If you’re reading this, you probably already hate fraternities. Nobody who deliberately chooses to visit this blog feels otherwise, just like none of you follow Marmaduke or Salon—they’re incompatible with your interests, aesthetics, and lives.
As such, it will surprise precisely zero of you that the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at James Madison University recently distributed a freshman rush guide to its potential pledges which included a list of hot freshman girls (and their dorm numbers) to invite to parties. It’ll gross you out, sure, but it won’t surprise you a bit. I think it would behoove us all to wonder why that is, though. Why are we no longer even remotely surprised when the post-adolescents of American fraternities do something vile? Why do most of us just shrug, roll our eyes, go about the rest of our day?
Most of the tips on the fraternity’s guide to rush week are fairly innocuous. Leave your door open, because that’s how you meet “the babes”—which, ew, but that’s pretty much how you meet anybody your first week of college; that one deserves a pass. Go to dorm meetings for the purpose of catching a glimpse of the “hot tail”—again, gross, but why wouldn’t freshmen go to their dorm meetings anyway? If you remove all the references to babes and hot tail, this is a perfectly reasonable guide to making friends as a freshman. But then again, remove the references to babes and hot tail, and it’s hardly recognizable as frat behavior, is it?
The thing about the young men of fraternities is that their behavior is consistently, dully predictable. Put fifty monkeys in polos and Sperrys in a room with typewriters, and they’ll eventually produce this guide, or another one exactly like it. It wasn’t surprising when the men of Winona State University unveiled signs on freshman move-in day that said “HONK IF DROPING OFF DAUGHTER” [sic]. It wasn’t surprising when a Phi Kappa Tau brother sent out a chapter-wide e-mail whose topic was “luring rapebait.” When Rolling Stone published “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy” in 2012, and its content was widely denounced by people who had known the “frat boy” in question, the denials basically failed to hit home with anyone. Why? Because the original article, in all its detailed filth and nastiness and awfulness, was so unsurprising that nobody believed it wasn’t true.
What do we think of when we think of fraternities? Whiteness, primarily—there are fraternities that are primarily for people of other races, of course, but the archetypal Frat Bro, the guy you immediately think of when someone says the word “fraternity,” is probably white. Privilege, too. Those of us who disdain fraternities (myself extremely included) sometimes forget that people don’t join them solely to rape and pillage and cause a scene, but for the connections. Scratch a powerful American white man, and you’ll likely find fraternity connections only one or two jobs back.
And we think of the birthright of recklessness that attends both whiteness and privilege. Here, I think, is the particular nexus of the whole fraternity situation at which we lose our ability to be surprised by their nastiness: it’s because they have money, and it’s because they’re white. We expect so little from our rich white boys. We have so little reason to be optimistic about their standards of behavior. They hang sexually explicit signs on public buildings, and demand offerings of freshman girls at their parties, and rape, and sometimes accidentally kill, and they do it all with such impunity that the only reasonable reaction we have left is boredom, because they do this stuff every day. They do it, they get away with it, and then they do it some more. And so on and so forth.
JMU’s spokesperson Bill Wyatt had this to say about the offending guide for freshman pledges:
“The university is aware of the incident and it is under investigation. However, because of federal privacy laws, we cannot comment on the specifics of the incident. Obviously, the university takes seriously any complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct. Pending the outcome of the investigation, the matter will be dealt with in accordance with university policy and procedure.”
We hear that and we probably all react the same way: we shrug, roll our eyes, go about the rest of our day. Why? Because this is classic white man talk. He’s not even bothering with the doublespeak or outright lies that he might use when deflecting a legitimate threat to his university, because this isn’t a legitimate threat; this is just boys being boys, and rest assured it necessitates a strict talking-to, the content of which will probably include an admonishment to be more discreet in the future and, hell, maybe even a hair-tousling. Phi Gamma Delta as an institution is more than 150 years old. It will be fine. Those boys will be fine.
I have dated men who have revealed to me that they were in fraternities, and “revealed” is the word that I want, because they all did it in the same way: sly, cagey, faintly defensive. The way white boys always do when they feel they’ve done something I’m not going to like. I have been to precisely one fraternity party in my life. The house stank to high heaven and was full of drunk young women in bandage dresses being pawed at by men sober enough to know better. I have known a thousand fraternity brothers at various stages in my life. Some of them have been kind, gentle, thoughtful people. Ultimately, I have trusted none of them. It doesn’t feel safe to trust them.
That is what fraternities are: factories that take in freshman boys of various maturity levels and make them all uniformly untrustworthy while simultaneously preparing them all to be successful. The two missions are of equal importance and key to one another: a white boy who wants to be the most successful, the most powerful, has to learn to become the sort of white boy nobody can trust. Signs like “HONK IF DROPING OFF DAUGHTER” are perfectly germane to the cause, as are blackface parties, as is getting away with everything with only the occasional slap on the wrist. The world is theirs to destroy.
Art by Jun Joestar.