When ‘good enough’ is not good enough

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When ‘good enough’ is not good enough

Fraternity Row at Rhodes College

Fraternity Row at Rhodes College

Photo courtesy of Jean Xiong

Fraternity Row at Rhodes College

Photo courtesy of Jean Xiong

Photo courtesy of Jean Xiong

Fraternity Row at Rhodes College

JD Deming '20, Contributor

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On the Tuesday before Valentine’s Day, I quit my fraternity. I quit my fraternity because I was tired of being a problem. I was a problem because I was part of a bigger problem, a problem that I’ve come to understand plagues all IFC fraternities. That problem is that all IFC fraternities support rape culture directly. If this seems an outlandish claim to you, I ask only that you read on, giving me the benefit of the doubt as I honestly and openly share my experiences. If you still disagree with my conclusions, at least you will understand what exactly what it is you’re disagreeing with. It is my hope that my conclusion, in which I advocate for the only way I see to end sexual assault on our campus, will not require a great leap from my readers.

To begin with, let me spell out in broad terms what exactly I mean when I say that all IFC fraternities directly support rape culture. I do not claim that IFC fraternities are filled with rapists; I have friends in IFC fraternities, as I’m sure many of you do, who I know with certainty are not the type to ever assault someone in any capacity. However, I’m sure we all can agree that in every fraternity there are some “bad apples,” members who may not actually have assaulted anyone but who it wouldn’t necessarily surprise you if they did. IFC Fraternities directly support rape culture by attracting and empowering these individuals. It is not by accident that many are in IFC fraternities: IFC fraternities are sources of power on campus. The structure and culture of IFC fraternities generally allows the “bad apples” to get away with acts of sexual or social violence because there is not incentive to do otherwise. As long as we, the non-IFC student body, continue to attend the parties, IFC fraternities will have all the support they need from us. Additionally, the administration factors into this model by allowing the IFC fraternities to exist as the only on-campus source of drinking nightlife. This is because they, like the student body, have a vested interest in keeping students partying on campus. As long as the fraternities are “good enough” that we can claim it’s “just a few bad apples” who cause all of the assaults we hear about, we will never have to confront the truth of the situation: while fraternities directly support those “bad apples,” we as a campus indirectly support them by empowering the IFC fraternities.

To begin with, let me spell out why I believe that the IFC fraternities are corrupt institutions. As I alluded to earlier, IFC fraternities occupy a unique position of power on our campus as the only source of on-campus partying. Leaving campus to party is not only more expensive, but it’s not an option if you’re underage, as most of the guests at IFC fraternity parties are. If you don’t want to leave campus to drink or party, you essentially have two options: your dorm or frat row. And your dorm is not a dancefloor, nor an official party space, so if you have too much fun you’re gonna hear from campus safety. As the only party scene on campus, IFC fraternities attract into membership not only those who like to party, but those who want the power of hosting that party. To be clear, hosting parties is a lot of work and constitutes a certain kind of servant leadership to the student body, yet it also attracts the “bad apples” on our campus who want power over others at those parties. A frat brother at a party is in his element, and a lopsided power dynamic exists between himself and his guests that can easily be abused. This dynamic exists in part because of the requirements in place for joining an IFC fraternity.

While you have to be interested in power and parties to want to join a fraternity, one final thing is required to actually do it: money. Over the year I was in an IFC fraternity, I spent roughly $1,400 on dues and fees alone. This significant financial barrier does a few things, including precluding men from lower socio-economic backgrounds from joining, which imbues membership with a subtle sense of superiority. It creates both a sense of obligation and entitlement, as well: once you’ve paid you feel like you not only need to get your money’s worth, but deserve to. What a “bad apple” considers his money’s worth should concern you.

To understand how IFC fraternities not only attract but protect and empower “bad apples,” it is necessary to understand the culture of IFC fraternities. To do that, we should start at the beginning: pledgeship. It is often said that pledgeship is about teaching the values of the fraternity and forming bonds among the pledge class. This is only half true: pledgeship is about teaching values, but not the ones written in the handbook: pledgeship is about teaching secrecy, obedience to seniority, and tribalism, and this is accomplished through hazing. Allow me to define some terms: “tribalism,” as I will use it, is the belief system wherein membership in one’s own group is treated as more important than other factors, such as moral correctness. “Hazing” is something we think of as severe and obviously abusive, but the reality is much more complicated. Hazing has to do with the relationship between active members and pledges. When an active and a pledge interact, there is an imbalance of power, since the active member controls to some extent whether or not the pledge will be accepted fully into the fraternity. This allows for hazing, where the actives can (and do, at every IFC fraternity) require the pledges to do any number of things. They might have to do chores or cleaning, or do something humiliating like wearing silly clothes; sometimes hazing is strenuous exercise, and sometimes it is physical, verbal, or mental abuse. When I was a pledge, hazing was integrated right into our actual learning of the fraternity handbook. We would have a test every week, and if we missed any questions we would have to do wall-sits or planks or clean the house. On a daily basis I also had to dress a particular way and carry around certain objects with me like gum and quarters (for vending machines), and give these to brothers when they asked. If I didn’t have them I got hazed. If I told anyone, I got hazed. If an active felt like it, I got hazed. At first, believe it or not, I accepted my hazing because it was kind of fun. It became a challenge I wanted to beat. The punishments were mild, and it did bring me closer together with my pledge class to have a common problem or to suffer on one another’s behalf. Plus, eventually I knew I would be on the other side of this arrangement, asking pledges for ridiculous things and watching them scramble to comply. But only if I put up with it myself would I have the right, just as the people above me had to. It was and is a cycle.

It took me until after I’d earned the right to haze pledges myself to realize what had happened. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t “actually” abusing anyone, it didn’t matter that they liked it; I was teaching the same thing I’d been taught: “Don’t question this, it comes from a place of love:” tribalism. “Just do it, or you’ll make it worse for yourself:” obedience to authority. “Don’t tell anyone about this:” secrecy. If you resisted, you were breaking rank and were unworthy of brotherhood or the keys to power yourself. I guess that’s what “brotherhood” comes down to when you pay for friends; my value as a “brother” was not based on my willingness to speak up and hold others accountable, but the opposite. I doubt there was much of anything in my pledgeship that you would see as a meaningful brotherhood experience, in terms of how you probably understand the word.

“Brotherhood” is one of the values that fraternities universally claim to promote, and yet another problem I notice with this notion is the consistent presence of alcohol and drugs at fraternity social events. Generally, fraternities meet to party and to plan parties. When there are social events for the brothers alone, alcohol and/or drugs are almost always involved. What does it teach our men if they can’t get together and be themselves without substances? What does it say if it’s not enough to meet to simply support one another? It’s a direct message that emotional vulnerability as well as sobriety in a group are unmasculine; it’s textbook toxic masculinity.

“Brotherhood” is also generally construed as a higher kind of friendship where brothers hold one another to a high standard of accountability. Unfortunately, the culture of secrecy and privacy precludes this ideal from reaching reality. For example: you or a friend are out at an IFC fraternity party and get groped by a senior member. You can do something about it or just leave. To do something about it, you have to tell a brother or a campus safety officer, neither of whom will take you seriously unless you know who groped you or your friend, which is not always a given. Even then, the chances are slim that there will be any real consequences for him within the fraternity not only because the brother is a senior, but because even if the fraternity knows who did it, they have little incentive to actually bring consequences against the “bad apple” because that only harms their reputation as a group.

Being in a fraternity also encourages bad behavior through the anonymity of identifying with a group. When you identify with a group like a fraternity, the reputation of the group often supersedes your own. In this way, the goodness of a few exemplary members or even the acceptableness of the majority of the members protects “bad apples” from outside scrutiny. The fraternity’s reputation is generally also protected by the positive reputations of their good members except when the “bad apples” are so bad that their behavior mustbe confronted. This gives them no incentive to confront the minor behaviors of the “bad apples.”

Aside from brotherhood, the other values that the IFC fraternities claim to espouse, leadership in the community, philanthropy, and gentility/honor, are also illusory. It is the same dynamic as for “bad apple” behavior at parties, but on a larger scale: a little partying is innocuous if the fraternity is all about brotherhood and gentility, a little scandal can be excused if the fraternity is generally all about leadership in the community and philanthropy. Unfortunately, IFC fraternities’ allegiance to these ideas is hollow and exists only as a shell to hide the fraternities’ real natures from the outside world. Take community leadership for example: the majority of fraternity men are not involved in community leadership. Many don’t even do extracurriculars outside their fraternity, let alone hold leadership roles. As I discussed earlier, group dynamics and alcohol dynamics generally make sure no real brotherhood is to be found. I feel confident branding the philanthropic efforts of IFC fraternities a sham as well. As the previous philanthropy chair of my old fraternity, I can say that there was a depressing lack of conviction and initiative when it came to brainstorming, planning, doing the legwork for, and running philanthropy events. It seems that this issue was not unique to us: would it surprise you if a group of fraternities that collectively asks over $200,000 in dues every year raised less than $2,000 for their philanthropies last year? Think: can you name a single fraternity’s philanthropy organization? Can you remember their last event? Did it look successful to you? I bet you know that Tri-Delta supports St. Jude, and that Kappa Delta supports the Girl Scouts. IFC fraternity philanthropy exists in name only. Finally, as far as gentility and honor, I won’t go so far as to say that frat brothers are all impolite because that wouldn’t be true. I will venture to say that all-in-all I’ve never noticed that IFC fraternity men are any more polite as a whole than the rest of the male students at Rhodes, and that I do not believe being in an IFC fraternity encourages gentility or politeness.

Ultimately, the “good” aspects of IFC fraternities serve mostly to disguise the reality, which is much less tasteful. The reality is, of course, that the de facto main function of IFC fraternities is to throw parties. “Bad apples” are not in the IFC fraternities by some accident: IFC fraternities are pay-to-play party machines that offer the disguise of a well-rounded, highly-thought-of, community-minded leader to their members, and most fraternity men will never do anything about it. As long as we, the student body, continue to attend their parties, there will be no reason for them to change a thing. To them, it is “good enough.”

That’s where we enter the picture as the rest of the student body: we’re ok with “good enough,” too, because clearly a sizeable chunk of us are still attending the parties. It’s “good enough” because you probably won’t get assaulted at your favorite frat. It’s good enough because the IFC fraternities don’t outwardly look as corrupt as they really are, meaning we have plausible deniability in our support of them. It’s good enough because going into Memphis to party is expensive and not a viable option if you’re underage, and that’s the majority of students out at the fraternities. It’s good enough because there are no other on-campus options, and it’s probably too big a problem to ever change, and if you speak up against it you’ll probably be ostracized. My friends, I think that we deserve better than “good enough.”

The IFC fraternities need to change if we are to reduce sexual assaults in our community, but we have to recognize that they are the way they are because of the culture they exist within. We students have put our desire to party on campus in front of our desires for safety and our sense of what is right for too long, and we must recognize that weare the biggest thing standing in the way of the IFC fraternities changing. If we all stopped attending their functions, the IFC bunch would literally turn everything it knew on its head to get us back. Just like it’s doing right now: I recently learned that Pike has pledged to start taking the drinking age seriously and to forbid the bringing of open containers to its parties, as well as to provide sober monitors and have multiple mediums where the student body can voice concerns. Bravo, Pike. Campus is watching, let’s see if you are capable of keeping your word. I’m curious to see if you do, or if this turns out simply to be another mode of blaming alcohol for sexual assaults.

The next biggest thing that stops IFC from changing isn’t even the fraternities: it’s the administration. Because they also have an interest in keeping the party alive at the IFC fraternities, the administration is implicated too. The administration knows that they can’t crack down too hard on partying on campus because it will just force us off campus; however, they also can’t look like they’re in charge of the party scene on campus, because 1) there’s underage drinking, and 2) if and when something goes wrong, their reputation will suffer. The IFC fraternities solve these problems for the administration by allowing the administration to keep us on campus and in their control without it looking like it. As long as the fraternities are running things, they will have a scapegoat to shake their fingers at when things go badly. We are the same way, and there will alway be enough IFC frat bros to point the blame at so long as we keep giving them the one thing they need to survive: attendance at their parties. Make no mistake: whether you are in IFC, a non-IFC student, or an administrator, we are all implicated in what happened at SAE a few short weeks ago. We’ve been feeding into a cultural system that has no place on our campus for far too long.

We would like to say we are surprised when something like the assault at SAE happens, but I don’t believe that. The reality is that we’ve known about lesser instances of this kind occurring for as long as any of us have been at Rhodes. Can we say we’re shocked when we’ve heard of druggings, rapists holding officer positions, and high numbers of reports being blamed on the “wokeness” of the guests? Can we really say we didn’t expect this when we joke that SAE stands for “Sexual Assault Expected?” Can we really look so naively at a party culture we have allowed to be purchased and run almost exclusively by straight, white, affluent male studentsas to say we did not see this coming in some small way? The truth is that we like the idea of being surprised because it makes our outrage look authentic and new, when the reality is not so neat. To be clear, I think outrage is the correct response when someone in our own community assaults anyone. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be surprised nor limit our outrage to IFC, because insofar as we are complacent in building the rape culture we are all implicated in the assaults that come out of it. We like the idea of being surprised because our outrage alone is too late to stop this assault.

If this really upsets us then we should consider that we hold the keys to change. If we’re reallyoutraged then it might be time to reallycommit to a course of action that will prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. I recommend that we begin by following the example Culture of Consent has set for us by boycotting the fraternities until they prove to us that they have met the very reasonable demands of “hold yourselves accountable,” “mandate training,” and “speak up.” The titanic inertia of these old, corrupt institutions is such that they will only change if we give them no other options by seriously threatening their existence, and denying them your presence does just that. If you’re in a fraternity, I recommend advocating for change in your group, and quickly. The only way to keep your privileged position as the exclusive source of on-campus partying will be to throw out the old ways. Use what you know about obedience and secrecy to subvert the power structure and affect change.

And to the students both in and outside of IFC, perhaps it’s time to collectively hold the administration responsible for the bastard child of drinking culture that they have created. They need to know that they’ve been using the fraternities as tools to keep the parties physically near but politically far, and it’s not good enough anymore. What would it be like if we could throw our own parties on campus like IFC does? What would it look like if we were able to elect the students in charge of those parties instead of letting men with money buy their way into a tradition? Can you even imagine a party scene where everyone is safe and included, and youth drinking culture is not hidden like some abomination? Underage drinking isn’t going away, but the school can make it safer by letting the community take responsibility for it. It’s not as radical an idea as it sounds: Trinity University in San Antonio allows underage drinking as long as those student remain below a 0.08. We all just want to be able to party safely, and if the administration really cares about our quality of life outside school hours, they will help us achieve this, or start providing meaningful nightlife alternatives regularly. Bingo at the lair isn’t cutting it.

What I’m advocating for here is nothing less than a campuswide social movement because I don’t think anything less will really stop assaults like this from happening again and again, as they have been since the beginning of modern fraternities. If we want change, we will have to put aside our desire to party on campus for a while. This means skipping formals, having difficult conversations, and standing up to our friends. This means standing together as a student body to fix a system that’s always been broken. It means discomfort, because change is uncomfortable. If that turns you off, then you better be comfortable with being part of the problem.

If you think this won’t work, you’re probably right. As much as I hate to say it, I think that we, as a campus, lack the strength to hold a boycott or stop assaults. If I were to make a prediction, it would be this: a good number of people will boycott until the terms are met. A lot at first, then less, as many decide they don’t want to waste their college years boycotting parties. Eventually the boycott will be too small to make an impact on IFC and it will effectively die. The administration will listen patronizingly and make nominal changes so they can look progressive while not really threatening the status quo or risking anything. They’ll deem our requests for a party scene run by the students a pipe dream and shy away from the reality of the situation, because the truth is that they’ve been in the wrong for a very long time, especially compared to the four years we can spend here as students. They’ll stall us until we’re gone, and with us, the only problem they really have to worry about: organized students demanding change. Students will return to their favorite frat, “Good Enough;” the IFC fraternities will go back to business as usual, and eventually, someone will get assaulted again. We will be “surprised.” We will be outraged. And that will be “good enough.”