Of the 24 documented cases of alleged gang rape by college students in the past 10 years, fraternity men perpetrated 13. The problem of group sexual assault on college campuses mainly occurs in an environment where group behavior and acceptance is important to the men involved, i.e. fraternities (Bechhofer & Parrot 144). Looking at the environment surrounding this type of group one can see what causes the prevalence of this type of assault in fraternities. Why does this violence occur within these groups and how is it handled? The dynamics involved in the fraternity’s system causes a “group-think” mentality that promotes and sometimes causes group sexual assault. This group influence, along with the fraternity’s selection of men and their adherence to traditional sex role stereotypes reinforces myths of acceptable behavior in men and women and how these play a role concerning consequences.
Specific dynamics come into play when discussing how groups of people who might not otherwise act individually take part in sexual assaults with other members of their group. The theory of diffusion of responsibility suggests that in situations where the presence of others acting in a similar fashion diminishes the feeling of responsibility any individual feels for the harmful consequences of his or her own behavior” (Bechhofer & Parrot ed. 147-148). With respect to fraternities, the brother feels less like his own self and more like he is just participating in something that all his “brothers” are doing as well. They share the blame. A fraternity brother begins to think of the activity as something his “brothers” are doing and joins in under the influence of a shared activity. Other things may play into the idea that the assailant is not acting alone and is not solely responsible for his actions.
Deindividuation is a theory of group behavior that refers to a state of loss of self-awareness, including awareness of one’s beliefs, attitudes, and self-standards. This promotes group spirit. In fraternities, Alcohol is used to get group consensus by allowing an escape from one’s self-consciousness. Group loyalty will also cause people in a group to deindividualize by taking on the group’s identity (Bechhofer ; Parrot 148).
In an environment such as a fraternity where incoming pledges are looking to be accepted by a group of men who have the power to reject them, they are greatly influenced by the behavior of the group. Modeling can become a factor in making sexual assault seen as something that is acceptable. Not only does it give the information to the member, it at times shows them how it is done. This can be very influential to incoming members who see fraternities as social leaders and may not question their behavior. Along with these dynamics of group behavior, there are significant attitudes present in the fraternity environment that breeds sexual violence.
Sex-roles play an important part in fraternities and how and what is expected from women and men. Peggy Reeves Sanday, suggests that there are Rape-free and Rape prone societies, and fraternities fit the mark for attitudes in a Rape-prone environment. Sanday states that,
A rape-prone society is one in which the incidence of rape is reported by observers to be high, or rape is excused a ceremonial expression of masculinity, or rape is an act by which men are allowed to punish or threaten women.
(Sanday, VIOLENCE p. 193)
Fraternities can be an example of this type of environment. Sanday also suggests that these men fall into the Western cultural myth that man is an animal that evolved with his dominance over women. These men see themselves as being powerful and privileged in their situation as a brother, as well as in being a man in general. Playing out this traditional misogynistic view rationalizes a “boys will be boys” attitude that, as will be looked at later, affects how this behavior is seen by the community (Sanday 193). The types of men selected to become members of the fraternities reinforce the behaviors and ideas of “powerful” “macho” men and perpetuate the cycle of behavior.
Fraternities attract a certain type of male, more insecure than average: men whose psychological and social bonds to parents, especially their mothers, have not yet been broken (Hirsch 53). These insecure men tend to find the fraternity life attractive, it allows them to find an identity within the group. Initiation rituals for pledges that wish to join the fraternity back up the misogynistic and unequal views on the masculine and feminine. Sanday states that:
The ritual produces anxiety by representing the feminine to the pledge as both dirty and as part of his subjectivity. The ritual then resolves the anxiety by cleansing the pledge of his supposed feminine identification and promising him a lifelong position in a purified male social order. (Sanday 171)
These rituals often involve the violent abuse of pledges, therefor showing them that this type of violence against those who are being submissive (pledges), is an integral part of their bonding.
Out of this feeling of superiority and power that the members get from being in their privileged male status, a sexual double arises. Men are predators who are rewarded for their conquests; women on the other hand are punished either way. One Greek man stated that, “Women who sleep around are sluts and get bad reputations; men who do are champions and get a pat on the back from their brothers.” Greek men have also stated that they feel pressure to disrespect women when they are in the group (Boswell 141). Boswell states that fraternity men usually treat the girlfriends of members with more respect (138). This can be linked to the fact that they are already possessed by a man, whereas the girls with out boyfriends must be looking for a man. The idea that men must act out their sexual urges and women should remain passive and naive about sex is accepted and can be used against an assaulted victim if it goes to trial.
The physical make up of the men chosen to join fraternities is a large part of the attitude of traditional roles and beliefs about sexuality. Fraternities most often look for “big guys,” macho men who posses no feminine qualities. Men who can hold their liquor and play sports are used to boost the image of the fraternity as well as to help reinforce their heterosexuality. This powerful male role counters the belief of what type of roles women are expected to play, and more importantly what type of women do these fraternity men prefer concerning sexual assault.
The most common age for victims of sexual assault is between the ages of 20-24; the next group being 16-19. This obviously includes mostly college age students. In general fraternities want women at their parties. The rules usually are men pay and women get in free. There is a sort of symbolic gesture to the term “women free” at these parties. It might just be implying that women in fact must pay for their beer with sex (Sanday 29).
Fraternity men seek out a certain type of girl for sex or sometimes in cases of group sexual assault. She is usually scantly dressed or wearing a lot of makeup. A student stated that, “The whole idea is that they come cheap. I don’t ever need to see them again unless I want to.” (Sanday 30) They see women who are wearing a lot of makeup and tight clothes as “looking to get fucked.” The pursuit of these types of women for “flings” has been described as; “Part of it is just the thrill of getting an easy lay. A lot of my friends do it just for fun” (Sanday 31). These men see these types of girls as wanting sex as well as provoking it by wearing certain clothes. They feel like they are providing a service. “They come to our parties because they want to fool around with frat men, and we’re happy to oblige.” (Sanday 30) Another fraternity member stated that,
There are girls that you know will fuck, then some you have to put some effort into itYou have to buy them drinks or find out if she’s drunk enough (Martin & Hummer 122)
The attitude that this is why women come to their parties is another belief that is added on to the already dangerous environment that is present in fraternity life. The reward and praise that is given to members who have sexual conquests of women can be seen in certain instances of gang rape.
In one gang rape case, Peggy Reeves Sanday showed some of the attitudes that were shown after the rape and before charges were made. A student was taken upstairs and while in a semiconscious state was raped by up to six men. Afterwards a sheet was pinned to the bulletin board of the fraternity, part of the sheet contained statements about an “express”, an obvious connection to the word “train” which is a common word for a gang bang. The sheet stated:
A prospective leader for our sisters program spent some time interviewing several brothers this past Thursday and Friday. Possible names for the little sisters include name of fraternity “little wenches” and “The name of frat express. (66)
Also on one of their “leadership and service” sheets one of the brothers penciled in “We serviced victims name” (Sanday 68). When a writer interviewed the members during after the trial, the writer, Bowden, concluded that: “Male bonding was the most important aspect of allIt had something to do with belonging to the fraternity and, deeper than that, with what fraternity’ meant, what it meant to belong”(21).
The physical environment inside of the fraternities can also play a role in the control and power that the men in these groups seek. The parties at fraternities are not only in their house, which consists of all men, but the music, lights, and alcohol are all controlled by them too. At most parties the music is played too loud for conversation, and in some instances there are rooms just for people to make out in. The alcohol that is supplied at these parties is made strong and is usually referred to as a special punch for the women. The fact that they control the downstairs environment, after encouraging women to drink, their bedrooms are conveniently upstairs.
On many occasions this is where the assaults take place. A girl is lead upstairs under the assumption that she is going to a bed so that she can sleep it off. She is then assaulted by the members when she is too drunk to consent or sometimes passed out. In addition, on many occasions while a member is having sex with a girl he will purposefully leave his door open so that other members can watch. This shows how the act has nothing to do with sexual impulse or need but with a need to prove to the others that he is a man; it has to do with brotherhood, not sexual needs.
The fact that these gang rapes, as well as instances where other members watch another member have sex, all include a group, the idea of loyalty comes up. Martin and Hummer suggest that loyalty is a fraternity’s preoccupation. Members are reminded constantly to be loyal to the fraternity and to their brothers. They further state that protection of the fraternity often takes precedence over what is ethically or legally correct. In one gang rape case, except for one brother, a rapist that turned states evidence, the entire remaining fraternity membership was accused of lying to protect the fraternity. The members failed to cooperate with police and prosecutors investigating the case (121). Although fraternity members individually know right from wrong, the fraternity norms the emphasize loyalty, group protection and secrecy often overrides these notions.
The act of group sexual assault by fraternity men can be looked at as an incorporation of all of the group attitudes present within the fraternity environment. The pressure that is placed on the “macho” male and a preoccupation with heterosexuality may lead these men toward group assault as a motive to prove their heterosexuality to the other members of their frat.
Many rituals in fraternities are done for the “bond” of the brothers, yet certain behaviors are extreme to separate any confusion of their heterosexuality, especially when it is a bunch of men living together. In party sexual activities, Sanday suggests that fraternity brothers split lust from love. She states that:
Such a split is necessary for homophobic men living in groups structured by ties demanding mutual loyalty. These men must be careful not to act out sexual feelings for a loved brother lest it compromise their status as privileged, heterosexual males, nor can they show loyalty or love for a party woman lest this weaken the fraternal bond. (Sanday 37)
The idea of fraternal bond as a male power transfers the act of gang rape not into a masculine claiming of power and dominance of women. Women being seen as those who are weak and need to be dominated. This motivation as well as the overall idea that women “want it” is underline in our culture and system and have made it difficult for the prosecution of gang rapes. Many often lead to victim blaming and an idea that fraternity men have a sort of status in society, mostly coming from middle to upper class homes.
The act of victim blaming comes up with gang rape, as well as many other rape cases. The fraternity gang rape cases are particularly hard due to a lack of concern from the University Officials. Usually no action is taken so that the University can look good. The University’s actions were so mild in one rape case that the faculty put together a committee to investigate the proceedings. They learned that the mild sanctions placed on the six fraternity members who raped a student included, writing assignments, discussions, and community service. This was supposed to make the respondents understand why their actions were wrong and to foster their development as mature and responsible adults’ (Sanday 77). The mild punishment that was given to these men can be seen in many other instances of rape trials, where the women ends up on trial instead of the man or men who raped her.
In an Michigan State University rape in 1984 where seven college students were tried for 3rd degree sexual assault of a 17-year-old MSU student in a dormitory. Five defense attorneys each displayed the victims jeans and football jersey before the court and asked why she wasn’t wearing a bra when she went to the party (Bechhofer & Parrot ed. 140).
As Sanday states, “By blaming women for provoking male sexual aggression, women are controlled through the agency of fear. This causes an aggressive attitudes in men and a passive, fearful attitude in women” (89). This then keeps the gender hierarchy in check.
The problem of gang rape in fraternities around the country is one that needs to be seen through the workings of an intricate system of values and beliefs. The facts that these men live in confined quarters together and have certain beliefs of power, privilege, and loyalty to their brothers, causes attitudes of misogyny and violent behavior toward women. The dynamics of group behavior as well as the environment that is created by many people with these beliefs living together and choosing new members, perpetuates this cycle of violence.
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