Let’s talk about frats (realistically)

Fun fact: Bros love dogs.
Fun fact: Bros love dogs.

Disclaimer: Matt Leibowitz, founder of Consent Is So Frat, is one of my closest friends. During our senior year of college we used to sit on the floor of his bedroom and talk about how activists could enact change. That being said, I do not speak for him or for Consent Is So Frat. My opinions and experiences are only mine. Matt and I actually disagree extensively on how to address rape culture within Greek life.

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and abusive relationships.

To start, this is not an essay defending Greek life. I have no interest in defending Greek life. But this is also not an essay calling for its eradication. Simply put, I have no damn clue what the solution is to rape culture within fraternities, or to rape culture on college campuses, or to rape culture in the world. Although I do not have one personally, I think solutions are awesome, and I welcome anyone who wants to try to fix what’s broken within our universities to join the conversation.

And that’s why I support Consent Is So Frat, even if I don’t support Greek life. Consent Is So Frat is doing something. Instead of stopping at talking on the floor of their dorm rooms about what’s wrong with fraternities, its founders stood up and made an organization with an action plan. Although most of its forward facing online presence is full of its branding (t-shirts, solo cups, and the like), most of its actual work is in creating educational programs to bring to universities. Consent Is So Frat isn’t perfect, and no anti-sexual assault effort will ever be without its triggers just by nature of talking about sexual assault, but they deserve major kudos.

Instead of just listing what I don’t know, let me talk about what I do know: rape culture is pervasive and sneaky and horrible, and it finds life within institutions. We’ve seen this most recently with the NFL’s domestic violence problem, and with the American military’s attempts to root out assault and harassment from its ranks. And fraternities are institutions, powerful ones with ludicrous amounts of political, economic, and social capital. As a result, shitty people within those institutions (because every institution has shitty people, because the world is full of shitty people) get away with a lot. Things get swept under the rug lest there be an ugly headline or lawsuit. That’s a reality. Sometimes the answer is to say hey, institutions! Fuck you! Sometimes the answer is to reform institutions mercilessly until fewer assholes get away with murder.

Bye, bye Beta. Not so sad to see you go.
Bye, bye Beta. Not so sad to see you go.

Because of its enormous power and male-dominated spaces, I don’t like the concept of fraternities in general. I’m glad my alma mater made the decision to require frats to go co-ed within three years. I would love to see a Wesleyan without Greek life at all. Wesleyan’s frats have become unbelievably dangerous, and the us vs. them nature of the conversation about reform is polarized and out of control. I don’t have a lot of hope that the fraternities will become a shining beacon of progress following the decision to invite women into their houses as members, especially when that invitation is mandated by the administration. The rage I saw at Beta last weekend (rage as in raging party but also rage as in sexist rage against the women who had the misfortune of walking by the house and being screamed at by drunk brothers) was horrifying. And there is very little interest on either side, within Greek life or the social justice community, in finding a solution together. The time to talk about reforming frats at Wesleyan is over.

But Wesleyan is not the only university in the world—it is a special little liberal arts bubble with an intense, personal conversation going on about its values. Eradicating Greek life, or severely limiting it, is the right step for Wes to combat harm. But that doesn’t mean it is the right step for every university. The issue of sexual assault and Greek life is much bigger than Wesleyan.

And that’s what has bothered me about the criticism I’ve seen Consent Is So Frat receiving from the Wesleyan community. Simply put, Consent Is So Frat is not an organization built for Wesleyan. Yes, its founders and early staff are Wes students and alum. But in its goals and structure, it is an organization for schools that do not have the hyper-intense “consent is critical” conversation happening on a daily basis. Wesleyan knows consent, at least in theory if not in practice. We have the language already. There are zines about sexual assault available in Usdan and bystander intervention workshops held regularly. It’s not enough, but it’s more than most. We’re aware.

But state schools? Southern schools? Party schools? Schools that love sports and all that stuff most Wes kids only know about from watching Friday Night Lights? Yeah, those conversations aren’t happening there like they are at Wesleyan. Consent Is So Frat is about explaining and normalizing consent in those environments. And those schools are hungry for that conversation. This is proven by the fact that Consent Is So Frat has already lined up pilot educational programs at numerous colleges despite being a newborn organization. Consent Is So Frat has been covered by USA Today, Cosmopolitan.com, and a number of smaller publications. Clearly they have tapped into something.

So who am I to talk about this other than a friend of Matt Leibowitz? I am a recent Wesleyan graduate, a feminist, and a sexual assault activist. Many of my friends from college participated in Greek life. And I am also a survivor of fraternity abuse.

Bros atop Foss in their natural habitat.
Bros atop Foss in their natural habitat.

For much of my time at Wesleyan, fraternities were at best irrelevant, at worst absurd. I didn’t go to parties at Beta and DKE because I knew I would get groped on the dance floor. The feminist in me knew that was fucked up, but the threat seemed at bay as long as I avoided those spaces. I knew frat bros sat on top of Foss Hill in folding chairs and yelled things. They were part of the scenery. And I think that divide is pretty standard for how most Wes kids experience Greek life: it’s separate from the rest of the student body unless it’s a weekend and you want to listen to the Top 40 Cover Band at Psi U, or find someone to bone and then never talk to again (red flag, anyone?).

But I interacted with individual fraternity members on a daily basis in my classes, on my dorm floors, and at club meetings. Most of those interactions, friendships, and even hookups were great. They were smart, respectful dudes who just had different interests than I did. Some of my friends in Greek life became disenchanted with their organization and drifted away, while others remained steadfast until the end. Some of them were feminists and lead conversations within their chapters about co-educating, while others were more inclined to talk about their financial investments and split a Natty Ice with me on Foss. And they were honest with me about the flaws they saw in Greek culture and the behavior of some of their brothers. Most just didn’t feel empowered to say anything or felt the tide was against them. Even so, the more time I spent with frat members, the more I understood the appeal of the organization, even if I wouldn’t want to be a part of one myself. Like a true family, they supported each other when someone was having a tough time or needed help with a project. All of that loyalty and honor stuff? They really believe it. And they were all good people.

Ella goes to a frat formal: gets her groove on.
Ella goes to a frat formal: gets her groove on.

But, like in any institution, there was an exception. I fell hard and fast for this exception. I’m convinced the universe has a rule that you have to date someone when you’re in your twenties who teaches you what rock bottom is. He was the stovetop I wanted to slap my hand on. This bro had a checkered past and perfect dimples, and our relationship was a cycle of romantic highs and emotionally abusive lows. By the end of the relationship I had no idea who I was dating or what he was capable of. I wouldn’t call what happened to me rape, and to be honest I feel weird referring to myself as a survivor when I have very little understanding of what I survived. But my consent was violated in so many little ways, in so many manipulations and guilt trips and pressures and lies by omission and harassing Facebook messages and… well, it took me months to understand the magnitude of what had happened to me. It was with the help of my friends (some of whom were his fraternity brothers) that I got out of the relationship before things could escalate. Even so, years later, putting what happened to me in even the vaguest of words like this in a public forum is terrifying. I never want to return to that period of my life.

But I am, because I owe it to myself and because I want organizations like Consent Is So Frat to succeed. Because in the end, the fraternity protected my ex. Even though it was his brothers who helped pull me out and stay safe on campus once the relationship ended, they balked at kicking him out of the organization. Knowing this group of men I respected so much—and felt so grateful for—was doing nothing to punish him was enough to keep me up at night. It forever changed some of my friendships. There were a lot of variables that went into no action being taken, the most important of which being I hadn’t filed an official report. I made the decision not to because I feared my ex would resume his harassment of me if he did, and that the reporting process would be more damaging to my mental health than doing nothing would be. Deciding whether or not to report is one of the hardest decisions a survivor of any kind can make, and ultimately it was a choice I had to be selfish about. So with no report made against him, what could the frat do? At least that was what I was told. Individually, brothers informed me that I had their support. Collectively, I saw nothing.

Ella does her best bro impression.
Ella does her best bro impression.

So no, I don’t trust fraternities. I think in their current form they are cowardly institutions. But Consent Is So Frat and other organizations working with Greek life can go a long way in empowering brothers to act. Sometimes it’s by providing the language to identify wrongs and call each other out. Sometimes it’s by training brothers in bystander intervention to prevent situations from escalating, like my friends did. And most importantly, to me at least, Consent Is So Frat can give brothers the confidence to condemn abusive behavior as an organization.

To some that might seem like making consent palatable to bros, particularly at Wesleyan where the conversation surrounding this issue is so fraught and painful. “Shouldn’t bros know that raping people is wrong?” That’s the wrong question to ask. A better question would be, do bros know the many forms that rape can take? That abuse can take? Do they understand the telltale signs of misogyny that might warn them not to offer a bid to a potential brother? Do they understand that having a high standard for behavior and removing students from their organization who are abusive will reflect better on them as a whole than sweeping such incidents under the rug? That staying loyal to the frat means doing the right thing for its character, rather than standing by an individual brother?

Institutions are always going to have their own best interests at heart. Many small liberal arts colleges are phasing out Greek life, and maybe that is what the future holds. But even if that future does arrive, it might take another century or two for the rest of the educational system to catch up with Colby and Middlebury. It’s naïve and counterproductive to pretend otherwise. So let’s create approaches to fight rape culture within frats now. Let’s give brothers the language to move forward in thoughtful, non-hostile environments. For those universities that want to learn, Consent Is So Frat is willing to work with them from the unique position of a friend. Obviously they are directing their message to men, but that is exactly what they should be doing. On its staff are frat brothers, yes, but also women, and they are making a concerted effort to create their program in line with the needs of survivors like myself. It is not a bullshit ally organization selling solo cups and stylish tank tops. It is an educational program, and it is working from within to change the culture.

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Ella Dawson is a rowdy millennial who cares too much about The Bachelor. Her passions include sexual health and education, feminist erotica and social media.

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