her to give him oral sex. When she bit his penis, he called her a bitch, then initiated intercourse, saying, “The more you try, the faster you are going to get out of here.”

This news wouldn’t have made its way out of Connecticut if the victim hadn’t retained Doug Fierberg, the nation’s top anti-frat lawyer. “I don’t care if you’ve got a tradition that started a hundred years ago with white men smoking pipes, guess what, you’ve got an inherent management structure that promotes dangerous circumstances and doesn’t reasonably dissolve risk of injury and death—right there’s your fucking problem,” he told me during a phone conversation in 2015. He was speaking from his office in Lake Leelanau, Michigan, during a week of media speculation about the perils of modern frats. The debate this time had been sparked by a surreptitiously taken video of the University of Oklahoma’s ΣΑΕ chapter on a bus to a formal, the boys in their black tuxedos chanting, “There will never be a nigger at ΣΑΕ / you can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me” to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”

Fierberg asserted a campus nickname for Beta, the Rape Factory, that put his client’s $10 million suit against Wesleyan and the frat in the national glare, even with scant evidence the epithet was in circulation at school. Beta bros are rowdy lacrosse players in pastel Vineyard Vines polo shirts, with the lean bodies of Westchester and Greenwich, Connecticut, moneyed elite. A brother from another frat glosses the membership as follows: “Beta’s very ‘my father works in finance, I’ve got arrogant machismo, and I only want to mingle with other people like me.’” And in the graffiti that students use to mark rebel sentiments here and there on Wesleyan’s campus —Whose walls? Our walls! reads a common scrawl—Beta’s, as allegedly copied down by an aghast summer boarder, display witless sexual menace (She said stop, I said Hammer Time), casual racism (a slit-eyed caricature’s speech balloon: “I have a ver smarr penis”), and puerile frat affirmations (Things That Are Gay: 1, Reading; 2, Books; 3, People Who Don’t Like Hawaiian Shirts).

The parties settled with O’Neill’s victim, and peace reigned on campus for a while, but as it happened, the 2010 case only set the stage, and the next student to be assaulted by someone she met at Beta would pursue a different avenue of justice. As a junior, Chloe shared a two-bedroom apartment with a friend in Wesleyan’s ugly, super-max-ish dorm High Rise. One night, she says the two of them were dancing together at Beta. “So this kid came up behind me while we were dancing, and he started groping me like I’ve never been groped before—not your usual low-level grope,” Chloe says. Nonetheless, she and her friend tried dancing with the boy, an athlete, after which she trudged down frat row to DKE, hung out with friends, then headed home to High Rise.

In her apartment, she put on sweatpants, lay down in bed, and tucked a red Indian-print comforter under her chin. She called her long-distance boyfriend at Boston College and turned off the light. Asleep, Chloe didn’t hear her flatmate come home from Beta, nor did she realize that she’d brought along their former dancing partner for a hookup. In the middle of the night after going to the bathroom, the guy made his way into Chloe’s room. She says she came to consciousness as he was groping her crotch.

This type of event has long been a staple of college life—a classmate one hardly knows, perhaps one with unrequited affection, slips into one’s bed at the end of a long, drunken night. Whoever did anything about that? But this is also textbook sexual assault—a victim so “incapacitated” that she’s actually asleep. What was Chloe’s reaction? “I was like, ‘Oh, we’re doing sex right now?’” she says, her forehead wrinkling at the recollection. Was she terrified? She responds with typical bravado. “I was more thinking, Get out of this apartment, get out forever, bye. And get out of school, maybe.

Armed with the knowledge of her Title IX rights, Chloe led a report, and the boy soon faced a campus hearing. It can be hard to get the full story in cases like these because student records are not accessible. Still, leaks happen, and in this case I received handwritten notes recording some of the campus proceedings.

These documents demonstrate that the boy admitted he was in her room, though he claimed to have thought she was her sleeping roommate. “The event was a scary one for both of us,” he wrote in a statement. “Waking up to a frantic person with my hand in her underwear when I believed I had consent was frightening for me as well.” He added, “Alcohol did play a role in this incident. In no way am I using alcohol as an excuse for my actions, but to put it in perspective, when I was with the roommate who had invited me in, I fell and chipped my two front teeth that same night.” (The boy did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Chloe says that to assess her case, the panel asked her if the boy penetrated her with his fingers or not. “I was thinking, I’m going to kill myself right now,” she says. If his fingers were around, not in, it wasn’t rape, but sexual assault. The notes show that Wesleyan disciplined the boy, and he appealed.

Excerpted from BLURRED LINES: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis. Copyright © 2017 by Nessie Corp. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Vanessa Grigoriadis is a contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, specializing in pop culture, youth movements, and crime reporting. She is a National Magazine Award winner.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.