I read about the sexually suggestive signs posted by a fraternity at Old Dominion University last week and had the reactions that anyone who knows me would expect me to have.
I was angry, disgusted, annoyed, and saddened.
Offensive back-to-school signs have been spotted all over the country. The problem is clearly not isolated to Old Dominion University or Sigma Nu fraternity.
At this point, fraternity men posting signs suggestive of sexual violence is almost a cliche. I mean, come on.
So many people have been working tirelessly to eradicate sexual assault on college campuses (efforts I have written about elsewhere on this blog). Brave survivors have gone public with their stories, hoping to raise awareness about ineffective responses, poor treatment of victims, and repeat offenders being allowed to stay on campus. I have been optimistic about some of the changes taking place---increased pressure to comply with Title IX, the Obama administration's efforts to improve campus prevention and response.
And then this.
It is almost like no one is talking to these young men about any of these issue. Maybe they live under a rock. Maybe they just don't care. Maybe no one is talking to them about masculinity and sexual violence.
I laid in bed one night stewing about all this and have to admit that my first thoughts were punitive. ODU's Sigma Nu chapter was suspended pending a university investigation. "Big F-ing whoop," I thought. They should just be done. Zero tolerance. No more fraternity for them.
Full disclosure: I am not exactly the biggest cheerleader of the Greek system. In graduate school we were required to attend an event held by a group that we had negative stereotypes about (with the intention that exposure would change our perceptions). I went to a sorority fundraiser.
I came by my dislike of the Greek system honestly. A friend in college was raped at a fraternity party. Many of my friends (male and female) had negative experiences in fraternities and sororities related to hazing, binge drinking, disordered eating, etc. While working at various college counseling centers I heard many Greek-related horror stories.
A colleague of mine recently told me that he was asked to write a book chapter about fraternities and he declined the offer, saying that the chapter would be too short. Three words in fact:
"They are bad."
Unfortunately, most of the evidence indicates that these systems are problematic. How many stories of rape, racist songs, hazing related deaths, eating disorders, do we need to hear to realize that something is not working within the Greek system?
Which is how I got to the "get rid of all of them" opinion.
I responded to my colleague saying that fraternities are certainly more bad than good. Which is coming a long way for me.
I have a number of good friends, colleagues, and graduate students who participated in Greek life in college and found the experience to be empowering and positive. The idea of groups of students living together, providing each other with social and academic support, encouraging leadership, engaging in service to the community seems pretty good. The practice in many cases is much more problematic.
So maybe the Greek system should be eradicated on college campuses.
But, we would be foolish to think that will actually solve these problems.
As I thought about the events unfolding at Sigma Nu I realized that a punitive approach would likely accomplish little. Most likely the young men who made and hung those signs would just get angry about having their fraternity suspended and take their same attitudes about women elsewhere. They probably didn't learn anything and I doubt anyone at the campus feels safer.
Zero tolerance policies just don't work. As much I as I felt better for about 2 seconds being righteously angry, what I REALLY care about is the eradication of sexual violence. Maybe getting rid of fraternities will make college campuses safer. But probably not if that is all we do.
Perhaps it is time to use restorative justice with fraternity members in these cases. Focus on repairing the harm that has occurred within the community. Help young men deconstruct negative messages they have internalized about women. Challenge assumptions about masculinity. Create safe spaces where men can be authentic and vulnerable.
While many fraternities do become hubs for toxic ideas about hegemonic masculinity, objectification of women, and tolerance (and promotion) of violence, they are not the source of these problems. Until we do more as a society to challenge harmful stereotypes about masculinity and degradation of women, sexual violence will continue--whether or not fraternities are involved.
Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.