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 is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and holds the Panula Chair at the Catholic Information Center. Her most recent book is Adam and Eve after the Pill, Revisited, with a Foreword by Cardinal George Pell.