Today’s refrain

Specifically, today’s refrain is: Everything might be terrible.

I feel like I’ve been saying this for a while. It’s getting old.

As a postscript to my last post: In light of the recent updates casting doubt on the veracity of the 2012 UVA gang rape story, I am again grieved, but in a different way. I still believe that the fraternity system is morally bankrupt and beyond reform. I’d still like to see it end everywhere. But the larger issue, of course, is that because of the fuzzy facts, once more, we will see future rape victims who are brave enough to come forward dismissed and accused and blamed. She’s hysterical, we’ll hear. She’s making it all up, just like that girl at UVA. These days, I feel like we just keep losing.

(As a further aside, I don’t think “Jackie” was making it all up. I do believe she was raped, but we clearly are missing some critical facts, such as by whom and when, causing me to believe that this may never be adequately resolved.)

This week, I’ve felt on the verge of unhinged crying jags or unreasonable tirades. I feel like I can’t handle my current degree of stress, even while admitting it is so much less than what other people have to live with. Today, at lunch at home, I stood in the corner of the dining room and cried and told Guion to eat the rest of my apple because I just couldn’t handle it right now. Sometimes you want to feel sorry for yourself, even if you know that you don’t deserve the pity you so desperately want to receive.

Things to read, as a distraction:

  • No Such Thing as Racial Profiling, Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker
  • Dude Girls of the American West, Tomboy Style
  • Difference Maker: Meghan Daum in the New Yorker (from September 2014) on “the childless, the parentless, and the Central Sadness.”
  • Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks: I’ve been reading this novel about the controversial abolitionist John Brown very slowly, and I’m enjoying it. Much more than I typically enjoy historical fiction. Banks is a fabulous writer, and I’ve barely heard his name mentioned, which is a shame.
  • A Carolina Dog, The Bitter Southerner (with thanks to Ethan for sharing)

Things to think about, as a distraction:

  • The prospect of fires in the fireplace
  • The hope of healthy dogs
  • Brown paper packages tied up with string (which is my Holiday Wrapping Theme)
  • A precious few days with my siblings and parents in the upcoming weeks
  • Gold calligraphy ink that flows from the nib like magic
  • Clementines, clementines, clementines. All I’ve ever wanted in life is an unlimited supply of clementines…

What have frats done for us?

In the wake of the horrific Rolling Stone article about a 2012 gang rape at the UVA fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, I have found it hard to control my emotions, waffling between rage and sorrow. It seems that sexual violence is the theme of the year in my town, the supposedly peaceful Charlottesville.

The residents I’ve talked to, many of whom are UVA alums, are grieved, but sadly, many of them are not surprised. The general sentiment is: Yeah. That sounds like something frats would do — and have done for years. And then there is the outpouring of feelings of powerlessness against an entrenched system of violence, adolescent stupidity, and misogyny.

This is my question: How powerless are we?

To me, there seems to be a very simple answer, or at least, a practical solution that could begin a tidal wave of much-needed change: Shut down all the fraternities (and not just for a few weeks, to pacify public outrage).

No, this wouldn’t solve the problem of rape. Sexual violence is often committed by men who are not frat brothers. No, not all frats are evil. Obviously, not all frats are raping women. There are some genuinely lovely and good-hearted men who are in or were in fraternities, and I am delighted to know many such men.

Phi Gamma Delta House University of Virginia-Fraternity from Negatives from the Charlottesville photographic studio plus an index volume  Holsinger's Studio (Charlottesville, Va.)  1890-1938  Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.
Phi Gamma Delta house at UVA. University photo archives, 1890-1938.

But let’s discuss honestly what this action could do. What are the advantages of the greek system in American universities? What have fraternities done for university cultures?

Advantages of frats

  • Having a bunch of friends that your parents purchased for you who are all in your same social class. Accordingly, a sense of unity, loyalty, and belonging within this artificial, homogenous family
  • Business connections. Hey, later in life, you may be asked to conduct judicial review of your own frat when it faces gang rape charges! Sweet deal.
  • Parties! Which naturally involve plenty of alcohol, with the added benefit of skirting the law on underage drinking (due to lack of enforcement)
  • Some mandatory community service

Disadvantages of frats

  • Parties! Copious alcohol + no law enforcement/adult oversight + groupthink = a perfect storm to generate a mass of bad decisions.
  • Hazing. Most panhellenic organizations will tell you that hazing is illegal. But most frats will admit that they still do it. Just a little bit. Just enough to maybe kill just one student a year (as was common at UNC). It’s just one human being. He wanted to fit in!
  • Frat houses that are private property (like many of the houses at UVA) create a perfect culture of protection for frat activities. You can wreak fairly unsupervised havoc to your heart’s content. A private frat house is also a perfect location to trap and rape women with zero consequences to yourself and your brothers.
  • When you do get in trouble, you benefit from a large degree of protection from university officials because you’re rich. Accordingly, your parents and your frat’s alumni hold clout, because they too are well off, and your university doesn’t want to piss them off by punishing you.
  • A culture that encourages a strong sense of brotherhood (aka idiotic male behavior), often culminating in a high degree of misogyny.
  • A culture that fosters racism and elitism. I can’t even remember how many times UNC frats got in trouble for racist and sexist parties while I was working for the student paper; too many times to count. The elitism is so blatant it’s almost not worth mentioning. Such organizations, like fraternities, that exist solely to exalt the most privileged members of society seem crass and anachronistic in 21st-century America.
  • The exaltation of tradition. Frats have existed for a long time and were often the first organizations established at American universities. There’s a strong feeling that we must protect frats, at all costs, because they have been around for so long. Particularly at such a university as UVA, which views history and tradition as a veritable religion, long-held customs and cultures are very slow to change — or even to admit that they need to change. (Reveling in that kind of circular logic of, well, we’ve always done it this way and therefore it is perfect and unchangeable.)

Some Surrounding Facts

  • Men in fraternities are more likely to commit sexual assault than men who are not in fraternities (NASPA Journal, 2007). The relevant and especially damning passage from this research on rape prevention:
    • Among men on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to commit rape than other college men (Bleeker & Murnen, 2005; Boeringer, 1999). Thus, rape prevention efforts often target fraternity men (Choate, 2003; Larimer, Lydum, Anderson, & Turner; 1999; Foubert & Newberry, 2006). Compared to their peers on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to believe that women enjoy being physically “roughed up,” that women pretend not to want sex but want to be forced into sex, that men should be controllers of relationships, that sexually liberated women are promiscuous and will probably have sex with anyone, and that women secretly desire to be raped (Boeringer, 1999). Beyond the aforementioned quantitative findings, qualitative research suggests that fraternity culture includes group norms that reinforce within-group attitudes perpetuating sexual coercion against women. These cultural norms have the potential to exert powerful influences on men’s behavior (Boswell & Spade; 1996).

  • About 30% of UVA’s undergraduates belong to a fraternity or a sorority.  (In contrast to other regional schools, UNC, my alma mater, has 17% of the student body involved in greek life; Duke University has about 38%.)
  • About 55% of sexual assault occurs at parties, and in about 72%–81% cases of reported rape, the woman was intoxicated.
  • Women were not officially (fully) enrolled as undergraduates at UVA until 1972. So, comparatively, this is a school that is still figuring out how to treat women as humans. Let’s be honest: The Great Demigod Thomas Jefferson wasn’t exactly a role model in this arena. (By contrast, UNC enrolled its first woman student in 1897.)
Phi Gamma Delta, the second fraternity chartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, in 1851.
Members of Phi Gamma Delta, the second fraternity chartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, in 1851.

Let’s be clear: This kind of evil, predatory behavior is not exclusive to UVA. While at UNC, I heard about a story a year about a girl being raped by her frat date, and I heard collectively two separate stories about women in our circle of acquaintances who suffered gang rape at frats. Being assaulted by frat brothers was a common horror story at UNC. A few miles down the road at Duke, my friend, who was in a frat there, reported that many Duke frats had “progressive parties” in which one of the rooms was the “date rape” room, into a which a girl would be lured and sexually assaulted, and then moved on to the next station at the party. These parties are still happening there today, and no frat has been punished for them.

Sexual assault happens at colleges all across this country, which is why this is a problem of epidemic proportions — even if the evidence is scattered and hushed, tending toward horror stories that women quietly share with one another.

Why would we not try to stop at least SOME of those regular assaults against women by closing down institutions that are famous for sexual violence?

Again, frat brothers are not the only agents of evil. There are plenty of other men out there who are committing sexual assault without the assistance of the greek system. But I earnestly believe that we can stop an enormous proportion of the problem of recurring sexual violence on campuses by shutting down fraternities.

If we shuttered frats, students could still join clubs. Parties would still be had. Gratuitous amounts of alcohol would still be consumed. And, sadly, I am not so naive to think that sexual violence would end. Women would still be in danger on a regular basis, so there’s that, to pacify the traditionalists.

But we could shut down a series of long-standing institutions that promote some of the worst sides of human nature: entitlement, machismo, sexism, recklessness, and a grievous lack of respect for human dignity. At this point, I think frats are beyond saving. They are too far gone to implement reform. The entire culture is morally bankrupt and has been for decades. Good men can exist inside this system, as we all know, but the bad that frats generate seems to far outweigh the good.

Is it not worth it? To make some wealthy alumni angry in exchange for improving university culture and perhaps protecting the lives and bodies of girls?

I don’t think university officials think it’s worth it; they’d rather have the money. Money wins, just about every time, when you put a young woman’s life on the scales.

Again, I’m not stupid. I don’t really believe frats will be shut down. Frats will continue to grow and thrive and rape. Those men who assaulted their dates will graduate and become prominent members of society. They’ll become fathers. They’ll pass on their beliefs to their children. And their little juniors will go on to college, join a frat, and start the cycle all over again.

But if we don’t start seriously questioning the worth of some of our most cherished institutions, our world will not improve. And we will continue to hear the same horrific stories, year after year after year. I am trying to be hopeful. In the meantime, I won’t stay silent about what I perceive to be a vicious cancer in our universities.

If the initial article didn’t make you angry, here’s some additional reading that might.

Final exercises, University of Virginia

Guion received his MFA from the University of Virginia this weekend!

Serious graduate

With my MFA

I am so very proud of him (and so thankful that his degree brought us here, to this little town that we love).

Guion and parents

We had a great (albeit soggy) weekend with Mike, Windy, and Georgia.

Kitchen table chats

Looking forward to seeing them all again soon!

UVA Final Exercises 2013

Receiving his diploma
Receiving his diploma from Chris Tilghman.
The MFA
The lone MFA.

And now the poet doth seek a nap.

Tired graduate

Tired graduate

Franzen also finds the “Grounds” silly

It was stupid that a “Vigil of Concern” was held for no conceivable practical reason, it was stupid that people kept watching the same disaster footage over and over, it was stupid that the Chi Phi boys hung a banner of “support” from their house, it was stupid that the football game against Penn State was canceled, it was stupid that so many kids left Grounds to be with their families (and it was stupid that everybody at Virginia said “Grounds” instead of “campus”).

— From the perspective of Joey Berglund, freshman–yeah, I said it! Freshman!–at UVA, in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. At least we can agree on that, Joey. At least we have that.

That’s all I have for you today. As a disclaimer, I do actually like Charlottesville a lot. But I also like Jonathan Franzen and I’m taking his side on this one.