Alexandra Robbins is no stranger to the lives of teenagers. In the past, she's written about sororities, the college admissions process, and the promise of young geeks. Her new book, Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men, burrows into an especially thorny pillar of youth culture: It follows Jake, a freshman going through the process of pledging a fraternity, and Oliver, a steadfast chapter president who spends a year trying to keep his house out of trouble. While telling both of their stories, Robbins weaves in critical essays and statistics about frat culture itself—about how studies generally conclude sexual assault by members of fraternities is more likely than by other men on college campuses, how they came to embody America's mainstream conception of masculinity, media misperceptions, and the intricate evolution of these often strange societies.
Robbins's book seems well-timed given the evolving national discourse surrounding male Greek life in particular. In 2015, two frat brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, at the University of Oklahoma, were expelled over a racist song. Last April, videos surfaced of members of Syracuse University's Theta Tau saying racist slurs and mocking the sexual assault of a disabled person. That September, the Yale Daily News published a photo showing members of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's fraternity (he was a sophomore at the time and not pictured) brandishing a woman's underwear, feeding the perception that he spent much of his young life embroiled in an atmosphere of toxic masculinity.
Robbins's book is no takedown, however. Instead, it offers concrete ideas for how frats can improve in the #MeToo era, as institutions from the Catholic Church to private schools to Hollywood production companies face overdue scrutiny for the toxic men they produced and, almost as often, protected.
VICE spoke to Robbins about her time reporting Fraternity, the difference between what she describes as high-risk and low-risk fraternities, what makes these flawed institutions so "American," their seemingly never-ending ubiquity, how their history can help inform their future, binge drinking, sexual violence, and, of course, Animal House.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
VICE: You spend some time in the book discussing how the media often only reports on sensationalized frat stories. Do you really think the press has an unfair view of frats in general?
Alexandra Robbins: Yes, I do think it has a bias, and there are misconceptions that the general public and the media have against fraternities. As brothers told me when I asked them if they felt that the media caricatured them with unfair stereotypes, they said yes, but in some cases, the stereotypes are also true. So, while fraternity brothers understand that because there is such terrible behavior from some chapters, which is obviously reported in the media, they do still feel a little bit like they're under siege, because the chapters that are in the headlines represent a minority of chapters overall.
How have fraternities evolved over the centuries?
It surprised me that fraternities, in the beginning, weren't about women at all. They didn't concern themselves with women in the least. In the 1920s, as women's enrollment in college increased drastically, men began to define masculinity as opposed to femininity. Then, as homosexuality became a label in American society, fraternities, like other all-male groups, became under suspicion—because here was a group of guys who lived together, ate together, and slept in the same house. So, as a way to counter that, and prove their masculinity, at a time in which heterosexuality was becoming a characteristic of masculinity itself, many fraternities changed their recruitment practices to recruit men who were good at seducing women. And, then, fraternities started to boast about their prowess with women, because they were trying to assert that they weren't gay. Even though, of course, some members were.
So, it's fair to say that the people in fraternities—the type of people who joined them, I mean—changed?
Yes. The characteristics of the members changed. Since then—that was about the mid-20th century—women have obviously been a major focus of fraternities, in many cases. That takes us through to around the latter half the 20th century: Membership actually began dwindling in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights movement, and many fraternities (not all of them) were not willing to diversify their membership. They went down in popularity, and they almost looked like they were falling out of fashion.
And then came Animal House.
That movie glorified fraternity life, and it changed the nature of college life in America as a whole, because suddenly students thought the college experience was supposed to be filled with debauchery—and alcohol, of course, was supposed to be flowing plentifully. Beer companies, and alcohol companies, took advantage of this, and began marketing on college campuses, also promoting the idea that, to be a college student, you should be drinking.
When [states raised] the drinking age to 21, instead of changing the amount of alcohol they drank, students just changed where they drank it—and that led them to the fraternity houses, where they could drink out of sight of university officials and law enforcement. So fraternities in the 80s became this locus—this embodiment of the college experience that pop culture was telling kids that it should be.
Has social media had any effect on them, since then?
What social media has done is it has further distinguished the haves from the have-nots, in terms of what students think they should be doing in college versus what the majority are actually doing. People are much more likely, obviously, to post the adventurous, or risqué, or crazy.
Performative sorts of things.
Yeah, exactly. They're not posting the weekend nights where they're sitting at home alone. Meanwhile, studies show that college students vastly overestimate the amount of alcohol their classmates drink, and the amount of sex their classmates are having. Social media is not helping these matters. So, on top of the Animal House image from decades ago, now you have minute-by-minute supposed reminders to students that they may not be having the college experience that society expects them to have.
Do you believe fraternities are particularly "American"—and why so?
There are a lot in the Philippines also, but it's basically just there, and in the US and Canada. There are a smattering in places elsewhere, but nothing like it is in the United States. Here's my theory on that: The American idea of what it means to be masculine is not the same that it is in countries that are not largely influenced by America. As we know from the news, society's prevailing expectations of the American man is that he's macho, tough, dominant, promiscuous, and independent. That he's emotionless. That he's not vulnerable.
Fraternities, the good ones, offer young men the chance to learn how to be vulnerable, to confide emotionally in other men, and to have intimate, platonic relationships with other guys. According to American culture, this would all be not masculine. So, guys are flocking to these fraternities, perhaps for different reasons, maybe just to make the college community a little smaller, but once they're in it, they value the experience so much, because they are allowed to be human beings. Because other countries don't have this stigma against men who have close, emotional friendships with other men, they don't really need fraternities as much as America seems to.
I'm curious about your access, and building trust with your subjects, particularly with Jake and Oliver.
How I found Oliver is less interesting, but adults in his life, to whom he's not related, saw a call I put out for sources. I was looking for, specifically, nice, smart, genuine, considerate guys who embody those sorts of fraternity brothers who we never see in the media. I had heard from dozens and dozens and dozens, and when I heard from him, frankly, he just stood out.
Jake was something entirely different. So a lot of schools across the country teach a book I wrote called The Overachievers, which is about the pressures of high school students to succeed. Jake read that, and his senior year, he emailed me a "thank you" note. I get messages like that a lot, and I do try to respond to everybody, but as I was exchanging emails with Jake, something stood out about him. [ Laughs] He was just so earnest, and so not jaded. He [was] somebody I knew I wanted to keep in touch with.
Then, a few months later, when I decided to write this book, I contacted Jake and asked him if he was rushing a fraternity. And I didn't think he would be, because he didn't seem like, uh—
The "type," yes. In quotes. When he said he was, because his father had been a member, I said to him that I had gotten to know him well enough that I thought readers would really like him. I asked him if he'd be interested in me following him, and he said it would be an honor and a privilege, which was so sweet. He was, honestly, the source of a lifetime. It wasn't just a fly-on-the-wall experience with him. He was so self-aware, and so willing to share every aspect of his experience, down to the most embarrassing and intimate details, the positives and the negatives. You can see what can happen to good boys in the process so clearly that parents and students can look at his story and understand what they need to talk about before and during the experience.
We're now in a moment, of course, where as a culture we're talking more and more about masculinity, and sexual assault, which you acknowledge is more likely to be committed by fraternity brothers than other college men. Are there really solutions to these problems in the Greek life setting?
There are high-risk fraternities, and there are low-risk fraternities, and the difference between those two is rarely reported. The high-risk fraternities that demonstrate repeated patterns of horrible behavior should be eliminated. However, there are many more fraternity chapters that are low-risk, and that could be instrumental in changing campus culture, because they are willing to be leaders. They are willing to hold themselves up as people who want to fight against sexual assault, rather than attempt to cover it up.
I think they would be willing to engage with one of my suggestions for fraternities, which is that instead of the pledge process, have members go through a healthy masculinity program, run by an outside third party. So, from the get-go, they understand that the reason, say, they want to drink so much is because they think that will help them prove their manliness, their masculinity, in a college setting, in which that appears to be valued. Rather [than] once a year, [having] an alcohol-abuse presentation and a sexual assault presentation, if they have a several-week course that teaches them about unrealistic masculine expectations, and where these impulses and misperceptions are coming from, I think they are more likely to have a healthy college experience and to hold other brothers accountable to the same high standards.