The promise of huge parties, limitless booze, and a social scene that feels like it should last forever. The opportunity to join a band of lifelong brothers who you get to live with, while you have the time of your life in college. Numerous leadership and career opportunities, and a lifelong alumni network that includes US presidents, Hollywood Actors, and CEO’s of the largest companies in the World. Oh and did I mention the parties. Parties every weekend, before every football game, and on every holiday in the calendar. Being a fraternity brother seems like the pinnacle of the American college experience.
Greek life is embedded in the social scene of the biggest universities across the country including but not limited to the University of Michigan, USC, Pennsylvania State, and Florida State. Greek life breaks down to a community of national organisations, fraternities for men and sororities for women, who have individual chapters at various universities. Many of these national organisations, such as Sigma Chi and Phi Kappa Theta, have been on campuses for hundreds of years. They emphasise leadership and philanthropy opportunities within their organisations, and set high academic benchmarks as a requirement for membership.
However, there is a key difference between fraternities and sororities. The National Panhellenic Conference, which governs national sorority organisations, forbids the use of sorority funds on “alcoholic beverages for any purpose” and bans alcohol inside of chapter houses. Its counterpart, the North-American Interfraternity Council, has no such regulation.
Fraternity parties dominate the social scene at hundreds of US universities. In the US, where the majority of college students are under the 21 year drinking age, students face legal and campus regulations when they inevitably throw their own parties. As private organisations funding off campus housing, social fraternities have the resources to create a venue, serve alcohol, and blast music all night long: the essentials of a college party. However, it’s not as simple as free booze and a good night getting into the fraternity social scene. As most students know before they even step on campus, you need to fall in at least one of three categories to get into a frat party; a fraternity brother, a friend of a brother, or a female. Through membership, fraternity brothers gain access to a dynamic, high octane university social life.
Despite and because of these benefits, fraternities are highly exclusive systems. Fraternities traditionally keep their societies selective in order to maintain a social reputation and make membership highly regarded. They search for students who are likely to fit in with their culture, being careful in who they issue bids(formal invitations) to. This new class of potential members are called “pledges”, and organisations test their dedication, loyalty, and fit, before initiating them as fully fledged members. Exclusivity is at the heart of fraternity culture.
This culture has been decried as dangerous, misogynistic, and institutionally flawed for years, and in recent years it’s faced intense scrutiny. Traditionally, fraternities have been lambasted for their pledge process, pressuring new members to partake in often dangerous hazing activities to test their dedication. This is all part of a culture that validates, and often socially rewards, alcoholism, debauchery, and a hardcore party lifestyle. And beyond its danger to the members, social fraternities have come under fire across the country for fostering an environment of sexual misconduct that is protected from accountability; studies have shown that fraternity men are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than nonmember students. Student-led protests against fraternities are becoming more and more prominent every year. And universities are beginning to disband individual fraternities, abolish frat rows, and in some cases even shut down their Greek systems entirely.
Yet despite all this, every fall semester thousands of freshman boys flock to frat houses at over 800 college campuses across the nation during rush week. Fraternity membership is currently estimated at over 350,000 students nationwide and increasing.
I was curious to evaluate the system, and find out if there was something within fraternity culture that went beyond the stereotypes and controversy; something that could explain the extreme loyalty members express to their fraternities, and the prominent place fraternity culture has in the American university experience. I interviewed Oliver (whose name has been changed for the purpose of this article), a second year fraternity brother studying at Arizona State University, and took a dive into his perspective and lifestyle to understand what it takes to be a frat bro.
The process begins with “rush,” a week-long process where Potential New Members (PNMs), traditionally first years, introduce themselves to the various organisations on their campus during social events, exhibit their interest, and attempt to earn an invitation to pledge.
Oliver recalls that as a freshman, he was looking for a fraternity whose culture he clicked with, however, he makes it very clear that he didn’t simply have his choice of the litter. Oliver describes how some fraternities are considered top tier, and that the impression he makes during rush is crucial to getting a bid from the most exclusive organisations.
“It’s almost like friend-flirting,” he recalls laughingly. Based on these first impressions, fraternities narrow the playing field from the hundreds of freshmen they may have met, and issue bids to the 40 or so kids they feel will make the best pledge class.
If bidded, the student is now faced with tough choices, to determine if the obstacles ahead of them are worth the life they’ve just gotten a taste of. The first of these obstacles is monetary. Fraternities command membership dues for social and philanthropy funds, on top of students’ tuition and accommodation fees, and these dues can reach upwards of $2000 per semester at large private and public universities. For lower income and middle class students, many of whom are relying on financial aid or self-funding to pay their tuition, this ask puts Greek life out of the question from the get-go.
The second obstacle is the pledge process. Publicly, the pledge process is shrouded in controversy and secrecy due to the practice of hazing. Hazing is defined as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” This traditional practice can involve verbal abuse, pressured alcohol consumption, food challenges, and other degrading stunts. Hazing is illegal in 45 out of 50 states in the US and universities crack down on organisations who get caught, disbanding them. Oliver even states for the record that officially, hazing doesn’t exist at his fraternity. Nonetheless, studies have reported that around 80 percent of fraternity members reported experiencing some form of hazing.
Partially, the process is meant to cull from the pledge class those who don’t fit the fraternity’s culture after their initial impression. Oliver notes that over the course of their semester “people got dropped [from the organisation] and we didn’t really get a reason why… if the brothers just don’t like you, there’s really nothing you can do about it.”
However, Oliver emphasises that at his organisation, the pledge process is also about the characterization of moral standards that his fraternity’s culture embodies, and build respect for the organisation. Describing his attitude towards current pledges, Oliver explains that “we feel that our fraternity has certain morals and characteristics, and [pledges] don’t have those yet. So this process is going to break them down, and build them up into us.”
I respond to Oliver’s explanation in disbelief; to me this sounds highly idealistic, like pointless justification for an abusive system. In conducting my research for this article, I had read countless pieces about hazing deaths mostly caused by alcohol poisoning and alcohol induced injuries. Even at his college, ASU, a pledge at another fraternity was hospitalised and diagnosed with diabetes after being kept on a diet of only tequila and skittles for four days.
Since 1959, there has been at least one hazing related death every single year in the US. Surely there is no way to rationalise this type of hazing as any sort of character building or moralization?
Oliver agrees and describes how ”Pledge masters go on a power trip … and they make their pledges do stuff that just makes them laugh, putting these kids through hell. This power abuse is everywhere.”
Oliver tells me that unfortunately the traditional perspective of hazing is true for most top tier fraternities, and for pledges there’s really nothing they can do about it; “You look to your left, you look to your right and the people next to you are doing it. So you just do.”
Alongside these activities, pledges are also assigned responsibilities for the function of the fraternity, especially when it comes to running the parties. Oliver tells me: “It’s expected of [pledges] to set up for and clean the parties, and at every party, we keep some on sober duty so that when shit hits the fan, we have guys running the parties.”
So what is waiting for pledges at the other end that incentivizes them to withstand a semester’s worth of strain, ludicrous demands, and time consuming responsibilities? First and foremost is the social life. Oliver tells me: “That’s the main reason I joined a fraternity. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to party to that extent without doing it.”
As I mentioned above, aside from the brothers, fraternities almost exclusively invite and allow in women when throwing parties, tailgates, and other social events. The gender ratio is a constant measurable across all university parties, and for frat parties specifically this ratio of males to females is considered to be of the utmost importance in determining how good a party is going to be.
Oliver believes that in the social hierarchy of organisations, the top-tier fraternities have the best parties because they get “the hottest and the most” women in attendance. He astonishingly jokes: “If it’s just a bunch of dudes, that’s not even a party. It’s a gathering.”
However this is only a factor in the focus on female attendance. There is no escaping the shameless reality: “It’s all about sex. Everything is sexually driven.” Oliver explains, “guys are trying to talk to girls, they’re trying to get with girls, and there’s just a different energy that the guys bring with girls present. If a party is jumping, and there’s a lot of girls there, that’s what makes a good party”.
So what is the ideal ratio at a fraternity party? Oliver declares, “if I put the guy’s number first and the girl’s number second, it’s 1:8 or I’m irate.”
Oliver elaborates that party planning revolves around female attendance: “Everything [we] do for the party is for the girls.” Superficially, this means themes, decorations, and replacing the beer with drinks that are judged as more “female-friendly.” More importantly though, it means installing safety and security measures. Fraternity parties are notorious for being environments where members spike drinks, grope passerbys, and corner drunk women. Recalling pledges’ responsibilities, Oliver explains that at their parties “there’s pledges to walk all girls to their uber, to keep an eye on the front door and the back. If a girl doesn’t look in good shape, they’re trained to tell her that she might not be safe here, and send her home.” This function of party management seems well meaning, and possibly effective at managing the risks that come with throwing a party.
However ultimately, that is all it boils down to; risk management. This self-policing is primarily intended to mitigate the probability of the fraternity receiving allegations of sexual assault which damage their standing on campus; it doesn’t come from a place of moral accountability. When a pledge is attempting to police an elder brother who ultimately has an immense amount of power over them, it is easy to see why sexual misconduct goes unchecked across so many organizations.
Oliver explains that fraternities have a tight-lipped procedure for dealing with these issues when they arise. This strays away from any individual accountability for sexual misconduct as Oliver explains that if caught, the entire organisation will ultimately face consequences such as lawsuits and disbanding. In his experience, he recalls a top fraternity who ‘shot down a lot of allegations’ seemingly thanks to their status on campus. He tells me that ‘If there’s one fraternity that has like 6 allegations that get brushed off, at least one of them had to be real. They did something about it, and it just got swept under the rug.” This can involve using their status, such as their relationships with sorority organisations, to pressure girls to stop moving their allegations forward. It is estimated that 90% of sexual assault on US college campuses goes unreported, and women in sororities are 74% more likely to experience sexual assault than other college women.
Just as fraternity culture protects its members despite the detriment to others in the social scene, it does the same in the world of work. Oliver tells me that the career opportunities available through their alumni network constantly amazes him. He explains “we have guys working at Boeing, Red Bull, all these big companies and every other week we’re getting a text saying, ‘I have an intern opportunity at my company, and we want to give the opportunity to you guys first.’” It seems fraternity alumni trust the culture of their organisation long after graduation, and in a corporate world fueled by connections this commonality can open up huge opportunities.
The fraternity culture of connections is highly entrenched in the top echelons of American society. It seems less than coincidental that 80% of Fortune 500 executives and 76% of US senators have been fraternity members, when only 2% of the American population has ever been involved in a fraternity.
As we discussed before, the expense of fraternity dues often puts fraternity life out of question for lower- and middle-income students; at Princeton University 95% of Greek life comes from the top 20 percentile income bracket in the US. Higher education is already dominated by the upper class in America, and this class stratification is only exacerbated by fraternity membership.
Although calls to Abolish Greek Life are becoming more and more prominent, fraternity organisations hold so much power as organisations that they are unlikely to go anywhere for the time being. Universities benefit from fraternities on campus as fraternity alumni are among the highest donors to campuses, and fraternities act as a draw for prospective students searching for a robust social scene. Additionally, even when schools do attempt to install more regulations on fraternities, the organisations sometimes hold enough power and funding to separate from the school and stand on their own with even less accountability. This past summer 8 top fraternity chapters at USC disaffiliated from the school following stricter regulations regarding social events and started their own independent council.
Even when interviewing Oliver who speaks so highly of his fraternity, it is very difficult to justify the “fun and enriching college experience” of fraternity members, a vast minority on campus, at the expense of all those who have felt fear, exclusion, and humiliation in their encounters with the system. Still, efforts to reform the system can only benefit from more transparency regarding their practices; a high level of secrecy is the main culprit in allowing fraternities to maintain some of their archaic and appalling practices today.
Image credit: Bella Back