Frat Boy Culture, Gender Identity, and Rape

Update: the author of the article and book discussed below took the time to kindly respond to my post. See the comments for his feedback.

Alternet published a piece last week by historian (and gender and sexuality studies professor) Nicholas Syrett called “Why Is the Frat Boy Culture So Sleazy and Sex-Crazed?” The article stems from Syrett’s recently published book, The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities.  The book looks fascinating and is now on my ever-growing shopping list. Frat-related assault is a huge problem that we have discussed here many times. Syrett’s book seems to offer an analysis of creation of a “fraternal masculinity” that has grown more and more aggressive over the past hundred years. One review of the book offers this summary:

Always a means of asserting and defending class exclusivity, the pressures of coeducation in the later nineteenth century and the ethnic and racial integration of the early and mid-twentieth century meant that their masculine identities were increasingly built around misogyny and racism–the exclusion of all of these new “others” who were increasingly part of the experience of university life.

Sounds pretty cogent to me. That said, the Alternet piece focused much more on the fear of homosexuality and the rise of dating on college campuses as an explanation for the shift in masculinity, and these arguments—in and of themselves—sound a little less convincing to my ears (though admittedly, ears which haven’t done the extensive research into the matter that Syrett has).

Syrett’s argument (in the Alternet piece) goes something like this: In the 1920s, college-age men and women started dating and frats and sororities made up the majority of the dating scene. Suddenly one’s position and popularity within a frat was judged by the caliber of the girl you were dating, or how attractive you were to women. This turned the male gaze onto male attractiveness—you became aware of how appealing your fraternity brothers were in a sexual manner previously ignored. Enter the fear of homosexuality:

They were caught between a rock and a hard place, even more so when some fraternities actually did turn out to be havens for homosexually inclined students, as my own research indicates, and as Dorothy Dunbar Bromley and Florence Haxton Britten found in their fascinating 1938 study, Youth and Sex. From the 1920s onwards fraternity men have responded to this dilemma with the enactment of particularly active dating and sexual lives designed to refute suspicions of homosexuality and to assert heterosexuality, and thus masculinity. These practices have only increased throughout the twentieth century, in part as a reaction to the intensified denigration of homosexuality at mid-century and as a result of the increasing sexual permissiveness of college women in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

It’s not that I don’t buy the argument—asserting “traditional” or aggressive masculinity in the face of perceived homosexuality or the “feminization” of male cultures is a widely visible modern phenomonon, from the claims of “no homo” in rap lyrics to all of the trend pieces about the backlash against “metrosexuality” (and then many beer commercials etc., that illustrate said backlash). In the late 90s when I was a teenager, all anyone could talk about was how bands like Limp Bizkit were the inevitable response to the more “sensitive,” female-friendly male grunge figures like Kurt Cobain. However, in terms of actual sexual assault, this doesn’t totally cut it for me. What’s missing from Syrett’s piece (and what I’m guessing is covered in his book?), is a discussion of the changing power dynamics between men and women over the same time period. As schools were gender-integrated, female college enrollment increased (surpassing male enrollment in the late 90s), and women began succeeding more often in previously male-dominated fields, my guess is that the the attitudes toward women in male-only spaces such as fraternities would be likely to change dramatically. While anxiety over homosexuality surely plays a role in changing masculinity, I would attribute far more of that change to anxieties over female power, or anxiety over how males will be “feminized” in a world where women have (more) control. It seems to me that it is less an outright fear of being a homosexual than it is a fear of being perceived as weak and effeminate, or rendered as such by a female-driven society. That would account for the use of the word “gay” as an insult not to mean, literally, you have sex with people of the same sex, but you are weak, inferior, less than.

So you now have male-only spaces filled with men who harbor anxieties about what the growing prominence of women means for their gender identities (not to mention their pragmatic realities—women are making more demands, they are entering the workforce, etc.) What better place for hostilities and resentment to fester and grow than one in which the “other” (in this case, women) will not be there judge or fight back? And what better way to reassert dominance and set the power dynamic back to its traditional (im)balance than subverting women through sexual assault? This is how rape is used as a tool of war, right? Showing the enemy who is the dominant combattant by taking (sexual and reproductive) control of the women? If rape is about control and power, then the simple fear of being perceived as “gay” (whether in a literal or metaphorical sense) alone does not paint the whole picture—there is an obvious element of gendered power struggles missing, one that has more to do with how men perceive themselves directly in relation to women and not just in relation to each other, gay or straight. It cannot just be about having sudden increased access to women, it must be about what this female presence is doing to shift the delicate (male) balance.

Syrett ends his Alternet piece by saying,

“Until fraternity men learn to be more comfortable with the intimacy fostered through the bonds of brotherhood without demanding its concurrent disavowal through homophobia and the conquest of women, it seems unlikely that women will be much safer on college campuses with active Greek populations.”

Yes, but! But also they must learn to be more comfortable with the ever-changing roles of women, and they must learn to establish comfortable identities that aren’t based in opposition to what is perceived as “female.”  I am pretty uncomfortable making any absolute claims about what does or doesn’t cause men to rape, as I think most explanations (including the one I just offered above) are likely to be pretty reductive and miss a number of important threads, but definitely there is an issue power dynamics that I was quite surprised to see missing from this piece. Hopfully I will soon have the money to buy all of the books on my insane wish-list and I will find that Syrett tackles all that and more.

    5 thoughts on “Frat Boy Culture, Gender Identity, and Rape

    1. Pingback: Monday Blogaround « The Gender Blender Blog

    2. My friend Historiann (to whom you linked in your post) told me about your post on my recent article and book and I just wanted to respond briefly. The original article was actually commissioned and published by the National Sexuality Resource Center at their website (http://www.nsrc.sfsu.edu/) under a different title.

      Because I was limited to only 2000 words I had to be brief. I am very much interested in the question of women’s power on campus and spend a good deal of time in the book talking about the arrival of women on campus in the later nineteenth century and during the 1920s as their numbers came to equal (and often exceed) men’s numbers. In essence, while the article focused mostly on perceptions of homosexuality, the book also deals with the place of women on campus and their increased autonomy over the course of the twentieth century and how that might be related to rape. And it also takes as axiomatic that one of the main problems with fraternity culture (or almost any all-male sex-segregated culture) is the denigration of the feminine and the need to define masculinity in ways that assert superiority over women. I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that I think you’re right and I hope that the book adequately addresses these very questions; I certainly wrote it with them in mind. Thanks for posting about it!

      • Dr. Syrett, thanks for responding! I assumed (as I hope I made clear!) your book took on those issues, and I’m glad to hear it indeed does. I of course sympathize with the need for a narrow focus in a short piece, and I really look forward to reading the whole book. Not nearly enough academic texts have taken on the causes and context of rape culture, and this looks like an exciting addition to the field. Best, Sarah

    3. Sarah, I agree with the interesting comments made here. The author nailed it! I wonder if he read my blog before writing the book; and if his research included personal interviews with rape victims of the 1960′s. The dynamics of all-male groups are indeed fascinating, particularly those on college campuses.

      Please view my theories on how and why gang rape occurred a few generations back. This blog contains an actual account of a gang rape in which I was personally involved.
      Thank you,
      Georgia Girl