Why Banning Frats Isn’t A Magic Cure-All

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Every day I type two words: Ban frats.

It’s an ironic, Internet-speak way of saying, “Oh my God, read what stupid thing the latest group of twentysomething fraternity bros got caught doing.”

These days, the link following “ban frats” could be anything. At the beginning of March, Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Oklahoma University lost its charter after a video surfaced of their members chanting, “There will never be a n—-r in SAE. You can hang them from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me.”

One week later, Kappa Delta Rho at Penn State was suspended after the police found members published nude photos of women while they were asleep or passed out. A member anonymously told Philadelphia Magazine that the images were “satire.”

This month almost 400 students marched to the president’s office at Brown University, their mouths covered with dollar bills and a red electrical tape “IX”—a nod to Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding—following a long and complicated case against a member of Phi Kappa Psi and son of a trustee for allegedly drugging two female students at a party last October.

None of this surprised me. Last year, my alma mater, Arizona State University, made national headlines when its chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon threw a MLK Party during the three-day weekend for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The party featured hollowed-out watermelons for cups, snapbacks, basketball jerseys and what local news reports called “gang signs.” At the time of the party, TKE was already on probation for a November 2012 incident where fraternity members confronted and beat a member of a rival fraternity. Their victim suffered a broken jaw, concussion and cuts, according to the Arizona Republic.

These institutions are about as old as higher education itself. There’s not an easy solution to the racism, sexism, misogyny and elitism that seems to come to a head in these brotherly chapters. But one of the first solutions proposed is always banning fraternities and sororities.

Last year, Jessica Valenti made a compelling case in the Guardian to get rid of them altogether, with a focus on the unbelievably high number of incidents of sexual assault and rape at college fraternities. It seems like a logical solution, considering the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened almost 100 investigations, according to the Huffington Post, “over concerns that the schools violated the gender equity law Title IX in their handling of sexual violence cases.”

Not that my animosity toward individual fraternity members is any higher than, say, the dude who catcalled me last weekend in Brooklyn Heights. But haven’t we reached critical mass on shitty behavior?

Banning fraternities is a tempting quick fix. But ultimately, banning frats won’t solve these problems—just like last call doesn’t stop the drunks.

By eliminating fraternities, young men are not going stop gathering, living and partying en masse. The proof is that most of these terrible incidents of rape, injury and racism are not at university-sanctioned events. The “frat party” image that we all think of are not the date parties and dances registered with the university and complete with security and bartenders. It’s just another house party. The problems that lead to those horrifying incidents—groupthink, disregard of basic consent, excessive partying, never being told no—tend to happen at parties that fraternity members throw.

I’m not saying these men aren’t responsible for their actions. They are. But taking these people off campus means taking them and their terrible, no good, very bad actions out of the spotlight—which is worse than the alternative.

All they’re going to do is bring these tendencies to house parties and private conversations among friends, with little to no chance of consequences. At least when these parties have a fraternity affiliated with their actions, people pay attention. After the MLK incident, Arizona State’s TKE eventually lost its charter. The university demolished its fraternities’ houses, located on Alpha Drive, in 2012. But that doesn’t mean these problems went away. At a house party in March 2013, members of ASU’s Sigma Phi Epsilon hosted a party where one of their own tossed a bottle of grain alcohol into a bonfire. Among the burned were a 17-year-old girl visiting the university from California and an 18-year-old freshman.

Colleges have experimented with all kinds of solutions to minimize fraternities’ influence on campus. Wesleyan University ordered frats to let women in last year—much to the chagrin of the students. Trinity College in Connecticut made Greek life co-ed back in 2012. (Two years later, no male or female students have crossed the gender divide.) North Carolina State University banned alcohol for most fraternities after a pledge book, containing sexist and racist language, surfaced. Back in 1991, Middlebury College abolished frats after years of “unchecked influence … on campus life,” according to Newsweek.

Even Greeks themselves are trying to fix the problem. The National Panhellenic Conference decided the sisters of its 16 sororities at University of Virginia were not allowed to attend parties one weekend in late January because of safety issues. (It wasn’t well received.) Women at George Washington University suggested that sororities should start hosting the parties; “home-court advantage,” they called it. (Better received.) A brother at Kappa Alpha Order at U.C. Berkeley is leading the charge to educate brothers on campus about how prevent sexual assault.

But despite universities’ and the Greek system’s best efforts, simply erasing Greek life is not a longterm solution. And not every college can or will commit to removing these hundred-year old institutions. So the question really becomes: How do we reform college and give young people space to grow while, you know, not violating each other?

For one thing, we need to teach young men, far before they’re thinking about joining a fraternity, that taking photos of women without their permission is beyond creepy and mostly illegal. Both men and women need to learn that sexual acts require enthusiastic consent. That just because you don’t use a racial slur doesn’t mean your actions aren’t racist. (I see you, microaggressions.)

In other words, we need to get to the root of the problem. Maybe taking Greek life away will allow higher education to tackle these larger issues, but I doubt it. It won’t remove racism, groupthink, sexism, misogyny and rape culture. It doesn’t take away the need to be accepted by your peers. Universities are in dire need of a culture shock to become places that are safe and accepting for everyone. Banning fraternities is nothing but a tiny Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

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