Gang rapes, gay bashing and snow jobs

A social history of the frat boy

Published June 4, 2009 4:05PM (EDT)

If you tend to think of a frat house as no good place for any sane woman to venture (and certainly the last place to drop in for a shot of Jager), you won't find much to change your mind in "Bros Before Hos," Nicholas L. Syrett's social history of the 20th-century frat house. It starts off with some charming examples of relatively recent vintage: frat members who, in the late '80s, allegedly gang-raped a woman, then marked their territory, so to speak, by painting their Greek letters on her thighs; and excerpts from a 2001 newsletter put out by Dartmouth's Zeta Psi, including references to a "manwhore," a "rancid snatch." There is also this promise: Next week: "patented date raping techniques"!

While the vast majority of frat brothers are not rapists, date or otherwise, Syrett sees a screw-and-spew culture in which, at the very least, "many, if not most, frat members are supposed to report on the sex they do have for the 'entertainment' of the entire house." And while not every frat brother is a rapist, more college rapists are frat brothers: Over the past three decades, Syrett writes, studies have shown that members of fraternities are more likely to rape women than nonmembers, and may account for as many as 70 to 90 percent of reported campus gang rapes.

But, he argues, it was not always thus.

Rape and woman-hating is not a natural byproduct of guy culture, nor something that just happens any time you get all the dudes together in a room. Instead, he argues, what we think of as frat culture "is a product of time, place and cultural circumstance" -- and in most cases, can be traced back to the good old gay panic defense.

The time was the 1920s, and the twin cultural culprits, according to Syrett's theory, were the invention of dating and a new recognition of the gays. Syrett doesn't say what the kids were doing before the 1920s -- and I couldn't tell you the historical difference between "dating" and "courting," except that the current Christian definition seems to hold that the latter takes place under the watchful eye of a girl's parents, with an explicit eye toward marriage, and no physical contact -- but once dating came about, being popular with the ladies meant you were a big man on campus. And to attract more of these big men, the frat brothers had to identify the would-be campus hunks in their applicant pool. You know, without other dudes thinking they were queer.

In the 19th century, according to Syrett, there was little cultural acknowledgement that there were men who were exclusively attracted to other men. But by the 1920s, thanks to Freud, and Wilde, and self-identified "homosexuals" and "inverts," (many of whom, I would add were hosting salons, clustering in cities and writing novels about it all by that time), they most certainly did. Thus frat boys overcompensated for their "shared living, bathing, sleeping and erotic hazing practice," which "might be perceived by outsiders as either feminine or gay behavior," by promoting a culture "that takes aggressive heterosexuality as one of its constitutive elements." Says Syrett, "This often has adverse effects for the women with whom they interact." You don’t say!

When the sexual revolution hit in the '60s, according to Syrett, things changed again. Rather than relying on "the prostitutes and working-class women of earlier eras who had previously met their needs" (and, one might add, occasionally bore their illegitimate children), college boys now expected women of their own social class -- women in their college classes or neighboring schools -- to put out. A study in 1957 hinted at an emerging rape culture when it noted that frat boys were more likely to "take advantage of" their date, and some by using "menacing threats or coercive infliction of physical pain." A 1960 study found that frat boys had more sex than their peers, but didn't like it as much -- possibly because, just like the girls, they may also have been coerced in a way, though by peer pressure rather than violence. And the madonna/whore dichotomy was alive and well, as illustrated by this 1967 vintage quote from sociologist Eugene Kanin: "A successful 'snow job' on an attractive but reluctant female who may be rendered into a relatively dependable sexual outlet and socially desirable companion is considerably more enhancing than an encounter with a prostitute or a 'one night stand' with a 'loose' reputation."

Bringing us up to our current "Girls Gone Wild" era, Syrett notes that casual sex is more highly valued than having a girlfriend, because you can't say such raunchy shit about your girl. He also informs us that to attract such ladies, "fraternities throw regular parties, often replete with grain alcohol punch" to "supply intoxicated women who will either consent -- or succumb -- to sex." And some frats have turned from talking about sex to a show-and-tell culture that demands members actually demonstrate how much sex they are having. One of the most horrifying quotes in the piece comes from a frat boy interviewed by Michael Moffat for his upcoming book, "Coming of Age in New Jersey":

When my friends pick up chicks and bring them back to the fraternity house everyone else runs to the window to look at somebody else domineer a girl and I tell you what you almost get the same satisfaction. Some of the guys like to put on a show by doing grosser things each time ... Watching my friends have sex with other girls is almost as satisfying as doing it myself ... By the same token I enjoy conquering girls and having people watch.”

The idea of guys "conquering” women and putting on a show to titillate and possibly gross out their buddies is, well, pretty effing gross. But like any moral panic story -- from those about wanton teens, to college girls gone wild, to, ah, hugging -- it's easy to mistake the exploits of a very few for a marauding menace. I have to admit, I went to one of those colleges where most of the former frats had long since gone co-ed and been kicked out of the national chapters. The only one I ever spent time in as a college student had been converted to essentially a co-ed live-in rock club decades before and the only friend I had in college who was in an all-male fraternity spent one semester in their house, romancing his (non-fraternity boyfriend) before coming out and moving the hell out. So while I tend to think of frats in stereotypical terms as cesspools of drunken misogyny, my opinion is pretty blatantly uninformed, and I'm willing to bet, does not accurately describe the atmosphere in many frat houses.

What's more, if Syrett's (and many, many others') thesis -- that so much of the sexist behavior in frats and other enclaves of machismo is tied to homophobia -- is correct, I'm even more interested to see what happens with this generation of young men. Syrett concludes: "Until fraternity men learn to be more comfortable with the intimacy fostered through the bonds of brotherhood without demanding its concurrent disavowal through homophobia and the conquest of women, it seems unlikely that women will be much safer on college campuses with active Greek populations." But both seem to be happening right now, much more so than in previous generations. The alleged "Bromance" trend has spawned hit films, MTV shows and almost more trend stories than a person can comfortably stomach. (Plus, maybe you've heard? Guys hug each other!) Support for gay marriage is at an all-time high among young people, Typical Straight Guys for Gay Rights is one of the fastest growing groups on Facebook, and even Eminem thought it was kinda funny to have Bruno drop his balls in his face on national television (though that last one, I gotta say, totally reminded me of something that would go down in Delta Psi Fuck You, or whatever).

Now, I'm not saying the guys who are hugging each other in the hallways and supporting their gay brothers are the same ones pledging during rush week. But neither is it clear that they aren't. Either way, a little less homophobia could do us all a great deal of good.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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