Is American frat culture ruining our universities?

September 23, 2016
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Sure, there’s plenty to like about the American college system. School pride, beer kegs and those ubiquitous red cups. It’s a lot more colourful than the typical Australian university experience. But are we importing frat culture from the states and its flaws along with it?

According to one student, that’s exactly what’s been happening at Sydney’s Macquarie University Village, where students have been posting pictures of their classmates hooking up on a secret Facebook page, before levelling sexually charged abuse at the (often named) subjects. It’s just one of a string of incidents to surface in recent years, all of which reflect a preoccupation with sex and, frequently, misogyny.

But even when you ignore the outliers, fraternities are all too often breeding grounds for male entitlement.

Take for instance the Facebook page “Hotties of Melbourne University,” which not only encouraged students to rate each other’s pictures (often obtained without permission), but also included details about female student’s schedules, classes and movements. Or a Queensland student who was surrounded by her male peers at a party, all of whom were chanting “No means yes, yes means anal!”

That last sentiment was taken from the banner of a Texan fraternity – and the fact that Dan Murphy’s is making a killing off imitation red cups suggests that frat culture is viewed by some as the model student lifestyle. And while it would be foolish to blame any particular incident on too many viewings of Van Wilder, I think it’s worth taking a look at just what that culture involves.

The literal boys’ club

While not every fraternity is a Budd-soaked backdrop to a Will Farrell movie, there is something about them that encourages certain attitudes. When you consider that one in every five women at two of the country’s biggest colleges were found to have been sexually assaulted (but not, as was widely reported, necessarily raped), you get a sense of the kind of attitudes held.

At the extreme end of things, you have frats like Georgia Tech’s Phi Kappa Tau, which was disbanded after being found to harbour “a pattern of sexual violence that… suggests a deep-rooted culture within the fraternity that is obscene, indecent and endangers women”. But even when you ignore the outliers, fraternities are all too often breeding grounds for male entitlement.

Party power

This might have something to do with the fact that the female-only sororities – as per the wisdom of their governing body, the National Panhellenic Conference – are banned from having alcohol.

According to former students, this creates a huge imbalance in social leverage. Frats have all the alcohol, and therefore all the parties, but they’re not obligated to let anyone in – a system that is open for exploitation. Some frats do let in just anyone; others are reported to have ranking systems for hotness, and only let in “sixes” or higher.

Putting up foot-high misogynistic rhetoric won’t endear you to the ladies, but it will make you one of the bros.

And needless to say, when they do let women in, such houses do not treat them as honoured guests.

Fraternising with the enemy

It is a staple of boys’ clubs for women to be considered, at best, outsiders, and at worst, entertainment. In an environment as insular and exclusive as a fraternity, such attitudes can harden into legend and law. As can be seen in these meeting minutes from the bros at Phi Kappa Tau, as well as the 2014 Wesley College Journal.

In such an environment, men are routinely discouraged from befriending, defending or otherwise humanising women. If you want evidence of this, just take a look at these banners. Putting up foot-high misogynistic rhetoric won’t endear you to the ladies, but it will make you one of the bros. Prove you are one of us; insult a woman.

So, within the bubbling pot of a fraternity, we have gendered exclusivity, a preoccupation with sex, a monopoly over the on-campus alcohol supply… Are people really surprised when they see the headlines?

We got our own problems

I’m not trying to ban beer pong or get college houses decommissioned. I had a blast when I lived on campus, and I think everyone should have that opportunity. I just think that, in trying to make uni life a little less dull, we might be compounding our existing gender issues with the misogynistic failings of yet another flawed system.

If we can separate the beer pong and letterman jackets from the sexism, then great. But right now, I think glorifying frat culture is causing more trouble than it’s worth. Everyone has a right to an amazing tertiary experience. But no one should have to give up their safety for it.

Joel Svensson

Business major, journalism minor and freelance writer, Joel pretends to be clever at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Image: Neighbors official Facebook page