A story in the Washington Post reveals that Kappa Delta Rho, a fraternity at Penn State University, is under investigation for posting photos on the internet of passed out, naked women. The postings also include crude and abusive comments from Kappa Delta Rho brothers.
This comes on the heels of a group of Oklahoma University frat brothers singing a racist chant. It reinforces something I’ve believed for thirty years: Real men do not join fraternities.
I’ll be the first one to defend guys being guys. I grew up with two brothers and went to an all-boys high school. I was an athlete and got two concussions playing football. I like women now just as much as I did when I was 18. I hate political correctness and know that the jokes that men make about women—like the jokes women make about men—can be a healthy way of dealing with the anxiety and frustration that comes with negotiating the opposite sex.
But from the first week I went to college, I noticed a lot of things about fraternities that should send real men running in the opposite direction. It was the 1980s, in the wake of the hugely popular film Animal House, which set the template for modern fraternities—a model that still results in what is happening at Penn State.
I had a lot of friends and even family members in fraternities at the time, and the first thing I noticed was that the drug use was much worse than anything I encountered in high school (and this was the 80s!). The second was that a lot of the “brothers” weren’t very bright. They told broad, crude jokes that lacked the wit of the funniest guys in high school. At the time I was also into the punk and New Wave scene, which favored independence and creativity. The idea of having the Polo-wearing son of an investment banker bark at you to crawl through vomit so you could get a pin was laughable.
Of course my view is subjective, and yes, I am generalizing. Yet what I saw at one fraternity party was almost identical to what I saw at all fraternity parties, and I went to a lot of them in college—and saw a few of them as an adult teacher for several years. There was the drinking and smoking and hooking up that had gone on when I was in high school, but in the wake of Animal House things had ratcheted up to a sadistic level. Beer wasn’t enough, there had to be cocaine and other hard drugs. These guys would drink and drug their way into oblivion, often verbally assaulting women in the process. Hangovers lasted for days. It was Animal House, yes, but it was also Lord of the Flies.
But more than all that, it was the treatment of women that made me stay away from the Greek system.
I still remember the incident. It involved a guy who had been one of my best friends in high school. We remained close when we went to different colleges, me to Catholic University in D.C., him to a state school in Virginia. He joined a fraternity, and I was soon hearing some wild stories about what went on in the house: drugs, blackout drinking, sex. It didn’t really bother me that much—we had gone to an all-boys high school, and our own adolescent behavior was not exactly preparing us for the seminary.
But then one day my friend was home for summer vacation, and I noticed something in his room. It was an envelope that had been handed to him by one of his fraternity brothers. Inside was a photograph of a naked woman who had passed out at one of their parties. She was posed in the most demeaning, pornographic way imaginable. I held it up to my friend’s face: What the hell was this?
He had at least the decency to look ashamed. He mumbled something about his “crazy frat brother” who liked to do stuff like that. When girls got so drunk they passed out he took pictures of them (and no, conservatives, no woman, no matter how drunk, has “put herself” in that position). Later that same fraternity almost got closed down when it was revealed that they had drilled a hole into the women’s bathroom.
This wasn’t the typical male silliness that we had indulged in in high school. This was assault and a violation of the soul—like the scene in Animal House when a brother uses a death to manipulate a woman into sex. This was a different world from the one I had grown up in. Feminists and liberals might consider it all a continuum of awfulness in the spectrum of men behaving badly, so perhaps a comparison will better illustrate the point.
In high school, some buddies and I always went down to the Eastern Shore every spring for “Beach Week,” the annual exodus of school kids to Ocean City, Maryland. At one party, we all had had a few beers and after the girls had gone home for the night, someone produced a camera and a couple guys started posing nude. It was a raucous evening and the intention was pure self-deprecation: guys were flexing like bodybuilders when they obviously weren’t, doing Mr. Universe poses and quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. We had flirted with girls all night and mostly gotten nowhere (aside from a few kisses), and were now mocking ourselves as macho men. It was hilarious and completely healthy. The idea of stripping a girl naked and photographing her while she was unconscious was as plausible as the idea of walking up to our school headmaster and slapping him across the face. That kind of male self-awareness was completely absent in the fraternities I visited in college. It was replaced by senseless, blunt cruelty—the ethos that, according to the news, still rules America’s fraternities.
I sometimes would get teased about never wanting to join a fraternity. Some guys said I wasn’t up to the challenge. But watching the drinking marathons, the vomiting, the sexual assault, and the stone, impenetrable, grunting dumbness (can we talk about something other than sports?), I knew it was the exact opposite. These guys were not up to the challenge of real manhood.
Last year I went to my high school homecoming game and saw my old friend, the one who years before had the picture of the unconscious woman. He and his frat brothers are planning a get-together this summer. The wives aren’t allowed. Neither are the men.