Fraternities, Othering, and Sexual Violence
May 1, 2020
Fraternities at Davidson college perpetuate a culture of sexual violence. They do this by establishing women as “other” a phenomenon defined by Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Several other structural features of fraternities lead to their overall contribution to campus rape culture such as alcohol use and enforcement of toxic masculinity. Analysis of Davidsons history as well as generalized studies about fraternities evidence this toxicity.
In The Second Sex, De Beauvoir explains the human tendency to create out-groups and in-groups. This occurs when as De Beauvoir explains it “the Other is posited as Other by the One positing itself as One.” This means that a group in power uses their position to establish themselves as somehow superior. In establishing their superiority, the powerful group defines the inferiority of a less empowered group. In doing so they further disempower this group. The empowered group or “the One” will then convince the less powerful group or “the Other” that the hierarchy in place is beneficial to all who partake in it in order to maintain this power structure. De Beauvoir analyzes how this othering plays out in the relationship between males and females posing the question “Where does this submission in woman come from?” Though there are some natural differences that tend to occur between men and women, social training and expectation have increased the differences between men and women in unnatural ways. Many people believe that all perceived differences between men and women are a product of the natural order of life; however, De Beauvoir’s text revels that this phenomenon is based not on logic but based on the desire of one group to dominate another. The gender structure is used to allow men to have power over women. It is continuously explained as the natural way of things but upon any analyzation it is clear gender differences are exaggerated as a means of oppression. This teaching is then internalized by many women and the become submissive in their own subordination.
The othering of females continues today and is perpetuated by fraternities in Davidson. On Davidson’s campus this issue has been scrutinized by a group of students who published a website originally named “Burn the Frats.” The “Burn the Frats” website detailed the harm caused by frats and its origins. It includes a page for sexual violence survivor stories and a proposal of reformed methods for responding to sexual misconduct. The primary misconduct that the website targets is sexual violence. In this paper I will further explore the connection drawn between rape culture and fraternities on Davidson’s campus that is articulated by the website, now called “Beyond the Frats”
In order to understand the context of the debate over Davidson’s fraternities we must first understand the history of Davidson itself. Davidson was founded as an all boys school and as accounts of its early debate clubs show, negative attitudes about women were present from the early days. The question “Does marriage limit a man’s prospects?” was posed to the debate group. The fact that this was even a question displayed the values many of these men had. Women were seen as something that held men back from achieving greater things. These greater things were sexual endeavors or career options which seem to be valued over romantic love.
Once fraternities were instated, they were followed with a great deal of controversy. The hazing of young male students disturbed the campus, seeming antithetical to the honor code. Administration and students were resistant to Frats since their early days. In 1894, a petition was signed by 44 students asking for faculty to abolish the Frats and the Board of Trustees made a similar request in 1898. The frats clearly defied opposition and exist on campus today.
Beyond the Frats claims that frats systemically enforce othering of females, leading to a culture of sexual violence. The primary argument is that “There are multiple studies that show how men in fraternities more likely to commit sexual violence than those who are not. Fraternities promote a culture of binge drinking, toxic masculinity, as well as a pressure to have ‘sexual conquests,’ a culture that promotes sexual violence.” This is a loaded statement that goes largely unevidenced within the website; however, many studies have found this to be true. Firstly, the website claims that Fraternity members have been found to be more likely so commit acts of sexual violence. According to Krebs et al. (2007) more than a quarter of college sexual assault victims report that their assailant was a fraternity member. Additionally, Foubert et al. (2007) found that in their first year of college, 8 percent of fraternity members commit sexual assault, in 4 comparison to 2.5 percent of non-fraternity members.
The role that the aforementioned culture of binge drinking plays in Fraternity violence can be analyzed from multiple perspectives. Firstly, alcohol is used as an excuse for violent behavior and may even increase it through a placebo effect and/or lowering of inhibitions. There is a commonly held belief in the U.S. that alcohol makes people more violent; however, this may not be true as some countries have much higher rates of alcohol consumption and lower rates of violence. The belief that alcohol increases violence allows people to get away with violence while intoxicated because they can use it as an excuse. This belief that alcohol increases violence can then interact with gendered concepts about violence. If an individual is more masculine before consuming alcohol they are more likely to display violent behaviors after consuming alcohol. To explain why women do not become sexually violent when drunk but men do and still retain the belief that alcohol causes the violence, students reason that alcohol effects women and men differently. This explanation of drunk violence assigns blame for the violence to the alcohol instead of the perpetrator; however, it is evidenced that previously existing factors of violence such as being highly masculine are correlated to violence while drunk. This view of alcohol as a causal factor allows men to commit violent acts without taking any blame for it. From the perspective of the survivors as opposed to the perpetrates alcohol can increase risk of being sexually harmed, in fact the majority of college women who are assaulted are incapacitated at the time after voluntarily consuming alcohol or drugs. Alcohol disables people from giving consent and may make it physically easier for someone to take advantage of them. After the assault occurs, survivors of incapacitated assault are far less likely to report the assault to law enforcement or a crisis hot line than victims of physically forced assault. This is most likely due to victim blaming. When women are inspected during their assault, others will blame them for drinking as opposed to the perpetrator for assaulting them. Women the internalize this belief and self-blame as opposed to feeling empowered to seek justice. This is another way that alcohol increases sexual assault and patriarchal ideas diminish accountability for it.
All of this is not to say that Fraternities create bad habits in males but that they inflate already existing factors of toxic masculinity. The gender structure within the U.S. posits masculinity as a hierarchy of power. The ways in which men gain social capital within Fraternities are no different from ways men are expected to gain power in other areas of life. What makes Fraternities particularly dangerous is the unique combination of enforced toxic masculinity with risk factors such as alcohol close living quarters and the concept of ‘pledging’ which particularly instills a need to prove worth to older brothers.
Fraternities solidify the pressure young men in our society already feel to prove themselves by performing their gender. They give an explicit structure to hierarchal masculinity by placing men in the inferior ‘pledge’ position and making them perform tasks in order to gain acceptance. This has been one of the most problematic parts of Frats since their founding as discussed previously. It is this power dynamic that allows older brothers to feel they have the right to control others and pressures the ‘pledges’ to adopt a culture of sexual violence. ‘Pledges’ are expected drink heavily and perform sexually with many women while also performing embarrassing tasks that may make them feel a particular need to gain worth through these methods.
According to a cross-cultural study of societies with higher and lower rates of rape, men rape when they feel in disharmony with their environment. The pressure to properly perform your gender while also being forced to wear feminine clothing and being called names could cause disharmony for a young man in a new place. These men join frats looking for community and acceptance in a new place where they may be lacking it, far away from the support of their family they will turn to frat brothers for love and guidance. And what are they given? A confusing and contradictory set of standards that may cause them to seek meaning through harming others.
Now imagine you are an upperclassman in a frat. You have gained acceptance by properly performing your gender whether through sexual performance or excellent beer pong skills. You now have gained by power and continue to hold this power by performing you gender and subordinating pledges. If you feel you have the right to control the new members of your fraternity it is very possible you will feel the right to control women who attend your fraternity parties. You have already been taught that way to gain and retain power is sexual performance and dominating forms of masculinity. You are now holding this power and want to retain it.
Again, this is not to say that all Frat brothers perform their gender this way. In personal experience, fraternities based more on comradery and less on exclusivity seem to encourage healthier behavior within their brothers. Even within toxic frats some brothers come in with enough independence to not feel as much pressure to perform toxic behaviors; however, even if the frat brothers themselves are all not sexually violating women, they create a space in which women are vulnerable. Men have ownership of the physical space, alcohol, and music; therefore, men have power over women within fraternity spaces. This is because of the aforementioned phenomenon of othering. When one group is posited as superior or primary, those outside of this group become inferiors.
It is no wonder that combining a male dominated space with alcohol, darkness, and masculine hierarchies leads to disproportionate rates of sexual violence. Fraternities give men power in a society where they already have control by positing them as “the one”. As De Beauvoir explains, any time one group becomes the ‘in group’ those different from them become the ‘out-group’. In this case the ‘out-group’ is women. This idea of woman as inferior then interacts with the aforementioned issues caused by alcohol and toxic masculinity. In fraternity spaces, women are often seen as usable objects that allow members to get approval from other brothers; however, I believe that many frat brothers at Davidson do not intend for this to happen or even realize they encourage it because sexual violence is such a norm in general American culture. We must find ways to see eye-to-eye on these issues and create an equitable Davidson where students can have fun while also feeling safe.
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