Monday, September 16, 2013

Does Masculinity Undermine Fraternity?

If you ask me, I have the most fascinating job that there is.  Now, that might seem like a cliché, but it is truly how I feel about the work that I am able to do everyday.  Let me explain a bit about my good fortune.  As a Fraternity and Sorority Life advisor, I spend a large majority of my days engaging with fraternity men and learning from their experiences.  I have the ability to provide a space to men that goes far beyond checking in on task and their respective roles within a chapter.  For many, it is the first time that they are able to unpack and express emotions that society tells them are unmanly.  In that sacred space, someone is allowing and challenging them to feel.  Even more so, someone is validating the experiences that may go against the societal status quo, promising a safe space, and encouraging just one meaningful and authentic connection with another brother to create positive change.  Seems lofty, right?  Yeah, I know.  The men that I work with often grapple with their own masculinity, with how masculinity informs the culture and groupthink mentality within their brotherhoods, or what to even do with this information.  Often, it takes quite a while to comprehend the gender roles and the privilege that they have as men, because quietly they are feeling wounded, trapped, and disempowered by expectations.  Nothing about this process is perfect, and that’s just the beauty of it.  I grapple and learn through these concepts right along with the students that I work with.  The hope is that over time, they will start to unpeel the layers of this masculinity thing and want to make some type of impact on their community.  I know that, aside from an immense growth in personal and identity development, most of this is change that I may never see with my own eyes, and that’s okay.

What I do not always have the opportunity to do is to meet with men who have been removed from their chapter or from a chapter that was removed from a campus.  Particularly, I do not typically have the chance to sustain a relationship through this or engage with a student who is so well aware of the current scope of masculinity through tragic lived experience.  Last week, I had that such occurrence and it was truly eye opening.  I sat down with a man who I had never met to hear his experience within Fraternity Life.  Let me caution that I in no means condone or am absolving the pieces of the story that will follow, but simply listening brought me a perspective shift that is worth exploring.  This particular man was a member of a chapter with longstanding ritual, and the “ritual” that I am referring to is not synonymous with ceremonies based off of the chapters’ founding fathers, or values that were implored in the everyday lives of chapter members.  Rather, the ritual that he was referring to were the local customs that had been in place for quite some time – those that had become more egregious over time, and the culture that had been bred within this community of men.  The chapter was ridden with demeaning, sexually explicit, and homophobic hazing activities in order to prove commitment and manhood.  It was a chapter that would also capture and circulate hundreds of documented sexual activities – with or without consent of activities, documentation, and distribution.  For these reasons, and so many more, this group has been disbanded, and the gruesome details are irrelevant for this post.  However, his story and his experience through it, while extreme and a story that might prompt the response of “that’s not us” or “we’d never let things go that far,” when told to other fraternity men, provides remarkable insight into Fraternity gone wrong, but more so, provides another lens into masculinity.
There are so many themes that I do not have enough time to dig into, but I will try to draw forward some of the main ideas.  Fraternity is supposed to be a place where men find a home and a community that reflects their own individual values, and helps them to develop into better men.  However, that many men in one space with a warped sense of manhood are sure to have some immense struggles.  When reflecting on what had happened in our time together, I was brought back to my own college experience.  As an undergraduate, there was this shared consensus among my sorority sisters that when great men joined one specific chapter on campus, once initiated, something had drastically changed within those men and they had ultimately changed for the worse.  I was reminded of that during this initial conversation because there’s something to note about great men joining a group of other individually great men, and yet together, they completely unravel and become something that they themselves would not say aligns with their personal values.  To boot, the men themselves do not even necessarily notice the gradual change until there is a significant impact.  There’s something so twisted, so ironic, and yet, so simple, about heterosexual men who will engage in homosexual hazing activities to prove their worth and then because of that activity and secrecy that has been formed, are able to instill a hypermasculine culture that glorifies homophobia and the objectification of women.  A culture that then is dependent on the numbers game and the meaningless hookups to undo something that cannot be undone.
This student acknowledged that when the glimpses into this chapter’s lifestyle were revealed, his future and that of the others in this group had been tainted forever.  He was not worried though about his future, but rather about his unwillingness to take a stand, his inability to notice the change in himself before it was too late, his inability to see the culture before he became the culture, and how his bystander behavior significantly changed the lives of so many more than just the men in that group.  At one chilling point, he looked me directly in the eye and said, “you have no idea what it’s like to walk around campus with people looking at you like you’re a rapist and whispering about you as you pass by. But that’s on me, and that’s something that I will live with for the rest of my life.” 
His intention for meeting was to want to share his story with active members of Fraternity and Sorority Life in order to bring awareness to the dangers of this culture.  He wants to empower others to notice the culture and to ask for help when things are not right.  But, even he was able to acknowledge that it’s not that simple.  This whole example is certainly not a hazing issue that derives from nowhere.  This is an issue of men needing power and needing to feel something.  When we talked about masculinity programming being critical, he agreed but did not see it to be plausible.  Though I do not think that it is implausible, it is a delicate rope to balance on.  Men are not drawn to engaging in large groups of other men because they struggle with being weak in front of so many, the weakness is a correlation with their manhood, and that’s the only manhood that they have.  What he closed out with was what struck me the most, “but if we get one person, just one, isn’t that enough? Isn’t that worth it then?”
I could reflect for days and find something new each time that I do.  The struggle is not always with identifying this problem, but rather knowing what to do with it.  I think that the best that we can do is to build individual relationships and get buy-in from those men.  If we can get one man to open up to another man and create that same space for the other that we provide as professionals, I believe that a domino effect can happen.  Perhaps from there, the men themselves can facilitate dialogues about men’s issues, but until they are invested and trusting of all of the others that come to that space, the dialogues will not take off.  Men are still vying for men’s attention.  Generally, men assess their sense of worth based on other men’s approval.  Women may think that they have some impact on the way that men take up their space, but truth be told, women are not even in the arena.  While women are fighting to level the playing field, and while we may think that this is a threat to a man’s masculinity, this is only truly a threat if another man suggests that it is.

Emily Cunningham is the Coordinator of Greek Leadership Development and Housefellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.  Emily received a BA in Psychology and Substance Abuse Studies from Iona College and an MA in Higher Education Leadership from the University of San Diego.  She both welcomes and encourages open and healthy dialogue around masculinity work. She can be reached on Twitter @emcdot89.

1 comment:

Jess J. said...

I love and appreciate this post, and it makes me think how men and masculinity will play a role in my own research. Thank you for such touching insights on an important issue.