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Fraternities and the Art of Predatory Gatekeeping

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Watch your drink at this fraternity. Avoid going upstairs at this one. And stay clear of that third one altogether — you don’t want to be there alone.

College fraternities have a well-documented history of sexual and gender-based violence, a reputation threaded by an ever-growing collection of painful individual stories. All-male campus social spaces have long been accused of harboring and hiding predatory misconduct. Yet students across the United States seem increasingly unwilling to look the other way or pretend not to hear the loud, ugly whispers. Everywhere from Northwestern to Nebraska, UMass Amherst to Mississippi, student activists are demanding an end to Greek life and its associated ills, pushing their university administrators to persecute abuses more harshly or even seek the abolition of specific fraternities.

Their demands are well-justified. So is their anger. Activists’ concerns have so far proven accurate or at least credible enough to warrant action: At Northwestern, for example, reports of drugging led to a ban of social activities at fraternities until mid-October. The existence of active anti-fraternity movements even at schools with a strong Greek life campus culture highlights both the extent of the problem and the seemingly universal frustration with the system’s permissiveness of sexual assault.

Yet the root of the issue isn’t confined to the aforementioned schools, or even to all those with active fraternities. Rather, it stems from male-dominated social spaces, whether they are called fraternities, final clubs, or anything in between. Harvard’s final clubs aren’t excluded from the conversation by mere virtue of unorthodox terminology. Similarly, we must remain mindful that the involved students, perpetrators and victims alike, are our own peers, sitting next to us in class. Sexual assault at male social clubs isn’t an abstract notion but a reality; a plague pervading our, and virtually every other, campus.

Unfortunately, the path towards a healthier, safer campus social life remains remarkably uncertain. Universities can’t, after all, simply prune themselves of Greek life and the like: Harvard tried and failed. More crucially, attempts to crack down on misconduct in fraternities through suspensions risk backfiring, as existing members may limit access only to those they trust to never speak up, entrenching the secrecy that feeds abuse. If only closed lips make it past the door, the culture beyond it will only fester.

When the problem is discussed by fraternities, they pay lip service to acknowledging and disavowing the culture of sexual predation, except when the conversation is about events behind their doors. Vocalizing concern over an instance of abuse in a fraternity is perceived as passing a judgment on the character of all of the brothers, and thus such conversations are immediately shut down: “No, a [insert fraternity name] brother would never do something like that.” Until this commitment to change truly turns introspective, we remain skeptical that reform can come from the Interfraternity Conference’s promise of less hard alcohol or more sexual misconduct trainings.

And forcing change from the outside won’t be easy: Speaking up against fraternity culture can amount to ostracization. That leaves these whistleblowers, particularly those who have experienced sexual assault, stuck between accepting an unjustifiable paradigm or sacrificing their social lives on campus. And absent attractive social alternatives, student bodies will struggle to disentangle themselves from the campus Greek life that monopolizes the party scene, giving the fraternities the power to exclude whomever they wish: students who don’t embody the desired gender, look, weight, personality, or willingness to keep silent.

College students across the U.S. deserve better options. We deserve, more specifically, to be able to access a fun, even raucous, nightlife without subjecting ourselves to gendered objectification and predatory behavior. Our peers at fraternities need to do better; we need to do better. The schools that house us must acknowledge that, though eliminating fraternities has proven impracticable, we still need better options for our Saturday nights. Institutions of higher education nationwide, still outsmarted by these brotherhoods, should be putting their heads together to get us there.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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