Monday, January 6, 2014

Masculinity’s Impact on Fraternity Brotherhood

“I believe in Theta Chi, its traditions and its ideals. Born of sturdy manhood, nurtured by resolute men... It inspires true friendship…” – Excerpt from the creed of Theta Chi Fraternity. 

            When most people hear the above quote, they might let their minds wander to the place of “fratland,” where jocks thrive, shirts never possess sleeves, and men do nothing but chug beer and berate women.  Let’s take a few steps back.  On December 5, 1776, the first Greek letter society emerged at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (History & Traditions, n.d.).  Phi Beta Kappa was founded by five students and introduced the early stages of fraternal values: an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in both Latin and Greek, a code of laws, and an elaborate initiation ritual (Phi Beta Kappa, n.d.). Fraternities have existed ever since, and are built on a system of values designed to enrich a man’s collegiate experience, provide leadership skills, and offer brotherhood to its members.  Membership in fraternities is considered lifelong, where members are encouraged to stay involved and connected with their brothers for a lifetime.  Some could argue that a social construct of masculinity shapes the way fraternity men interact and connect with one another.  How does this affect the brotherhood that these organizations were founded on?
            First things first, I don’t want to categorize, make assumptions, or make any sweeping generalizations about fraternities.  The truth is, most fraternities really do pride themselves on their brotherhood.  Additionally, I’m sure that the majority of men make meaningful relationships with the other members of their organization that last well beyond their collegiate years.  But the fact of the matter is, masculinity today creates a huge stressor on fraternity men to behave, speak, and interact in certain ways. We see masculinity in many different forms in college-aged males.  Michael Kimmel (2008) talks about the “initiation” into manhood in his book Guyland as being characterized by excessive drinking, lying about sexual partners, and lots of locker room talk (Kimmel, 2008).  We all have our own opinions of what masculinity looks like: typically the answers revolve around an inherent lack of emotion, stubbornness, dominating the situation, never acting like a “girl;” the list goes on.  But is any of this necessarily positive?  In speaking with Lucas Schalewski, a residence life professional at Indiana University who has studied college men and masculinity, described positive masculinity as great personality traits that he believes to be important: courage, loyalty, leadership, kindness, inclusivity, vision, and strength (L. Schalewski, personal communication, September 12, 2013).  But what he sees on his campus falls far short from a vision of positive masculinity. 
            Baird’s Manual of American College Fraternities, a handbook published in 1879, has the motto “the fraternity makes men,” (as cited in Yeung, Stombler & Wharton, 2010).  Perhaps one of the largest groups of “victims” of this masculinity battle are fraternity men.  I see it every day on my campus at the University of Maine.  Men feel the pressures from men in other fraternities, men in their own organization, and even sorority women, to be the perfect picture of a fraternity man: smart, athletic, charismatic, and career-focused.  Fraternity men have an especially vigorous demand placed on them to be the epitome of masculinity.  Unfortunately, some of these demands of living up to a masculine façade can have a negative impact on living out values and promoting brotherhood.  Let’s face it: some members of society might be a little surprised to see a group of college men hugging while sporting their Alpha-Alpha-Alpha t-shirt, right?  Why is not that a norm that is associated with fraternal organizations?

“Masculinity is a constant test – always up for grabs, always needing to be proved.” – Kimmel (2008)
            Fraternities were founded originally for brotherhood.  They were designed to offer camaraderie and help men make meaningful relationship with their college peers.  According to Yeung, Stombler, and Wharton (2010), “college fraternities construct their brotherhood through rituals, secrecy, and most important, an ideology that adopts a familiar metaphor by emphasizing brothers’ lifelong commitment to one another,” (p. 156).  However, Davis, LaPrad & Dixon (2010) describe that male bonding currently can be described as activity sharing: watching sports, working out, and avoiding emotional sharing.  How is this promoting brotherhood?  O’Neil & Crapser (2011) described 4 patterns of gender role conflict that men typically face, and one of which is restrictive affectionate behavior between and amongst men.  Similarly, according to Capraro (2010), recent research suggests that the typical male socialization patterns often employ shame to shape behaviors and attitudes.  Are men just shaming each other to get the results they want?  It reminds me of Jason Laker’s (2003) concept of “bad dogging” young men who are engaging in negative behaviors: we never come from a place of concern when we’re caught in the heat of the moment.  I think that a lot of this stems from masculinity overriding one’s sense of reflection.  Normative male alexithymia is defined as the inability for me to put feelings into words or be aware of them (Ludeman, 2011).  The fact that there is even a definition for men not being able to articulate their emotions says that masculinity definitely has something to do with this issue.    

“…Grant Thy wisdom to our leaders, and guide us in all our deliberations and transactions that the true spirit of brotherhood may be manifest in our every thought, word and deed.  Bless the brothers of our Bond wherever they may be, and deepen our love for each other, and quicken our sense of duty to Thee.
To Thee, our Lord and God, be all honor, praise and glory, for ever and ever.” – Excerpt from Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity open ritual
Brotherhood events, initiation activities, and philanthropies could arguably be viewed as constantly supplemented with alcohol.  David Bogenberger was one such victim.  On November 2, 2012, the evening after his fraternity’s initiation ceremony, Bogenberger was found dead of cardiac arrhythmia brought on by alcohol intoxication (Rozek, 2013).  According to studies, 75% of fraternity members engage in heavy drinking as opposed to the 49% of unaffiliated male students (Kimmel, 2008).  Kimmel believes that initiations are “all about masculinity” (Kimmel, 2008).  We would like to think that true meaningful brotherhood exist on its own without the pressures of masculinity interfering or without alcohol being used, but can it really? Capraro (2010) suggests that men binge drink to fulfill one of two voids in their life: first to conform to traditional masculinity, and second to avoid being perceived as inadequate from other men and society.  The constant stress on being a powerful “manly man” to fraternity men could very well be driving the brotherhood activities and rituals they are partaking in.  But why?  
            We learn through life that one of the best ways to make a friend is to be a friend.  Let’s look at the fraternity new member process.  Immediately when the words “fraternity pledge” come to mind, most people could immediately let their minds go to a place darkly crowded with conceptions of hazing and brutal treatment.  According to a study done at the University of Maine, 73% of those in fraternities and sororities are reportedly hazed each year (Kimmel, 2008).  In Guyland, an interview is described regarding a hazing situation and a group of “pledges” at a Michigan State fraternity house:

“We’d line ‘em up at all hours, yell at them for a while, quiz ‘em on chapter history, lore, and make sure they memorized all the brothers’ names, hometowns, majors, and favorite beers.  Like who cares, really?  Dumb shit like that,” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 112). 
Greek organizations have unfortunate reputations of hazing their members, and what’s worse, the images we see portrayed in the media only continually highlight and exaggerate the percentages and extreme situations that come about.  So what causes the desire to haze a member of an organization?  Many studies have been conducted on college men, and much to do with violent, disruptive, or risky behavior surround the feeling of inadequacy in terms of power in society and subjective experiences.  Men do what they do to feel powerful. We see it all the time.  I hear the men on my campus refer to their new members as “pledges” – an outdated word and not in line with current National Interfraternity Council policy or verbage.  The term pledge just has an almost ridiculed undertone to it.  The very word makes me cringe. 
            From my eyes, I see the positives that fraternities do every single day for a living.  I see the exceptional student leaders on my campus taking on roles and plugging into other areas of campus.  I see them coming in my office talking about the issues their chapter faces and having genuine concern for the well-being and lifeblood of their organization.  They are focused on the operations and not always the brotherhood.  I believe this to be almost 99% due to fear of gender role conflict.   So my first instinct is always to ask, “How are your brothers?  What kinds of brotherhood activities have you done lately?”  Think about the power that a “Walk the Line” or “If You Really Knew Me” activity could bring to a group to change their dynamic.  It’s so easy to get washed up in the politics of an organization and the demands of societal expectations that you forget the true purpose of something. 
            The truth of it all is, it’s difficult to completely diagnose how masculinity impacts brotherhood in fraternities.  But as administrators, we can start to question practices that are longstanding and make the wheels turn in fraternity members’ heads.  Why do you need alcohol at initiation activities?  How is making new members memorize facts going to improve your relationship with them?  Why don’t your brotherhood activities consist of more team bonding and discussions as to how to improve your bonds?  Fraternities should be a safe place and a place for positive masculinity to thrive.  By raising the topics and facing the problem in an honest place of care, we can start to help fraternities mold their organizations to be the “brotherly” places they were intended to be.

This post was written by Mallory Stratton.  You can connect with Mallory at on Twitter @MalloryStratton.


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