It was somehow fitting that news of Penn State fraternity members sharing photos of nude, unconscious women broke on Saint Patrick’s Day, a holiday that has become a caricature of the grossest excesses of frat culture. Hours before I learned about the members of Kappa Delta Rho joking, “Lol delete those or we will be on cnn in a week [sic],” I stepped out of the subway in Midtown and was greeted by a shout from an intoxicated white dude wearing a whole lot of green.
I bet he thought it was funny that I was startled and uncomfortable for that nanosecond of an exchange. The members of Kappa Delta Rho thought they were being funny, too. Lol delete those.
Here’s the thing about the latest story of fraternity men degrading and debasing women for sport: We’ve seen it before. They’ve seen it before. The members of Kappa Delta Rho have read the reports on CNN, seen faces that probably looked a lot like their own on cable news under headlines announcing an alleged sexual assault (or, more often in media parlance, a “sex scandal”) or decrying some sexist or racist ritual caught on tape. The script has become so familiar that these guys joked about it.
It all runs like clockwork. White frat guys do something sexist or racist (or both). Their school disavows the incident. Ditto for the fraternity’s national office. Smart things are written. Dumb things are written. Cable news revs its engines. Soon enough, most of the country forgets it ever happened. Then rinse and repeat.
This is what the nauseatingly repetitive nature of sexual aggression looks like today. This is the current face (or one of the faces) of our broken systems of accountability and a widespread refusal to talk about the institutions and subtle biases through which the villains du jour -- who will swiftly be forgotten and replaced by new ones -- are created and flourish.
In a revealing interview with Philadelphia magazine, a member of Kappa Delta Rho explained that he hoped none of his brothers would be punished for sharing nude photos of women as if they were baseball cards because he didn’t believe it was a punishable offense. “I hope nobody gets in trouble because nobody did anything worth getting in trouble over,” he told writer Holly Otterbein.
He said it was all in good fun. Satire, even (emphasis added):
[T]he thing is, that it was a satirical group. It's like, there's literally sites like that that millions of people access, whether it's totalfratmove.com or any of the other thousands of sites that post, you know, pictures of girls and post funny text conversations and Snapchat stories and things like that. It was a satirical group. It wasn't malicious whatsoever. It wasn't intended to hurt anyone. It wasn't intended to demean anyone. It was an entirely satirical group and it was funny to some extent. Some of the stuff, yeah, it's raunchy stuff, as you would expect from a bunch of college-aged guys. But, I mean, you could go on any one of hundreds and thousands of different sites to access the same kind of stuff and obviously a lot worse and a lot more explicit.
“There's a certain stereotypical Greek life culture and, as you see in movies, people try to live up to that and people try to kind of incorporate those elements,” he explained.
Maybe this has always been the case, but harassing and degrading women has taken on a bizarrely self-referential quality in the Internet era. Now, acts of entitlement and sexual aggression are framed as postmodern expressions (critiques, even!) of white hypermasculinity. Hosting a racist frat party? It’s ironic! Collecting nudes of non-consenting women and passing them around like popcorn? Lol delete those. Total frat move.
A culture that systemically degrades women and subjects them to regular and deadly violence is presented as a game. It’s play acting.
And what then? We've been here before. Fraternity chapters have been shut down. “Bad apples” have been expelled. The possibility of criminal charges has been threatened. Diversity professionals have been hired. Sensitivity trainings have been conducted. Marches have been organized. Students have made their voices echo through the halls of their colleges and Congress and the White House.
The cycle still churns on. Predation and degradation are written off as goofs. Boys and men are raised with an entitlement to women’s bodies that feels normal, natural. (But #NotAllMen #NotAllMen #NotAllMen!)
Even writing this feels redundant. Jay Smooth, the host and founder of WBAI's Underground Railroad and a reliably brilliant social critic, had a video out on Fusion this week about the repetitive, predictable nature of racism. He was talking about the Oklahoma University chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon that was recently caught gleefully singing about lynching black people, but he was also talking about every other time he's had to make the same point about racist institutions and white supremacy when someone else gets exposed for doing incredibly racist shit.
His analysis holds here as well. It's hard to come up with new commentaries when “America keeps screwing up in the exact same way.”
Correcting a set of institutional priorities propped up by sexist and racist systems and monied donors who cut the funds when their boys are punished is bigger than one frat. (It's bigger than college, too.) But as for those members of Kappa Delta Rho, who may be facing criminal charges, I hope someone tries to help them get their shit straight.
I hope they have someone in their lives who can ask them, “What made you think that was funny? Why would you do this?” These are men who would probably say they love their moms, have girlfriends, women they count among their closest friends. But they were still able to view degradation as bonding, dehumanizing misogyny as an abstraction rather than something that harmed real women.
I doubt many, if any, of those men had someone in their lives tell them outright that it was funny and good to take photos of women without their consent (though, let’s be honest, in the history of the world this has definitely been said outright). But they learned it, even if they didn’t know they were learning it. Those messages are the water we swim in. And what’s the line about a fish not knowing it’s wet?
In the introduction to her interview, Otterbein asked a question that I’m sure plenty of us have asked ourselves in the days since we learned about the Facebook group: “How could anyone do this? Who could justify such behavior?”
But the answer is obvious, has shown itself to be obvious over and over again: We are capable of this, and we can justify such behavior. If you miss it this time around, just tune in later. We're due for a repeat any day now.