Real Men Don’t Join Fraternities

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.




11 responses to “Real Men Don’t Join Fraternities

  1. So by that token, “real women” don’t join sororities either, since some sororities have been known to facilitate racism, sexism, false rape accusations, and so forth?

  2. Such a broad generalization based on a movie, one personal anecdote, and a couple instances of news sensationalism. Fails to mention all the good fraternities do such as community service, building leadership, etc. Also overlooks the fact that at most universities, members of the Greek system have higher average GPA’s than the student body at-large. Really in-depth research for this piece…well done.

  3. This sounds about right. I had a similar experience in the mid 80’s while pledging a frat. I’m not really a quitter or afraid to stand up to a challenge – about pretty much anything. But after eight weeks witnessing some of the most depraved and inhumane activities I’ve ever experienced made realize I had absolutely nothing n common with these people. I walked out the door and mailed back my pledge pin. Never missed it, not once.

  4. I heard the same stories coming out of the student dorms. I think it is more about kids being away from home unsupervised for the first time, with the stress of a challenging academic environment, acting stupidly. It is not unique to fraternities. I was in a fraternity for many years and I saw plenty of bad things. I also saw plenty of good things, like our “little sister” program, charity work, and lifelong friendships.

  5. Most fraternities are not like your examples, and most result in great friends that you will never make in a dorm. The college years are difficult ones in many ways and being in a fraternity can really help a young man learn about becoming an adult, from socializing with alums to fund raisers and so many other things, so I find this article very biased. I would ask the author how many times he gets away for a reunion with his college friends?

  6. I think there’s a lot more to this than the article suggests.

    I joined a frat in the early 60s. We had a large number of school athletes, student government and social leaders, everyone wanted to attend our parties, and semester after semester, our guys earned the best grades of any other affinity or social group on campus – our gpa was well above the entire student body average. Some of the guys I met remain my friends after decades, and are some of the finest men I’ve ever met. Some have become business and government leaders across the country. This was not an Ivy League school, but a very good Midwest private university.

    But little seems to be the same today – at this school, or for that matter in the US. It’s hard to believe such sweeping changes can be traced to the nefarious influence “fraternities”. I think the change reflects a precipitous deterioration in our American culture over the past 50 years.

    What follows are generalities, but I think are useful to consider because they are far too often true. Young people today are uninformed and don’t care. They are stoners and unconcerned. They ignore common courtesies toward others, and laugh about it. They seem proud to be aggressively obtuse or perhaps the correct term is high self-esteem. Largely unearned self-esteem I would say. The concept of respect for older people and the knowledge older people can transmit is treated as an object of scorn. In effect, my generation has raised a generation of children that could fairly be described as scarcely civilized, perhaps even uncivilized. Lord of the Flies, indeed. This s not hard to notice. It’s everywhere. So why shouldn’t it also show up in fraternities? Fraternities don’t cause this. The causes are much deeper.

    Would I join a frat today? I might give them a look. But I doubt I’d join. Not because fraternities are bad. But because I no longer expect to see the same people in them I saw when I was a student.

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