Should Christian Boys Join Fraternities?

Ordinarily, the news last month that a frat house at Yale had been ordered to suspend all pledge activities because of its members’ obscene nocturnal chants wouldn’t have attracted much scrutiny from this quarter. Even the fact that George W. Bush once numbered among Delta Kappa Epsilon’s distinguished members might not have been enough to do the trick. Until a few months ago, I’d have thought what most other readers probably think about the wild side of Greek life – boys will be boys, let them sow their wild oats, they’re just blowing off steam, everything we adults say when we’re not paying attention to things we don’t want to know anyway.

But that nonchalance, for what it’s worth, has not survived a prolonged bout of research for an essay I wrote that appears in the latest issue of First Things. That piece concerns some eyebrow-raising recent social science about the dark side of campus life for some students – a phenomenon that I call “Toxic U.” The article does not dwell on – though this column will – one word that comes up repeatedly in the social science as one locus of these noxious campus trends: fraternities.

As students you know can verify, especially if they attend secular universities or colleges, there’s plenty of trouble to be found on campus for anyone who goes looking for it – and also for other students, mainly girls, who don’t. Plenty of recent social science, including studies and surveys about date rape and binge drinking, backs up the point. Perhaps even more compelling is another source of information that most parents are probably unaware of – a recent and steady stream of confessional accounts about the dark side of frat house fun.

In her highly praised 2005 memoir of alcoholism Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, for example, author Koren Zailckas describes inter alia a number of incidents at fraternity parties that most people would call “rape” or “assault.” She also argues for dismantling the Greek system, arguing that “fraternities and the boys in them are hazards” and that “any funds fraternities raise for charitable organizations, all the Habitat for Humanity houses they can build, will not compensate for their utter destructiveness.” Her first-person account jibes well with Tom Wolfe’s dark portrayal of Greek life in I Am Charlotte Simmons. Judged overly pessimistic by some critics, that book’s dim view of the frat scene continues to be vindicated by memoirs like Smashed and similar tales in college papers, blogs, and other sources.

“In the day” is not the way it is today.

Other recent looks at Greek life include Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking (1999), Inside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige (2007), and Torn Togas: The Dark Side of Campus Greek Life (1996). Though all of them make for tough reading, this last book is especially revelatory – even harrowing, especially for anyone who knows young women now in college. Written by a former sorority sister, Esther Wright, and dedicated to her own daughter in the hope that the child will “experience a better world,” Torn Togas is an account of frat houses where rape or date rape or date drugs or all three are apparently common; where boys compete among themselves weekly and sometimes nightly to see who can violate the most girls; and where girls often do not know what hit them until they wake up from a blackout to discover that someone has had sex with them.

There are also the non-confessional authorities to consider. Social scientists who study such things report that binge drinking, for example – defined as consuming at least five drinks within two hours (remember, five is just the minimum) – is higher in fraternities than elsewhere on campus; and that both fraternity boys and sorority girls drink more than non-Greek students on campus. No single set of numbers is foolproof, of course, but taken together, they suggest that party nights in some frats are the stuff of parental nightmares.

Consider the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study (CAS), prepared for the Department of Justice and based on surveys of over 6,800 students. Some 19 percent of the women reported experiencing completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college – and over a quarter of those further reported “incapacitated” sexual assault, meaning they were incapable of giving meaningful consent. Of the girls reporting incapacitated assault, over a quarter named fraternity boys as the assailants. Several studies also report – parents might want to take note here, too – that sorority members are at higher risk for sexual assault than girls in the general campus population.

But leave aside the issue of date rape and its inevitable descent into the foggy land of “he said, she said.” Certain other things apparently common to Greek life in many places shouldn’t make the bucket list of college life, either – at least not for Christians. Drinking to oblivion is unanimously said to be the norm at most frat parties. Hazing rituals sometimes inflict pain on pledges, and occasionally are even dangerous. Neighbors of fraternity houses commonly complain of plastered students, garbage, vomit, property damage, and other fallout of uncontrolled piggery. Moreover, the role that certain fraternities might play in incubating future alcoholism and future disrespect for women is not even part of the discussion yet – though obviously it should be. “No means yes!,” the only chant by the Yalies mentioned earlier that can be printed here, seems to say it all.

This brings us back to our original question: should Christian boys join fraternities? No doubt certain fine and even outstanding Greek houses are being unfairly maligned by association with the rest; many people say so. But the problem remains: how on earth are Christian parents and students supposed to tell the two apart?

Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. Some of her previous The Catholic Thing columns (and columns by others in which her work is discussed) can be found here. She is the author of several books including It’s Dangerous to Believe and How the West Really Lost God.

  • Chris

    Thank you Mary for asking us to face some ugly truths about college life. It would be a good place to mention, however, some of the options Christian college students have for fellowship and service: the Cardinal Newman Society has some solid resources for Catholic families looking at colleges, and the Brotherhood of Hope runs Catholic campus ministries in that epicenter of secular excess known as Boston. The Knights of Columbus, while mostly parish-based, are everywhere, and could (or should) be persuaded to increase their efforts to reach out to college-aged men. I’m sure there are others, but those come readily to mind.

  • Yezhov

    The Chi in Sigma Chi, of which I was a member, stands for Christ. The J in SJ also stands for Christ. The Oregon Province of the latter has just been financially wiped out in legal settlements for sexual abuse. The point being that neither organization is intrinsically bad, but what its members make it. Both the Greeks and religious orders had better get their houses in order or face a well deserved extinction.

  • Big Dubya

    Your warning about college-life dangers is valuable for parents who attended school in a different age. However, you do a disservice to imply that disordered relations between the sexes are primarily the fault of men. These young men would not act like drunken a**&!@$s if girls did not reward the behavior. How do these young ladies come to find themselves at fraternal bacchanals? Are they kidnapped? Or is it possible they attend of their own volition?

    Some theology 101: men and women are equally fallen creatures. Catholic writing is at its sharpest and most incisive when that fact is borne in mind.

  • John

    Bill, women are not to be absolved of blame, surely, but the men bear primary responsibility for “taking advantage,” and acting as aggressors in most situations. Although I have long been inured to the foolishness of youth, I am still somewhat shocked that the excesses mentioned by the author could be so widespread. That they take place at Yale, considered a top-tier university, is yet another indicator as to how far higher education has fallen.

  • John K

    My son started college at state school in the mid-west this year. He is at the Catholic Phi Kappa Theta fraternity. I was pleased to learn that they had recently prayed the Rosary at an abortion clinic. The diocese’s vocation director shares a meal with them monthly. From all indications they seem to be on the right track.

  • evw

    After a semester at Grove City College (in the ’80s) in which the greek system was THE only thing to do, and feeling like there was something completely incongruous to a Christian lifestyle, my father handed me C.S. Lewis’s “The Inner Ring” which hit the nail on the head for me. It’s his take on man’s desire to always be on the inside of any group, to have special treatment, as a way to convince us of our worth, but looking in all the wrong places. For Christians, greek groups can be that trap.

  • BBS

    As mentioned toward the end of this article, greek life at college is very dependent on the individual organization. I graduated from college 2 years ago and was a member of a fraternity. However one of the things that attracted me to that particular fraternity was that it was a “dry” house, and they heavily advertised themselves as a “gentleman’s fraternity”. Among the unique requirements of our fraternity it was not permitted to be seen “wearing letters” while drinking. Of course I’ve often been asked “what’s the point of a dry fraternity?” so I realize this was an exception to the common expectation. Certainly there were moments there where brothers made bad decisions but as a whole it was a pretty upstanding group. I believe it is the responsibility of an individual to make the right decisions. However, I understand if 90+% of fraternities are “bad” it may be good to strongly recommend against membership in them.

  • Bill May

    As a long-time employee on college campus as a food service professional I believe the article is factual as are the comments from readers.

    There is a solution, though. It is for the college administration to admit that there is a problem and begin to fix it, Disbanding the frat system is not the answer. What is needed is for responsible adults to be involved with the individual chapters. Adults will not and cannot be seen aligned with the frats due to the libility issue. The college should purchase the insurance needed to protect the professors and administrators who work within the system. Once you have adults teaching and guiding young adults you elimate young adults teaching fledgling young adults the “ways of life” as they were taught by other young adults.

    The greek system really is broken and needs to be fixed.

  • RES

    Fraternities are always an easy target or scapegoat for people like this author who want to raise the issue of bad behavior by college students. I attended a university that had kicked fraternities off campus but — this should not suprise anyone — there was still plenty of binge drinking, pot smoking, rude conduct, and (probably) sexual aggression. I have a hard time accepting the author’s premise that fraternities are the proximate cause of bad behavior by good Christian boys.

  • Jewels

    I’m a House Mother at a sorority at a private university in the Midwest that I actually attended and belonged to another sorority 42 years ago. I think the fraternity system gets blamed for far too much that is happening to young people whether they are in college or are organized.

    I find the students in fraternities are the leaders on campus, they are motivated to make good grades and they do quite a bit of community outreach. Sororities aren’t allowed for insurance purposes to drink in their houses – that’s not to say it’s never happened but they are fined and the officers are quite serious about this. I know there is binge drinking but I don’t see that as an exclusive fraternity problem. I see it as a societal problem as I do the change in sexual mores. We had a young woman that was asked to leave this year by her sisters because she crossed a standards line and brought someone into the house in the middle of the night. I guess I see the good in these young people. I have six houseboys from various fraternities that work for me that are fine men. Several are devout Christians and have spoken to me about their beliefs. I don’t think the fraternal bond means you can’t be a Christian.