Last week, Alyssa Ratledge '11 delivered in her column ("Sex crimes, complacency and complicity," Oct. 29) a scathing critique of the sexual assault policies at universities across the country, specifically citing the recent incident at Yale as well as an incident during Spring Weekend at Brown in years past. Ratledge was not only on the money with her argument, but also did a lot of work to open a discourse which seems to have previously resided in the shadows. In the spirit of this opened discourse, I would like to talk about Wriston Quad.
This critique is in no way meant to be a blanket statement, but rather a recognition of trends and an analysis of their effects. That being said, I think Wriston is a clearly identifiable bastion for the kinds of cavalier approaches to sexual assault which Ratledge decries in her column. On Wriston, we see a system where sexual assault is protected on all sides: Alcohol blurs the lines of consent, which, if still acknowledged, can be crossed with little to no fear of serious repercussions. The latter part of this is true first because of the fraternal (pun intended) nature of the system. There exists an unspoken code that "what happens on Wriston stays on Wriston," and if necessary, the "brothers" will close rank and protect their own. Second, because fraternity members are anonymized by institution, punishments are often brought against the organization rather than individuals. (Such is the case at Yale.) This allows for low impact accountability, and also serves to protect student groups which, at the end of the day, are really just a collection of glorified party-planning committees.
In making this argument, it is important to recognize the membership of fraternities as being made up of individuals with agency, thus separating a bad institution with bad practices from the idea of "bad people." In this framework, I think it is possible to explore how the archetypal oafish behavior of a "frat boy" is both a product of mob mentality, and actively detrimental to the members themselves.
Although possible, I highly doubt that every person at Yale chanting "No means yes, yes means anal" actually weighed and agreed with the tremendous consequences of that statement. Likewise, I doubt that every fraternity member who participates in the Wriston circus agrees with the morality of dangerous pledge events or the varying degrees of sexual assault which seem endemic to the scene. However, they participate nonetheless, and slogans like "It's better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission" are still screen-printed on T-shirts during Spring Weekend. So, if we are to assume that the individuals who participate in fraternities are not all in agreement with this sort of anti-consent messaging, this means they are falling victim to an institutionalized system where mob mentality reflects the view of a minority, and thus implicate themselves in and become compliant with any and all subsequent consequences.
In this way, fraternities are harmful not only to their surroundings but also to their constituents. The often fulfilled stereotypes of fraternity behavior push people to do and say things that, if thought through with independence of mind, would not even be considered.
Having your identity displaced and reappropriated is a disempowering experience, and if repeated for long enough, it can fundamentally change your moral compass. Just like seeing excessive violence in various forms of media has desensitized our culture to images that would before have been shocking, the same thing happens as a result of overexposure to Wriston on a Saturday night. The definition of sexual assault becomes slippery, and drunkenness starts to become a valid excuse for a lack of explicit consent.
I anticipate that my argument might be cast aside as conjecture, and there may be claims that I did not sufficiently back up my opinions. I will say that this is not for lack of evidence, but rather due to an overwhelming amount that would easily warrant a dissertation and could not possibly be represented in an opinions column. Simply Googling the words "fraternities sexual assault" brings up page after page full of links referencing various sexual assault cases at various frats at various universities country-wide. Also, the validity of any statistics on this topic must be called into question since universities have a vested interest in keeping their yearly sexual assault reports to a minimum.
At the end of the day, I think this means that fraternities either need to shape up and change their culture or get off of our campus. Aside from some community service projects, they do very little to make Brown University a better place, instead doing a lot of work to institutionalize a slew of really bad ideas. My personal call to fraternities at Brown and nationwide: Change your practices, change your reputation and make Greek life a positive experience for your members and the community at large. Or, conversely, GTFO.
Chris Norris-LeBlanc '13 has friends in fraternities, and would like to make sure they know this is an institutional, not a personal, critique. He can be contacted at chris.norris.leblanc (at) gmail.com.