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Why Is the Frat Boy Culture So Sleazy and Sex-Crazed?

Frat houses are a haven for a masculinity that takes sexual conquest as one of its defining characteristics. But frats have not always been this way.

In the late 1980s the Florida News Herald reported that a Florida State University student had been gang raped by some fraternity brothers. Allegedly, the attackers painted the Greek letters of their house on her thighs, symbolically claiming her as they had also claimed her through sexual assault.

In 2001 Dartmouth College's campus newspaper, The Dartmouth , published graphic excerpts from Zeta Psi’s weekly newsletters in which brothers described their sexual encounters:

"She’s baaaaackk. And she’s dirtier than ever[;] if young [female name] hooks up with one more Zete, I’m going to need a flow chart to keep up.”

"Commenting on [Brother B]’s chances for a highly-coveted spot in the Manwhore Hall of Shame, [Brother C] said, ‘Are you kidding me? Rancid snatch like that makes you a fucking lock.’”

"Next week: [Brother X]’s patented date rape techniques!”

These two examples -- a gang rape fraught with symbolism and the misogynist publication describing sexual exploits -- are clearly extreme, but both of them are the logical outcome of a culture of masculine supremacy and sexual exploitation that has made its home in some college fraternities since the 1920s. While most do not participate in such acts, there is ample evidence to show that many, if not most, fraternity members are expected to report on sex they have for the entertainment of their entire house. College fraternities -- currently numbering three hundred fifty thousand undergraduate brothers with more than four million alumni -- have become a haven for a masculinity that takes sexual conquest as one of its defining characteristics. Indeed, the social science literature of the past three decades has shown that fraternity men are more likely than their nonaffiliated classmates to rape women, and some studies have estimated that as many as 70 to 90 percent of reported campus gang rapes are committed by members of fraternities. This makes fraternities a dangerous place for the women who frequent their houses and attend their parties. In their sexist logic -- and in their own words -- "Brothers Over Babes" or "Bros Before Hos."

But fraternities and the men who join them have not always behaved this way. So where did the culture of sexual exploitation and masculine bragging come from? Clearly, the men’s behavior is a product of time, place, and cultural circumstance, not simply an instance of "boys will be boys." Nor is the behavior a natural outcome of all-male organizations, as even fraternities themselves have not always behaved this way.

Dating, 'Homosexuality,' and Frat Culture

In the early twentieth century two phenomena that we now take to be commonplace were invented. The first was dating and the second was homosexuality as a discrete identity category. Both have impacted fraternity culture. Dating arrived on college campuses in the 1920s. Fraternities, established a century earlier in the 1820s, and sororities, which had been founded on some college campuses by the 1870s, were the hubs of the collegiate dating scene. With rare exceptions fraternity men and sorority women dated each other in an exacting scale that was governed by each organization’s popularity. The reputations of the individual brothers and sisters and thus of their collective memberships were in part determined by whom they dated. Fraternity members were judged by their attractiveness, their charm, and by what they called "their line," the verbal method they used to make themselves appealing to young women. Popularity -- evaluated through dating women -- came to define a properly enacted collegiate masculinity. And fraternity men themselves knew this; they picked new members based on the perceived expectation of potential brothers to attract women. As Dartmouth’s Zeta Psi boasted in 1924, "Brother ‘Stan’ Lonsdale has improved the already magnificent reputation he had attained in past years as Lothario and Don Juan put together, and as representative in the chapter in all women’s colleges within a radius of several hundred miles."

This celebration of men’s attractiveness to women necessitated a concurrent demand that brothers themselves recognize what made a man attractive. They had to come to terms with themselves as men evaluating other men’s good looks.

In a world like that of the nineteenth century United States, where there was little recognition of a homosexual subculture and where most men could not conceive of a man whose sexual desires were centered exclusively on other men, this would not have been a problem. But by the 1920s fraternity men did not live in such a world. They still don’t. By the early twentieth century -- thanks to sexologists, Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud (and his popularizers), as well the very people who identified with the label "homosexual" or "invert" -- that some men were in fact attracted exclusively to other men was widely understood. It was also at this time that masculinity itself became yoked exclusively to heterosexuality in a decisive refutation of homosexuality.

Thus, at precisely the moment when fraternity men were becoming highly conscious of the characteristics that made males attractive to females, and were indeed evaluating their brothers based on these characteristics, they were simultaneously coming to terms with the possible meanings of these evaluations. They were also in the compromising position of being members of organizations that enrolled only single men, organizations that, through shared living, bathing, sleeping, and erotic hazing practices, fostered an atmosphere of camaraderie, intimacy, and loyalty that most found to be the fraternity’s biggest selling point.

They were caught between a rock and a hard place, even more so when some fraternities actually did turn out to be havens for homosexually inclined students, as my own research indicates, and as Dorothy Dunbar Bromley and Florence Haxton Britten found in their fascinating 1938 study, Youth and Sex . From the 1920s onwards fraternity men have responded to this dilemma with the enactment of particularly active dating and sexual lives designed to refute suspicions of homosexuality and to assert heterosexuality, and thus masculinity. These practices have only increased throughout the twentieth century, in part as a reaction to the intensified denigration of homosexuality at mid-century and as a result of the increasing sexual permissiveness of college women in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

These were not conscious choices made by fraternity men, however. Rather, they were gradual changes over generations in response to cultural shifts like the advent of dating and the emergence of modern conceptions of homosexuality. It is also clear that these two phenomena are by no means exclusive to men in fraternities. That said, because fraternities remain organizations made up exclusively of single men, organizations that choose to haze their initiates in explicitly homoerotic ways and that foster an intimacy among men not common in society more generally, they compensate for what might be perceived by outsiders as either feminine or gay behavior by enacting a masculinity that takes aggressive heterosexuality as one of its constitutive elements. This often has adverse effects for the women with whom they interact.