UPDATE 5/27: A version of this piece appeared in March, but we decided to update it in light of the news that a Penn State frat is being shut down for three years after an investigation found that members were involved in hazing and sexual harassment.
Times aren't looking great for our beloved national icon, the all-American frat bro. The year has yet to reach its halfway mark, and already we've seen frat after frat publicly shamed in the wake of one alcohol-and-ignorance-fueled scandal after another. Rehabilitation efforts are made, apologies are read at a monotone, a few red-faced bros shout about their First Amendment rights, and nothing much seems to change at all.
Case in point: after members of the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were caught singing racist songs on camera earlier this year, the national chapter announced that it would be launching a diversity initiative, including a phone number to which people could anonymously report SAE members for engaging in racist behavior.
The chapter was, of course, shut down. The president of the fraternity gave an embarrassed speech, and the two leading troubadours were swiftly expelled. It was one of a thousand all too familiar stories of frat bros behaving like entitled brats without a shred of respect for anyone who isn't them.
Do we need to run down the list of recent ugliness committed by frats? There was the Georgia Tech chapter of Phi Kappa Tau, which in 2013 sent around an email instructing brothers in the finer points of sexually assaulting drunk women. There was the Kappa Sigma chapter of Stanford, my own alma mater, where future Snapchat mogul Evan Spiegel suggested Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson as a cool party costume. We can't forget that Pi Kappa Phi of North Carolina State is on indefinite suspension after the discovery of a notebook (allegedly a pledge book) referencing rape and lynching that was signed by multiple members of the fraternity. There are all the brutal injuries, assaults, and crimes that result from sloppy frat parties across the country. And there was the private Facebook group started by Kappa Delta Rho bros at Penn State, where members shared photos of, as a detective put it in an affidavit, "nude females that appeared to be passed out and nude or in other sexual or embarrassing positions." That was the second such group started by the Kappa guys; the original—called "Covert Business Transactions," because someday these bros will run Wall Street—got shut down after a woman learned her topless photo was on it. You just can't keep these enterprising bros down!
The Kappas were just formally kicked off campus, and there are inevitably some consequences for the frats and individual bros caught up in scandals of this sort—but that doesn't mean that people have stopped defending this bad behavior. In March, one brave (and anonymous) Kappa bro gave an outraged interview to Philadelphia magazine following a statement in which he blamed the media for reporting on his fraternity while "overturning the sexual mores and moral standards that for millennia had at least to some extent curbed outright licentiousness." (I think he's referring to feminism, but who knows.)
Mixing all sorts of metaphors, the defender of sexual mores compared the nation's outrage to a medieval witch hunt, went on to describe the chapter's Facebook group as "satirical," and finished by saying he thinks "nobody did anything worth getting in trouble over." Right.
This bro would also probably think it's unfair to link those above incidents to the recent disbanding of the University of Michigan's Sigma Alpha Mu chapter, after its brothers destroyed a family-run ski resort, racking up nearly half a million in damages. According to USA Today, the bros gleefully wrecked 45 hotel rooms over the course of 48 hours, "destroyed ceiling tiles and exit signs, broke furniture and doors, and urinated on carpeting." #YOLO.
Meanwhile, at Washington and Lee, Furman, and the University of Houston, three different fraternity chapters have been suspended for hazing-related offenses in the past two months. A fourth, Pi Kappa Alpha at the University of South Carolina, was suspended this week following the suspicious death of a brother early Wednesday morning. In 2014, at least two young men died because of hazing. Really, bros. There needn't be more.
At some point, you have to stop blaming these things on "momentary lapses of judgment" or whatever the excuse du jour is. At some point, you wonder why this sort of irresponsible, life-threatening bullshit keeps happening at organizations that are supposed to be molding young men into responsible future politicians and financiers, but are instead churning out self-centered, obnoxious alcoholics.
The counterargument, in the words of our anonymous KDR bro, is that "Everybody fools around, everybody makes jokes, everybody occasionally engages in... what might be considered inappropriate behavior!"
And sure, frats occasionally do good things in the name of brotherhood. But if that "brotherhood" doesn't keep morons from taking photos of naked, unconscious women, throwing racist parties, drugging up young girls, and exposing fellow brothers to murderous conditions, there doesn't seem to be much of a point to it at all. For the love of God and country, bros, it's time to clean up your act.
One idea: Start acting like your centuries-old "fraternity values" mean something. You want to be honorable? Stop exposing your members to dire, deadly, dumbass conditions. You want to be brothers? Stop telling 18-year-olds—who look up to you and want to impress you—to do insane, life-threatening stunts. You want to be leaders? Stop whining about how oppressed you are: You're the most goddamned privileged group of men in America.
And yes, you need guidance. Isn't that what fraternities are for, guiding the most privileged into respectable, charitable lives? If there's ever been a time when America's young men needed help, it's now. They're coming of age when mere penis ownership is no longer an automatic ticket to the top. Fraternities have the money, the clout, and the space to make a revolutionary impact on the perspectives of college-aged men. Given the stated values of America's fraternities, shouldn't fraternity brothers be the guys least likely to chant racist songs, sexually assault women, and risk their peers' lives?
As it stands, frats will go on doing awful things, and as a result of those awful things young people, some of them teenagers, will end up hurt or traumatized or dead. Then those chapters will get suspended and students will get expelled; some organizations, like SAE, will hire expensive PR brains and make a big public show of contrition while their members privately fume and whine about how they're the persecuted ones. What we need isn't the predictable outrage cycle that follows each example of bad behavior. What we need is for these prominent, centuries-old, monied institutions to start doing their duty and teaching boys to be men, not drunken, sexist, racist children.
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Photo via Flickr user Laura Bittne