My partner, Tim, and I were friends in high school. High school Tim was a good friend, and respected women (as far as I was aware of what that respect entailed in high school). When we both went away to college, I was surprised to learn that he had joined a fraternity. It seemed so out of character for him. Could college Tim, the fraternity member, be okay with the culture of date rapes and stripper poles in dormers that I heard about from that same fraternity at my Big Ten University?
When Tim and I started dating in college, he invited me over to his dry fraternity house for a LAN party. I was skeptical, but I went. There was a culture of generosity and respect that did not preclude violence or sexism, but certainly kept them at bay. I thought — and felt — that I could be safe there, that I could be heard there. The members were, as they like to say, Fraternity Gentlemen, instead of Frat Boys.
However, fraternities change, over time. Members graduate, others leave, new members are initiated and become part of the social life of the fraternity. I became part of the social life of the fraternity — another fraternity girlfriend, a sub-community within the fraternity with its own camaraderie. Tim and I both graduated from our respective universities, and we got married, and we moved into an apartment together a mere 10 minutes and a few small towns away from the city with the fraternity house.
One Tuesday evening, this past January, Tim and I had driven to the city for slushies and we decided to stop by the fraternity house to see how everyone was settling in at the start of a new semester. We made the rounds of the house, and ended up talking to a group of guys in the stairway.
That is when things got hairy.
Scenario: Greg was describing a recent sexual encounter where he had been bitten repeatedly.
Problem: Brian said, “I would have just slapped her across the mouth so she’d stop.”
Reaction: Ever vigilant, I immediately pointed out that slapping her wasn’t an option. “That’s not cool, man,” I said. “Violence against women isn’t cool.”
Counter-Reaction: “What if she likes it? I mean, what if she wants it?” asked Brian, rolling his eyes and making it clear that he thought I was wrong.
Reaction: I responded that it didn’t sound like a BDSM situation, and that consent within BDSM was complicated, and even if it were a BDSM situation it didn’t seem very consensual.
The subject gets dropped with more eye rolling. However, the conversation continues.
Scenario: Greg mentions that a desirable sister-of-an-alumni (18+) would be at the first-weekend-of-the-semester LAN party. He says he would like to have sex with.
Problem: Greg describes this young woman without a name. He doesn’t care what her name is, because, “She’s hot!” Brian and several other boys (certainly not gentlemen) debate if Greg has the skills, and start talking about ways that Greg could trick this young woman into having sex with him.
Reaction: “Hey, you’re assuming she wants to have sex with you. That’s not cool,” I say.
Counter-Reaction: “I guess you’re right,” says Greg. However, the conversation is quickly back on track and the ball keeps rolling, soon describing how Greg, Brian, and every guy who is a member of their fraternity family tree should “have sex” (known as Rape in the legal reality of the world) with this young woman, who again, by the way, is, an alumni’s sister. Everyone is laughing, everyone is calling more people into the conversation, and someone who has mostly been listening in calls from the bottom of the stairwell: “That’s what I call keeping it in the family.”
Reaction: As soon as we leave the house, I cry all the way home. I sob for a full 20 minutes. I am terrified. Terrified that they could talk like that, terrified that I was not safe there — if 10 guys had wanted to rape me, Tim could not have stopped them — terrified that, perhaps, no one was safe there. I’m angry that the only thing Tim could think to do, after I was ignored, was to laugh along. I’m angry that they seem to think that rape is a joke, that multiple people forcibly having sex with one young woman is something merely light-hearted.
Delayed reaction: Though I am scared, and I am angry, I decide that I have to find a rational way to talk with these guys — some of whom I had respected, maybe even considered friends, before the incident. Make an argument to them that it was in their best interest to change the way they think, or at least challenge them to consider their assumptions…
More on that, next week.
This post is first in a series.
Combating Sexual Harassment in a Fraternity (as a female non-member):
In Which I Encounter the Rape Culture (Not for the First Time)
Failures of Formal Activism
Informal Activism and Friendships
Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson
On the Other Hand…
Ew. And shame on them.
Of course, educating men on what a “rape culture” is can be quite problematic. I recently participated in a feminist focused book club here on campus. While the other group members understood the author’s reference to rape culture and what it can encompass, I must admit my male co-workers were not quite as enlightened. And they’re good men! Kind, respectful, in good, solid relationships with smart, savvy women. I expected them to “get it”, but the truth is I don’t think they ever really understood the term or the full ramifications of the reality of the American rape culture. (Not that I’m discriminating against other countries..I simply don’t know if our issues are the same.)
Obligatory disclaimer: nothing I’m about to say is intended, in any way, to excuse what happened.
I had an experience, last winter, where I was confronted rather unexpectedly with a second grader who made an overtly racist remark in an after-school setting — directed at another second grader. I was the adult “in-charge”. But that remark was so completely out of my experience that I was shocked into silence. I separated the offender from the victim, and I tried to quickly move on to other things … but my experiences in life hadn’t remotely prepared me for how to react in that moment.
The victim’s mother, when she came to pick up her daughter, was far more competent. Regrettably, she’s had to deal with that sort of thing far more often, and knew exactly what needed to be done.
Looking back, I can think of a bunch of ways I wish I’d reacted, that would’ve defending the honor of the victim better than I did that day. But I’d never prepared to deal with a racist second grader before. If it happened again, I’d be better equipped (I hope).
I think there may have been some who heard your words that night who simply had no idea how to react to the vileness being spoken by others. They may have known how vile the words were, without having the knowledge to know what could be done to combat them.
So they’re still passing themselves off as “fraternity gentlemen”. Nothing in their dialogue surprises me. What surprises me is having that conversation in the presence of a female. Rape is usually kept in a neat little package known only to the brotherhood.
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