Kavanaugh and #MeToo Raise New Questions About Youth Drinking Culture

We Have Institutionalized Drunken Parties and Rape Culture on Campus

frat party, DKE
Party at the DKE fraternity house in 2012. Photo credit: Daniel Parks / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing gave the world a glimpse at the lives of privileged American boys in high school and college in the 1980s. The culture of parties, drinking, and sexual abuse is to this day very much a part of fraternity life on colleges and university campuses across America. And while many successful businessmen, lawyers, and politicians consider the day they joined their fraternity to be one of the most important days of their lives, fraternities are often just safe spaces for excessive drinking, class privilege, and sometimes criminal behavior.

That’s the view of journalist John Hechinger. In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, he talks with Jeff Schechtman about what goes on inside today’s fraternities. He exposes the sexism, rape, and general sadism among young men happy to pay annual dues of $7,000 or more to be part of these exclusive groups.

Hechinger takes a deep dive into the fraternity SAE, which some have said stands for “Sexual Assault Expected.” He recounts stories of women having been raped at SAE parties in Georgia — and explains why such behavior has been tolerated by both administrators and alumni. All in all, he says, the dehumanizing hazing rituals enforced at some fraternities place them among the most anachronistic institutions operating in America.

Hechinger is the author of True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities (PublicAffairs, September 26, 2017).


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Including Russia and the threat of nuclear war, no subject has received more attention lately than the subject of sexual abuse and sexual harassment conducted by men who are some of the most elite cultural, political, and business leaders in this country. Every day, new revelations and new perpetrators are revealed. Yesterday, we all watched as this continued to play out at the highest levels of Washington.
It all begs the question as to where and how does all of this begin. Is it something in the water in Hollywood or Wall Street or Washington? Or it is something that begins sooner, perhaps in the fraternities of some of our most prestigious universities? Are our universities and fraternities becoming a kind of breeding ground of young sexual predators?
We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, John Hechinger. He’s a senior editor at Bloomberg News and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. He’s written extensively about education and finance. He, himself, is a graduate of Yale University, and he’s the author of the book True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities. John Hechinger, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
John Hechinger: Jeff, thanks so much for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Fraternities were once meant as an organization to do good, to be of service to the community. Talk a little bit about that original pledge, the original intent of what fraternities were supposed to do.
John Hechinger: Well, if you go back to the 19th century when most of our current fraternities were born, they were … They started as literary societies, places where men could talk about serious subjects and could get away from the sort of focus on Latin and Greek and some of the duller subjects that were dominating universities. They kind of breathed new life into colleges, and they created the kind of modern American college experience. But from the beginning, there was a lot of drinking and misbehaving and even rioting involved in members of fraternities. They kind of had a split personality which they’ve been struggling with from the very beginning.
Jeff Schechtman: What were some of the tipping points in all of this? When were the periods of time when fraternities really began to change, when more focus, more emphasis began to be placed on the party side of it all?
John Hechinger: Well, as I mentioned, there was a problem with alcohol from the beginning, but if you look at the modern era, the real sort of rise of the current fraternities begins in the 1980s. 1960s and ’70s, you had kind of the counterculture making fraternities less popular. In the 1980s, one thing happened which actually played into some of fraternities’ sort of darker side which was the raising of the drinking age. Suddenly, fraternities were a place where, sort of a private space where men could drink and have parties. You see from within fraternities themselves a great concern that they had kind of lost their way, that they had become almost like drinking clubs on campus, the center of the party scene. I think most, within and without fraternities, would say that that’s kind of the beginning of the current culture that we see.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent have the changes that have taken place in fraternities – and we’ll delve in and talk a little bit about your experiences kind of going up close and personal in these fraternities – to what extent has it reflected similar changes in the broader culture and particularly in the culture of universities?
John Hechinger: It’s so interesting. I mean fraternities in different periods of history found themselves kind of out of touch with kind of the mainstream of college campuses. You saw in the ’60s and ’70s, they were very resistant to the Civil Rights Movement and excluded minorities from membership. If you go back further when women started joining colleges in greater numbers, fraternities excluded them. They could have welcomed them, but they saw them as newcomers and so women were excluded. They were often mistreated. As a result, women formed their own organizations, sororities.
You see kind of… some of the strands that you see of kind of misogyny and racism as well as the drinking. You see that sort of throughout their history. Now, they find themselves at a time where women are kind of ascendant in higher education. They’re achieving at very high levels. There are more women than men. In one sense, they find themselves on the defensive, but on many campuses that I visited, fraternities remain incredibly powerful. They kind of control the social life. They often control student government. They create an environment, sort of the fraternity party, that place women at risk. You see kind of the struggles we see in the rest of the country.
Jeff Schechtman: How have they gotten so powerful on so many college campuses? What role have administrators played in either allowing that to happen or just turning the other, turning a blind eye?
John Hechinger: I think there are a lot of people who see fraternities as kind of a subculture and maybe not that important, but what I found is that they are integral to the fabric of most universities, particularly the big state universities that educate most Americans. I mean they’re often … Their houses are often on public property. They’re subsidized by taxpayers when they’re at public universities. They house a quarter of a million students. They’re the largest landlords after colleges. Their alumni are among the most loyal donors to colleges. They’re really important citizens. They’re an important constituency.
When colleges want to attract students, particularly out of state students, to big public universities, a thriving Greek culture is actually very appealing. The students market their party scenes and they endorse fraternities until, of course, something terrible happens like a death from hazing or a sexual assault. Then colleges often will say “Well this was the fraternity’s fault.” There’s this kind of very difficult and fraught relationship in many ways.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent do you see differences in fraternities in different parts of the country? Really what I’m asking is the degree to which fraternities, like so much of our society today, have become politicized with respect to the red and blue divide in America?
John Hechinger: That’s a really good question. I mean what I found in terms of talking to leaders but also through some pretty definitive social science research is that members of fraternities do skew on kind of the conservative side. You go back into the history, they tended to kind of be more traditional. In terms of gender roles, there’s … The gender roles both in fraternities and sororities are more on kind of the conventional side. In that kind of debate on campus, they would be sort of looking toward the more conventional. That creates a lot of conflicts.
I also think that … You ask about the different regions. It really will depend. I mean you can go to chapters in places like California which are very diverse or you can perhaps go to fraternities in the South which… I visited University of Alabama and there the chapters, the sort of traditional, powerful, historically white fraternities will have few, if any, black members. There are definitely regional variations that stretch back into our history.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent are racial issues still a big part of what’s going on with fraternities?
John Hechinger: I mean you will see time and again racial episodes. It might be a party that has kind of a ghetto theme that people find offensive, blackface parties, outright attacks on members or guests. There’s an episode being investigated right now at Cornell University. As I looked into it, I saw that this segregation of Greek life was really an important part. A lot of research shows that the Greek scene is among the most segregated on college campuses. Because of, again, the history of excluding minorities, you have African-American fraternities and fraternities for members of other groups. You have this university that’s ostensibly trying to attract diverse students and have them mix and learn from each other, and then you have the Greek scene which divides them by race as well as by gender. That creates a huge, huge number of problems.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean in many ways, it’s also reflective of the broader culture in terms of kind of the silo-ing that we see in so many other aspects of society.
John Hechinger: That’s certainly true, but what you see is that most colleges try to heed the Supreme Court which said that diversity is in the national interest. It’s a way to prepare students to work in a modern economy and a diverse workforce. It’s kind of essentially a national priority. And yet, fraternities almost immediately when students step on campus will divide people based on class and by race and certainly by gender. That kind of works counter to the agendas of many colleges. I think that one of the efforts that I would suggest would be helpful in the book is just to get some more information out there about membership of fraternities. You can’t really look at the demographic information about fraternities, but I was able to get some at certain schools like the University of Alabama. I think it’s important for people to know that there are chapters that have, for instance, no black members and have never had black members. I think that that would put pressure on fraternities to become much more integrated.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the harassment, sexual harassment and rape culture that has become part of so many fraternities and is a big part of the fraternity that you look at.
John Hechinger: Well that’s … I think that’s an important issue. I mean there are really two areas. One is sort of just attitudes, and what you’ll see is a kind of steady stream of misogynistic behavior of jokes about raping or attacking women. You had DKE (Delta Kappa Epsilon), the fraternity at Yale a number of years ago, having members walk into the freshmen quad chanting “No means yes.” That has been kind of a constant, constant issue. There are also a fair number of studies that suggest that fraternity men have attitudes what social scientists call sort of rape-supportive attitudes that women, for instance, put up a resistance that you have to overcome. All of those, all of those issues create a problem.
But I also looked at the environment which I think is also important. You have fraternities create parties where you have underage bartenders and free-flowing liquor. Often, there’s … You invite freshmen women who are away from home for the first time. You create a ratio where there are many more women than men, and that is an environment that every study I’ve seen shows that that kind of environment of heavy binge drinking is kind of a recipe for sexual assaults. You put all those things together and fraternities are … Women who frequent fraternity parties are one and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted.
Jeff Schechtman: What has been, if anything, the pushback from sororities and from women in general to all of these aspects of fraternity culture that we’re talking about?
John Hechinger: Well, in terms of sororities, it’s really interesting. Sororities have a very different approach. There’s much more centralized authority. For instance, in general, sorority houses do not allow drinking in their … Do not allow drinking or parties with alcohol, and they also have live-in chapter advisors. As a result, you don’t see the kind of sort of hazing and alcohol poisoning deaths among sorority women. I looked at almost a decade long period. I found 60 among fraternities. That’s one way in which sororities are much safer. Now, the flip side is that there’s so much drinking at fraternity parties and sorority women are most likely to go to fraternity parties and they run, at least according to one study, three times the risk of rape. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about administrators of universities and colleges and how they’re dealing with it or not dealing with this.
John Hechinger: I think what you’ll find is that most colleges with big fraternity scenes will endorse the school until something, endorse fraternities until something bad happens. Then there will be a crackdown and you’ll have the chapter close usually for about four years till there’s a new set of members who can have a fresh start. Maybe things will go well for a while, but you’ll have a cycle of these kind of chapters opening and closing again.
Also what you’ll find is that if in many cases, because alumni are so powerful and they are such big donors, that if you have, say, a college president that really wants to take on fraternities, it’s tough. They’ll face a lot of resistance. In the book, I talk about two cases where it appears that the college presidents actually lost their jobs when they took on the fraternities. It’s not easy.
Jeff Schechtman: What about the degree to which some of this is criminal behavior that takes place? What, if anything, has law enforcement outside of the universities done about it?
John Hechinger: I think that there’s been a sort of abdication of responsibility for enforcing drinking, underage drinking laws at universities. That’s on the part of the universities and also campus police and local police. I mean the local police are often focused on crimes that are more serious. Campus police usually look the other way. What you find is that there’s … Research, for instance, shows that fraternity men drink, binge drink much more than anyone else on campus and they’re holding the parties where the most liquor is being offered. It’s no secret, but then the law enforcement and the colleges look the other way.
Jeff Schechtman: All of the attention that is being paid now to issues of sexual harassment and really at some elite levels, do you sense that that is in some way going to filter down to this discussion about what’s going on at universities and fraternities?
John Hechinger: I think that’s so interesting. If you had asked me last year, I would say that this was something that there was a lot more pressure on fraternities to sort of clean up their act, to expel members that are treating women inappropriately, to try to create environment where rape is not so common. This year though, some of the pressure’s been taken off. You’ve had the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, are now saying that “Look. We’ve gone too far, that men are being unfairly accused of sexual assault,” and there have been some cases that were clear miscarriages of justice. They’re going to make it harder to prosecute sexual assault. This is going to mean that, if there’s been a lot of drinking involved in a case, it’s going to be extremely hard for campuses to discipline any students, and certainly the police are going to have trouble. I think this is a problem that’s really going to be here to stay.
Jeff Schechtman: One wonders, that as a result of more women in power at every aspect of government, of universities, and of the private sector, as well as what we’re witnessing this week, whether this is going to create any kind of pressure for change that filters down to the universities.
John Hechinger: Well I think there’s … The pressure for change in fraternities comes from that certainly. It’s also come because there have been numerous lawsuits against fraternities and a lot of financial pressure. I focused the book on Sigma Alpha Epsilon which had had more deaths than any other fraternity in the period that I studied. They were really afraid that they were going to lose their insurance which would essentially put them out of business. So they decided to take some action and they actually looked at where a lot of their debts were occurring and it was during pledging. This is a period, the initiation period, where a lot of the most dangerous activity and the heavy drinking happens. They decided that they would eliminate the pledge period. There was kind of an outcry within the fraternity because it’s a very proud tradition. About three and a half years ago, they took that step and they haven’t had a death since. A lot of their other injuries and other problems have diminished.
That’s one way sort of financial pressure is going to make a difference. Social media is making a huge difference. Much of this misbehavior now is recorded. When there’s racist behavior, you can actually see it. If you look at what happened at Penn State, a lot of different electronic media caught what was happening when a student died in February during a hazing episode. Now, there’s a criminal case. That will put a lot of pressure.
I think recently the cases of harassment and accusations of sexual assault in Hollywood and in the media, women coming forward and telling their stories, absolutely that’s going to make a difference, but I still think until fraternities stop dominating the party scene and serving hard liquor with no adult supervision, it’s still going to be a very dangerous environment for women.
Jeff Schechtman: And of course, the fraternities, because of alumni you point out, have access to an awful lot of high-powered legal help as well.
John Hechinger: That’s right. I looked at a case in North Carolina, at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington where a college tried to shut down a fraternity where there had been, where a student had nearly died from alcohol poisoning, and their very powerful alumni felt that the fraternity had overstepped and fought and fought and actually ended up getting new members on the Board of Trustees. In the end, the president that had taken a stand left because of it, basically lost his job. Yeah. I mean it can be very tough to take on fraternities.
Jeff Schechtman: Money, of course, is a big part of that as you were talking about with respect to alumni and donors, but also the nature of fraternities and who’s a part of them.
John Hechinger: That’s also true. I mean one of the strengths of fraternities, in a good sense too, is they provide tremendous opportunities for men because they have this huge alumni network where you have… 40% of presidents belong to fraternities. Most recent Congress I looked at, same percentage of senators. They’re in the highest reaches of business, many Fortune 500 CEOs. Apart from this whole issue of partying, a lot of men want to join fraternities because they know that it’s going to help them later in life. There’s a survey that came out recently looking at one college that members of fraternities earned lower grades, but they ended up making almost a third more income when they graduated. There’s some real benefits. That money will also flow back to the university. Yes, I mean I think that they serve a purpose. They often serve their membership really well.
Jeff Schechtman: Maybe that really is the turning point when suddenly being a part of it doesn’t serve you well later in life because there’s social media, because there’s photographs, because there’s exposure, and because there’s the kind of culture that is taking a look at all of this now as we see happening, that maybe this becomes a black mark that really matters later on.
John Hechinger: I think that’s true. I mean the fraternities themselves and, again, I focused much of the book on SAE, they are really trying to tell members that if they send an offensive email or they sing an offensive song, someone with a camera or someone on the other side who gets forwarded that email, it’s going to end up becoming public. I actually attended their leadership school which is actually held on a Caribbean cruise, and I watched their chief spokesman give a class on what he called PR Nightmare: Our Public Image Exposed. He showed pictures just from the internet of just all these offensive language on rocks and just racist language, Confederate flags, strippers in front of chapters. He just pointed out that you may think that this is something that you can do privately, but in the world that we live in, people are going to find out. That’s true. That’s not going to be good for their careers.
Jeff Schechtman: John Hechinger. The book is True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities. John, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
John Hechinger: Jeff, thank you. It was my pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from SEA fraternity  (Daniel Parks / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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