Monday, March 10, 2014

“Don’t Shame Me Bro” and other Pedagogical Considerations for Engaging Fraternity Men in Conversations about Healthy Masculinities

            Let me start by saying that I am proud of my fraternity affiliation. I initiated as a member of Phi Kappa Psi at Beloit college in 2005. I was “that guy” in the chapter who served in or ran virtually every committee including: Alumni Relations, Social, Risk Management, Student Government Representative, and Finance. My affiliation meant so much to me that I became a travelling consultant for two years before leaving Headquarter staff to get my masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs.

            All of which is to say though that even though I have immense pride and love for my affiliation, I don’t always love what I did during that time.

            The recent Atlantic Article highlighted many major issues facing fraternities (and missing a few crucial issues as well), but this blog posting isn’t about responding to these articles. My new colleague, Michael Prinkey (2014), has done an excellent job of that in a previous blog post for the ACPA Standing Committee on Men and Masculinities.

            This post is about how one can be a part of, even love, a system while simultaneously be able to engage in critical/challenging conversations around how to improve individuals, groups, and communities that comprise said system for the benefit of all involved.

            This post is about diving into promising practices around engaging men in critical conversations of socialized gender roles for the purposes of promoting pro-social, healthy, and authentic sense of self as well as community for fraternity men on college campuses.

            This post is about promoting authenticity, support, and encouraging inclusive space while navigating a world which cannot lose the momentum it has built in holding actions and organizations accountable.

            What Do I Mean By Critical Gender Conversation:

            This is a question I get a lot when I talk with other professionals. For the purposes of this blog entry, I follow bell hooks conceptions of critical theory. I apply that perspective to my own teaching practices as a means of engaging in reflective assessment as well as critique of society and culture (Solorzano & Yosso, 2002; Kinchloe & McLaren, 2002). Activities are varied, but ought to be cognizant of the following: systemic influences of power and oppression, intersecting & competing perceptions of masculinity, societal equity, challenge systems that also promote racism, sexual orientation discrimination and gender identity discrimination, as well as the cultural assumptions by the facilitator regarding appropriate and inappropriate norms of gender. (Harper & Harris, 2010).
            Admittedly, there has been a lot of talk about why gender is an important part of the conversation, but how can practitioner’s apply the developing field of masculinities studies to their own programs? Since I am neither a published author nor someone who has published a dissertation on the topic (yet…), the rest of this blog posting is based upon the articles I’ve read, my experiences as a travelling consultant for my fraternity, and my time at the University of Iowa as part of the Men’s Anti-Violence Council. In all regards, I invite you to challenge, think critically, and submit your own suggestions in the comments! I doubt this list will be all encompassing.

1.      It is time to stop shaming fraternity men – Regardless of how you feel about the interfraternal movement, condemning the whole community gets you no where as a facilitator. Many programs around violence prevention either focus solely on men as perpetrators or determine them helpless against their “biological nature”, there is a natural explicit or implicit tendency to discount this group of semi-autonomous, self-governing, (largely) 18 – 21 year old. Jason Laker has written at length about how damaging “bad dogging” has been for group facilitation and for the learning outcomes of men (Laker, 2011). None of which means we should discount the fact that a majority of perpetrators of violence against women and men is other men, but the quickest way to get fraternity men to tune out any relevant information is to shame them.

2.      Don’t avoid holding fraternity men accountable – The flip side of the above argument is the tendency of facilitators coddling fraternity men. This lets them off the hook for their explicit perpetuation of violence or implicit support of systems based in violence through silence. In my travels, I have seen fraternity go from arguing that they are independent, self governing organizations that should (in the same breath) be compared and held to the same standards of university managed student organizations. In my own experiences, if we’re “real” or authentic with fraternity chapters they respect that honesty. It isn’t always pleasant, but challenging students to lean into their own dissonance is one of the main ways to encourage critical thinking (King and Kitchener, 1994).

3.      It’s time to abandon the “frat bro” language – The “Frat Bro,” popularized by such sites as Total Frat Move, Bro Bible and the American Pie series, is just one facet of fraternity culture. Moreover, it often represents a higher socio-economic status, and traditionally white social fraternities of the Interfraternity Councils (IFC). While many chapter may joke about being “frat bros,” their representations often times over looks the intersection of race and class in fraternities. I once advised a student who ultimately ended up avoiding buying books so he could buy the right shoes, shirts, and alcohol of his peers not to mention the dues he owed. Even within the interfraternal movement, we often give short change to the many other types of fraternities and sororities in existence. In addition to the Interfraternity Council, there are 11 other organizations that cover a gamut of students from culturally based organizations to professional and service based organizations, to religiously affiliated organizations. All have their own processes, procedures, systems, and expectations. As we continue to focus exclusively on engaging the white, rich, heterosexual “frat bro” we not only create blinders on our own assumptions but we lose out on engaging many other communities on college campuses.

4.      Hegemonic Masculinities not Hyper Masculinity – It seems like a silly point, but I believe talking about hegemonic masculinities is a more productive place to lead conversations. When one “blames” hypermasculinity, you have to ask yourself what masculinity are you expressing too much of? Is it the white, rich, heterosexual Frat Bro, is it the blue collar worker, the cowboy, the artist/intellectual, musician, the thug, the scholar, or the token? Media often informs a lot of what archetypes we think about, but many are incompatible with each other even as we manifest multiple archetypes within each individual (Harper, Wardell, and McGuire, 2011). For a great example of the many types of masculinities, check out the Miller Lite “Man Law” campaign. Hypermasculinity essentializes a listener’s experience and also blames men for adopting common masculine narratives taught to them since birth.

Facilitating a conversation on hypermasculinty,  the process of soliciting feedback from a particular group about what hypermasculinity means might reinforce the dominant masculine narrative at the expense of other forms of masculinity. As a result, it can potentially fail to promote a safe space for multiple forms of masculinity, leaving men afraid to be open about all of their passions, goals, and fears.

The lens of hypermasculinity can also shame dominant narratives as being inherently “wrong.” Case in point, a fraternity that prides itself on physical strength may display hypermasculine tendencies through steroid abuse and physical hazing. But weight lifting by itself is not necessarily unhealthy, and as you challenge men to turn away from hypermasculine tendencies, they may adopt other crutches (such as alcohol) as an alternative to what they were trying to prove. Rather than encourage students to reflect and engage around various forms of privilege (and intersecting identities that might also confer oppressions), students are more likely to retreat from the conversation instead.

Hegemonic masculinity is broadly defined as masculinity in opposition to femininity. It depends upon the prioritization of certain manifestations of masculinity proven in the eyes of other men. It is not a deficiency model per se, but it is a compensatory model. Hegemony does not demand you be the “most manly” man ever, but it does compel you to prove you are more masculine (in whatever form is socially acceptable to your community) than other men around you. Klobassa and Davis’ (2009) article in combination with Edward and Jone’s (2009) demonstrate the effective power of societal influences on the internal identities of men. Specifically, the heavy social pressures compel men to mold themselves to traditional narratives of masculinity that propels them up the ladder of their own social hierarchies. If that fails, then masculinity can also be proven by degrading those around them (Kimmel, 2008)

5.      Healthy Masculinities – Healthy masculinities is rapidly developing a strong institutional and academic support base (Courtenay, 2010). Rather than situating masculinities on a scale that promotes considers it only on the two dimensional perspective of excess or insufficiency, we can instead talk about helpful or harmful behaviors in multiple dimensions or expressions. Public health programmers have seen significant gains in a similar model with alcohol consumption called “harm reduction” (Dimeff, Baer, Kivlahan, & Marlatt, 1999). It moves away from discussing behaviors in all or nothing perspectives and instead situates them in terms of their impact on the individual and the community. Talking about masculinities in this way also allows for traditional norms of masculinity while also challenging how those norms manifest towards self and others. Rather than condemn or shame men for not going to seek help, we can discuss elements of masculinity (such as stoicism and perseverance as an ideal) and reflect upon how that might contribute towards decreased willingness to seek mental health support, increased use of drugs and alcohol, or even higher rates of terminal cases of diagnosable diseases due to failure to go to a doctor. All of these elements we can see as unhealthy actions, without giving up an individual’s preference for perseverance as an internal strength.

6.      Know Your Audience’s Language – At interviews, conferences, and workshops, I’ve always been asked by campus professionals who are not Greek “How can I connect with them?” My first response is that as much as fraternity men think their situation is unique, the problems they face are fairly common to many students. On the other hand, there is a great deal of social capital vested in the language, processes, and history of the interfraternal movement. Speaking in terms of leadership, autonomy, values, and ritual has resonance. If you do not have fraternity experience yourself, it is not difficult to find analogous experiences in your own life.

7.      Be Inclusive – Not enough can be said about this. Even when a “predominant number of crimes” are committed by men against women, highlighting gender neutral pronouns both de-antagonizes participants, but also models how to promote inclusivity at least in language. Further, the same mechanisms that fuel hegemonic masculinities also reinforce racism, homophobia, and trans*phobia as being “outside the norm” of rich, white, heterosexual “frat bro” masculinity (Wagner, 2011; Harper, Wardell, & McGuire 2011)

8.      Pro-feminism is not anti-masculinities – The critical study of gender owes its intellectual foundations to the feminist movement. While I could write a whole blog post about the nuances of labeling one self a feminist, pro feminist, humanist, etc. For the purposes of this post though, I personally stress in my programming that gender equity is an issue for everyone and cannot be seen in isolation of other issues in our society. I categorically reject that feminism is bad for men even as I remain cognizant of my privilege of being a cisgender, white, heterosexual male in the movement and in classroom spaces.

9.      Bystander Education is a Must – Talking about issues is good, understanding issues is better, acting to create a more inclusive fraternal community is the best. Every program, discussion, or exercise must contain some sort of take away or action point.  Research on reflective learning stresses the importance of putting into action what one has learned and reflecting on the outcomes (King & Kitchener, 1994). Bystander education has demonstrated particular effectiveness in preventing sexual assault, hazing, and other harmful behaviors (Vladutiu, Martin, & Macy, 2011; Berkowitz, 2011; Langford, 2008). By moving away from shaming masculinity towards a model of healthy masculinities, we decrease the barriers against men speaking out to other men to promote positive outcomes (Carlson, 2008)

10.  Environment Matters – Even when men self-identify as advocates for social change, environment remains a critical factor for whether they intervene and talk with other men. When it comes to addressing sexual assault paired with healthy masculinities, there are a few elements that stand out. Groups need safe space, most often created when all of the participants are able to have at least some time as a homogenous group. The facilitator’s affinity (gender, sexual orientation, participation in fraternity and sorority life) is less important, but the facilitator must be willing to model authenticity and be willing to tolerate some initial push back. Longer sessions tend to have better impact, especially when students are able to interact with each other and their material. Multiple sessions allows for more material to be covered and reinforced. Small groups tend to produce more openness (Banyard, Plante, & Moynihan, 2005; Casey & Ohler, 2012).

As I introduced this blog, this list is by no means exhaustive. It is meant to start a dialogue. I believe that fraternities are like an echo chamber. They can echo the best parts of being a student or the worst. Rather than get caught up in a debate over whether they are worth while or if they donate enough money, I would rather see them become the vehicles of positive change that many men and women have found them to be. I believe that the terms “Be A Man,” “Man Up,” “Don’t be a pussy,” “No Homo” and others are destroying the fabric of our fraternities and sororities.

The great news is that if these organizations echo society at large and hegemony is itself a social construct, then we can change the nature of the construct. Change the dialogue, change the world!

About the Author

Jacob Oppenheimer is a proud member of Phi Kappa Psi and served his fraternity in a number of capacities, including two years as a Leadership Development Consultant for the national headquarters staff. He earned his masters degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs at the University of Iowa where he served as the graduate assistant in Fraternity and Sorority Life, coordinator of the Men’s Anti-Violence Council, and the interim Academic Counseling Coordinator of TRiO Student Support Services. He now serves as the Assistant Director of Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups (FSILG) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

You can reach him at or follow him on twitter at @jacoboppenheimr.

He can also be found on facebook -


Jacob Oppenheimer said...


1. Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2005, February). Rape Prevention through Bystander Education: Brining a Broader Community Perspective to Sexual Violence Prevention. In National Criminal Justice Reference Service (Department of Justice). Retrieved February 9, 2014, from:

2. Berkowitz, A. (2011), ResponseAbility: A complete guide to bystander intervention. Beck Publishing

3. Carlson, M. (2008). I’d rather go along and be considered a man: Masculinity and bystander interventions. Journal of Men’s Studies. 16(1), 3-17, Doi: 10.3149/jms.1601.3

4. Casey, E. A., & Ohler, K. (2012). Being a Positive Bystander: Male Antiviolence Allies’ Experiences of ‘Stepping Up.” Journal of Interpersonl Violence, 27(1), 62-83

5. Courtenay, W. H. (2010) Construction of Masculinity and their Influence on Men’s Well Being: A Theory of Gender and Health. In S. R. Harper & F. Harris (Eds.), College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and implications for practice (pp. 434 – 456). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass

6. Dimeff, L. A., Baer, J. S., Kivlahan, D. R., & Marlatt, A. G. (1999). Briefy Alcohol Screenings and Intervention for College Students (BASICS): A Harm Reduction Approach (pp. 9 – 11). New York, NY: Guilford Press

7. Dries, K. (2009, April). How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Story About Frat Life. In Jezebel. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from

8. Edwards, K. E., & Jones, S. R. (2009, April). 210 Journal of College Student Development “Putting My Man Face On”: A Grounded Theory of College Men’s Gender Identity Development. Project Muse, 50(2), 210-228. Retrieved March 7, 2014, from

9. Flanagan, C. (2014, February). The Dark Power of Fraternities. In The Atlantic. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from

Jacob Oppenheimer said...

References Continued:

10. Harper, S., & Harris, F. (2010). College men and masculinities: Theory, Research and implications for practice. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass

11. Harper, S. R., Wardell, C. C., & McGuire, K. M., (2011). Man of Multiple Identities: Complex Individuality and Identity Intersectionality among College Men in J. R. Laker & T. Davis (Eds.), Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and Practical considerations (pp. 81-96). New York, NY : Routleridge

12. Howard, T. (2006, November). Miller Lite Ads Celebrate Manly Men. In USA Today. Retrieved February 20, 2014 from

13. Kincheloe, J. L., & McLaren, P. (2002). Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research. In Y. Zou & E. Trueba (Eds.), Ethnography and Schools: Qualitative Approaches to the Study of Education (pp.87-138). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

14. King, P. & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgement: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

15. Klobassa, V., & Davis, T. (2009, March). Masculinity at the Intersections: An Exploration of Hegemony, Oppression, Performance, and Self Authorship. ACPA Standing Committee for Men and Masculinities Research Brief. Retrieved February 20, 2014 from

16. Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. New York, NY : Harper Collins

17. Laker, J. R. (2011) Inviting and Inspiring Men to Learn: Gendered Pedagogical Considerations for Undergraduate Teaching and Learning Environments in J. R. Laker & T. Davis (Eds.), Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and practical considerations (pp. 210 – 223). New York, NY : Routleridge.

18. Langford, L. (2008). Preventing violence and promoting safety in higher education settings: Overview of a comprehensive approach. Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.

19. Prinkey, M. (2014, March 3). “The Bright Power of Fraternity Men: Redefining Masculinity” . In ACPA Standing Committee on Men and Masculinities. Retrieved March 4, 2014, from

20. Solorzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002) Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for educational research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1).

21. Vladutiu, C. J., Martin, S. L. & Macy, R. J. (2011). College or university based sexual assault prevention programs: A review of program outcomes, characteristics, and recommendations. Trauma Violence Abuse, 12(2) 67-86.

22. Wagner, R. (2011). Embracing Liberatory Practice: Promoting Men’s Development as a Feminist Act in J. R. Laker & T. Davis (Eds.), Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and practical considerations (pp.210 – 223). New York, NY : Routleridge