History Repeats: The Frats Need to Go

9 mins read
phi psi

How do you spend your Saturday nights? Here at Swarthmore, the most consistent events to attend on the weekends are fraternity parties. Because Delta Upsilon was closed until March 23 of the 2018-2019 academic year, Phi-Psi-hosted extravaganzas have been some of the most attended campus-wide Greek parties. At the beginning of the Fall semester, I spent most of my weekends chaperoning my peers to their rooms from these parties.

Why, might you ask? Predatory behavior, “permissive” sexualization and sexual violence, and pervasive queerphobia. I can’t directly speak to the dynamics that students of color face at fraternities because of my white identity; it is true, however, that most frats are predominately white, male spaces, with a history of homogeneity.

As a queer Swarthmore student, the actions and inactions of our Greek life powerhouses, especially Phi Psi, are particularly important to my life and experience here. While some may be privy to suggest that the “tradition” of Greek life is somehow imperative to the functionality of a higher education institution, I completely disagree. Historically, fraternities have aided in discrimination regarding sexual orientation, gender, and race, as well as been proprietors of sexual violence. On campus, there is a definite split between those who defend or critique Greek life. My own experiences and positionality have led me to support the ending of our frats’ leases.

Phi Psi is a sight to behold on Thursdays and Saturdays, our designated “party nights”. In all corners of the house, students of all class-years are either dancing through the stench of spilled Natty Light, in the process of getting drunk and sharing spit in the corner, or reveling in their sobriety as they watch their peers make fools of themselves between 10 p.m. and the witching hour. I was the latter. Overhead sits an eerie balcony with the eyes of seemingly inebriated men gazing down, almost as if they are choosing their next target. On the dance floor, fraternity brothers are speckled through the crowd, offering their barely-carbonated tonic to womxn. Downstairs, pool tables and beer taps are suffocated by the bodies of drunk-on-life partygoers.

Historically, fraternities have been created by predominantly rich, white students in order to isolate themselves from their “lesser” peers, as well as rip power from the administration in the form of ubiquitous and, quite frankly, barbaric behaviors. Fraternities yield a mindset of sexual entitlement. There is a sort of implied permission for men, regardless if they are members of the frat, to behave hypersexually at frat parties, which puts womxn at risk of sexual assault or violence. The presence of alcohol along with fraternity pressure to binge drink does not help in the prevention of vulnerability-based violence.

I recall hearing an interview late last year after perusing fraternity scandals, such as the one at Baylor University, on “For the Record.” Here, Scott Ellman, a past fraternity member at Wesleyan, discussed his frat experience. He describes, with obvious discomfort:

“It was some sort of official fraternity event. And the event had finished. We were hanging out in big couches. There was a whiteboard around. And someone casually, without thinking, got up and walked over to a whiteboard and just started writing down names of girls on campus and connecting girls through brothers in the fraternity, starting to make a web, like a hook-up chart, basically. And people started adding, you know, throwing in names. And the web expanded. And it happened so suddenly and so casually and matter-of-factly.”

After a year in his fraternity, Ellman ultimately left because of uncomfortable situations, such as the one mentioned above. I don’t blame him, though, hypersexualization within frat culture is definitely concerning. Because fraternities are predominantly male spaces, sexual aggression — forced sexual activity through the use of force, drugs, authority, etc. — at frat parties is highly pertinent. Considering that brothers have this “home-field advantage,” they likely expect to have sex by the end of the night. So why not be bold? Unbalanced gender dynamics like these remain the most problematic and terrifying fraternity trait.

While womxn and people of color are particularly vulnerable, queer folx, too, are victimized within and outside the fraternity space. With homoerotic hazing rituals as well as discrimination-based slurs and violence, LGBTQ+ individuals stand unwelcome and unprotected in frat-spaces. Take, for example, the fraternity trope of “proving” a brother’s worth by ensuring he is not gay, often achieved by making out with other initiates to watching gay porn nude in front of fraternity leaders. LGBTQ+ individuals have been debased to the status of mere jokes within predominantly hetero-cis fraternity culture. Although I am unsure if Swarthmore fraternities practice such extreme hazing, it is clear that homoeroticism is ingrained in fraternity initiation. Considering that this type of fraternity hazing is trying to prove that initiates are not gay, it’s quite the living contradiction.

Where does that leave the Swarthmore community? In the same situation as almost every other college: a state of social crisis. Personally, I stake fraternities as the main perpetrators of these vile behaviors. Sunday, March 31, marked the day when a Phi Psi brother’s highly questionable comments on a post showcasing fraternity donation initiatives sparked rage among marginalized groups, specifically LGBTQ+ individuals and womxn.

With continued initiative, some students have established anonymous submission forms on a Tumblr Tumblog for people who have experienced or observed acts of discrimination and violence conducted by fraternity members or within the fraternity space. Some of the submissions include, but are not limited to, discussions regarding actions of sexual violence, homophobia, and racism and use of derogatory terms within our fraternity spaces. If you feel as though you have seen or been victim to something relating to the frats, I implore you to check out the resources on the Tumblog.

Considering Swarthmore’s ideology of inclusion and acceptance, as well as common sense, the outrage is definitely justified. With countless homophobic and racist actions and jarringly disrespectful comments, such as fraternity ‘bros’ systematically blocking their queer peers on social media and making rape “jokes” offline and online, it’s apparent that frats need to go. The current state of our fraternities epitomizes monopolization of social space — free beer, owned venues, party-hosting structures, and outside funding are not something students who oppose the fraternities can compete with. Furthermore, fraternities are not something we can reform and rekindle. Marginalization, discrimination, racism, and misogyny are ingrained in Greek life culture: we can’t fix something that is fundamentally broken.

Thus, I believe that all fraternities — even the frats here at Swarthmore — should have their leases terminated.


  1. I am a recent graduate who spent a lot of time in the fraternities and was very close with some of the brothers in both fraternities. I see a lot of the current rhetoric around fraternities, and just want to point out how baseless a lot of these claims are. I’d rebuke “the fraternity trope of “proving” a brother’s worth by ensuring he is not gay” as there were gay fraternity brothers in both frats during my entire time at Swat (not sure about the current situation). Making initiates watch gay porn? That’s something you read on Reddit, probably not something that happens at fraternities at Swarthmore. While the Swarthmore campus and US as a whole have clear issues with race, gender, and sexuality, this is not confined to the fraternities, and in general I recall meeting a lot of really good guys in the frats with far more diverse backgrounds than you’re suggesting in this article. Is it more caucasian and straight than the campus as whole? For sure it is. But it’s not 40 rich white kids who join just to control a party space and prey on women, which is the message that’s being sent here.

    Also, regarding the Tumblr page, any one of those events posted would be the worst thing I encountered at a fraternity by a mile, and there are dozens of them. I was there most weeks for 4 years. So I truly wonder where most of these stories come from. None of the brothers I’ve met seem capable of doing most/any of the claims on there. Not to say that horrific things don’t happen at fraternities from time to time, but horrific things happen all over campus. Doesn’t make it right, but in my not-so-distant experience at Swat, this article is pinning campus-wide issues on two organizations that should be expected to be the most involved with issues stemming from intoxicated students given that they host maybe 20 of campus’s biggest 25 parties in a given year (on their own dime, by the way). I’m not giving them a pass, just suggesting that affixing blame to them is unfair and these issues will persist after the frats are removed from campus, no doubt.

    There is a lot more in this article that I would point out as opinionated and factually inaccurate as well, but that was to be expected from the Phoenix, who has a strong record of factually inaccurate/baseless journalism over the years. How many other organizations on campus have community service requirements each semester? Does the emergence of small, closed parties around campus with the frats suspensions really support Swarthmore’s commitment to openness/acceptance? Is that really a win? Could they coexist with fraternity parties? Is it difficult to avoid the fraternities if you find them uncomfortable, and would you be more comfortable integrating these same brothers into other open parties around campus upon the fraternities termination? Do you expect there to be a material drop-off in campus assaults with new groups occupying these spaces? I’d love to see a counter article supporting the frats, but it’s obvious that any Swarthmore student who takes on that task would be crucified by their peers (as I’m likely to be, thus, Kathy Lee Gifford). Maybe the frats have changed and are full of terrible people now. Maybe. They must be, given the administration’s willingness to suspend them for extended periods of time for things like hosting off campus social events, playing cornhole, and other similar, wholly egregious acts. But I always remember the frats positively impacting my social experience at Swarthmore, and just felt that someone should take a few minutes to pose an ounce of support. And this decision should come down to another student referendum, not a recommendation from a task force assembled by the administration.

    • I’d like to add that the article fails to isolate any problems unique to Greek life in general. In fact, I’d argue that most of the legitimate issues raised in the article are attributable to two factors: 1) The presence of alcohol as social events and 2) New students on campus acclimating to a liberal arts education and values.

      The presence of alcohol at social events will always be problematic given the effects of alcohol on human cognition and behavior. However, the only true solution to all the issues mentioned in the article would be to systematically ban alcohol from all social events on campus, which is highly unrealistic. However, I believe a big part of college is learning how to be an adult and a functioning member of society. Students should not need college administration to police and regulate all aspects of social life on campus. The entire campus community should come together to provide tangible solutions to these issues by learning how to make good, safe decisions. To some extent, college used to be the time when the training wheels came off. Now, that doesn’t mean that students don’t occasionally need help along the way, but this is different than having the school’s administration and task forces strap the wheels back on for four year and dictate what you should do and not do as a responsible adult. If you don’t enjoy social events with alcohol and music, then don’t attend fraternity parties. Instead plan your own social gathering in one of the other underutilized spaces on campus. If you don’t want to get CJC’d or suspended, then don’t sexually assault people and stop making poor decisions. If you don’t want to ever run the risk of blacking out and finding yourself in a terrible situation, then drink moderately and don’t let yourself get to the point where you’re incapable of making decisions. If you have a problem with drinking generally, then seek help from the resources campus has to offer. It’s all about self-awareness, responsibility, and respect.

      To my second point. Very few students come from the all-inclusive, liberal background practiced in the college. For many students, getting to college is the first time they get to experience true diversity in their lives and, as a result, it’s also the first time they can fully grasp the weight of their actions and words and the potential consequences. No one comes into this world with evil in their hearts and minds, so the normalization of racist/homophobic slurs is most definitely a byproduct of the individual’s background/upbringing. Given that people with these background are not recruited to join Greek life or contacted by Greek Life at Swarthmore prior to their arrival, I find it hard to believe that the fraternities, as a representative subset of campus, are any more guilty of these actions than the rest of the campus community. Instead of finding divisive lines, we should be actively promoting and spreading a message of unity. The campus community needs to do a better job of self-educating its members, especially freshmen, of the values of the campus. Given that I believe that college is a learning experience, especially outside the classroom, it should come as no surprise that I also believe that college is also a time to make mistakes and learn from them. By turning your back on and shunning someone for a mistake (that is non-criminal in nature), then you are effectively stunting that person’s growth. It’s especially important to embrace those people and help them learn from their mistakes and how to be a better member of the campus community.

  2. As a member of a Swarthmore fraternity, I am absolutely in love with the response given by Kathy Lee. Negative stories regarding fraternities at massive schools across the nation are taken as evidence of how fraternities at Swarthmore function, when in fact this “evidence” is completely unrelated to how the fraternities, and fraternity members, at Swarthmore operate.

    Swarthmore prides itself on acknowledging the fact that everyone who is accepted here was accepted for a reason. Do you think that this school would allow admission to the students with the characteristics you discuss? We are not the villains that you make us out to be and we have taken numerous steps over the course of the last couple years to make sure that sexual assault, misogyny and racism are not perpetuated in our houses. Have you thought about the fact that some of us just like to dance? When you only have one night a week to go out, you want to make it worth it. I dance on stage because I like to dance, not because the stage offers a good view of the most vulnerable people at our parties. It is offensive that you would make that generalization and it makes me sad reading your piece.

    At the end of the day, I am in a fraternity because it connects me to a group of upstanding people. Instead of blasting us through the Phoenix, Voices, Instagram, and Twitter, maybe try to have a conversation with a fraternity member, all of us are welcome to speaking with anyone, the problem is that our opinions are immediately negated, regardless of what they are, because of the stereotypes that are associated with fraternities.

    I like to think of myself as a good person. Instead of talking to me to see that I am a good person, you generalize my existence based on what you see in the news about other fraternities. It is this generalization and some students unwillingness to participate in meaningful discussions that perpetuates this false narrative. Instead of blaming the fraternities, why don’t we focus on other means of achieving change. Like Kathy said, this problem won’t stop if the fraternities are taken away, but fraternity members have been, and are more than willing to try to tackle these problems… all you have to do is give us a chance.

  3. The views of a small vocal minority do not represent the views of the vast vast majority of the student body. This is a baseless article projecting national conversations onto Swarthmore fraternities, who (don’t control their own doors, host open social events for anyone and everyone on campus, and willingly take on all liability in order to provide for the rest of the student body). It’s not the fraternities fault that no one else wants to host open social events on campus. Get a grip.

  4. Swarthmore frat members that claim they don’t see homophobia, racism, or rape culture are either lying or delusional. This article is rooted in long-standing concerns about Swarthmore frats. We aren’t just making it up. People have been saying for years that the frats have got to go. Swarthmore’s frats aren’t immune to the types of violent and derogatory behavior seen in frats everywhere else, so it’s not strange to talk about what goes on at other frats. Frat members are obviously going to comment and say that frats are good, but they don’t know what it’s like to be a person on the outside of them. There have been many attempts to meaningfully connect with frat members about what goes on. But they just respond that they don’t see the violence, and make you feel bad for implying that they are part of a larger problem.

    • As a fraternity member, I can say that I am quite happy to engage with people who have criticisms of the fraternity. At the end of the day, my goal is for myself and for everyone else on this campus to have fun at our parties if they so choose, and to feel safe while doing so. If there is anything that I can do, or that we can do as an organization, to make people feel more comfortable, then we will do everything in our power to do that. I believe this goes for the vast majority of people involved in Greek life on this campus. But when the starting point in my time at Swarthmore has been “the fraternities must give up their houses and be abolished”, I find it difficult to understand how that can be considered “meaningful connection”. We as an organization, and as individuals, have expressed a willingness to reform ourselves to ensure the safety of everyone in our community, and that remains the case. If you or anyone else wants to reach out to any of our executive board members, I invite you do so. But if your starting point is “abolish the frats”, don’t expect much progress to be made.

    • Hey Regis, this take is baseless, just like the article! Generic statements like, “This article is rooted in long-standing concerns about Swarthmore frats” and “People have been saying for years that the frats have got to go” don’t advance anything, you’re just making general statements about how you feel about frats. The first quote is baseless and source-less, and the second quote is just an obvious statement will be true until the end of time. People have indeed been saying that for years – a very vocal minority who somehow manage to push garbage journalism like this past the Phoenix editors. There was a referendum to kick the frats off campus in 2013, and it seemed like it might actually happen given all the negativity around campus. But roughly 30% of voters actually voted to ban the frats. So I think there is a lot more support than you’re suggesting, not just within the frats. Of course they aren’t immune to the things that go on at other frats that you hear about on the news, but that doesn’t mean they need to be punished for others’ atrocities. The brothers in both frats have mandatory meetings and seminars on sexual assault handling/avoidance, giving/getting consent, etc., and I’d bet most of campus can’t say the same.

      Bottom line is that if you don’t believe in what the frats stand for, avoid them. I get the sense that you, Chase, and others are out here trying to save the world from fraternities, and the base of your belief is grounded in the institution as a whole. Meanwhile, at Swarthmore, fraternities have shown a commitment to improving (joint parties with other groups, meetings with the administration…), are instituting new policies to keep guests safe (sober brothers, no more hard alcohol…), are being educated on important issues (seminars, meetings…), and are seemingly good guys for the most part. Kicking them off campus will have a negative social impact for many students who do enjoy letting loose at the frats once in awhile, is unlikely to have a major impact on violence around campus, and will do nothing to tear down the entire fraternal system. So, Regis, maybe it’s best to avoid the frats altogether if they bother you and direct your energy towards issues that matter.

  5. I’ve been to a frat and the only problem I had was the vaping, or the lack thereof. I am #vapenation and have honestly been unimpressed with the disappointing absence of clouds, would like to see more in the future.

  6. Entirely irrelevant to this delicate issue, but is Tumblog a real word? This is the first time in my life ever seeing it

  7. I’m an alum, was not a frat member, and sort of on-the-fence about fraternities.

    But this article is never going to convince anyone to change their minds. It is full of generalizations with out supporting evidence and examples of egregious behavior at other schools without any relevance to Swarthmore. If you want anyone on campus or in the administration to take you seriously, you need to come with specific accusations against specific people – names, dates, events. Not this combination of ad hominem attacks and suspect interpretations (“overhead sits an eerie balcony with the eyes of seemingly inebriated men gazing down, almost as if they are choosing their next target.” – are you serious? This is preposterous).

    Look, I understand that coming forward with an accusation is terrifying. I know a few people who were victimized at fraternity parties by fraternity brothers who were not comfortable pursing action against them – survivors do what they have to do to survive. But you can’t expect a list of anonymous accusations to convince anyone to do anything. People will assume that those accusations are fabrications (because be honest, some of them are). People in Hollywood heard rumors about Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby for decades, but nobody will act until individual victims were willing to come out.

  8. Discussing other colleges and their issues with fraternities detracts from the issues at Swarthmore. Swarthmore College fraternities, despite their many issues, do not compare to other college fraternities. Comparing Swarthmore’s fraternities to other fraternities actually weakens the argument against Swarthmore’s, considering it makes Swarthmore fraternities look good in comparison. As someone with many friends at big state schools, I’ve heard horrible first-hand stories about other schools. At other schools, fraternity members control who get into the parties. My friend told me when she was visiting Penn State with her girlfriends, a Penn State fraternity member said she would be allowed into the party “if she blew him.” At Swarthmore, that is not the case. Everyone can get into the parties. That being said, Swarthmore fraternities are still set up in a way to make a certain population more comfortable. With very few exceptions, these fraternities are still dominated by straight white cisgender males. Just because Swarthmore fraternities “are not as bad as other school’s fraternities” does not excuse them. Because of the power structure and dynamics, members have control over what happens in the house; they also have the protection of an institution. When a fraternity member fucks up, they are frequently not held accountable as an individual. Instead, fraternity members handle it in-house and maybe put them on suspension from the fraternity with no real further consequences. I’ve seen a lot of critiques in the comments arguing against “generalizations without supporting evidence” so I will provide an example. In the fall of 2017, when there was an incident at winter formal with a fraternity member and a very intoxicated girl in the upstairs bedroom of the fraternity. The student received consequences within the fraternity but dealt with no further action. If the student had not been affiliated with the fraternity, the issue would have been addressed outside of the fraternity and the punishment would have been much more severe.

    Some people are calling the Tumblr stories false because, based in their own experience, “none of the brothers I’ve met seem capable of doing any of [those things].” I am so glad that your personal experience with Swarthmore fraternities has not been negative and you have not had to deal with that experience. I, too, know several nice brothers. That being said, your personal positive experience does not negate what other people have been through. Furthermore, certain groups (white cisgender straight girls) definitely feel safer than other marginalized groups in a white male-dominated space like the fraternities. As someone who is a straight white girl, I can’t even imagine what that would feel like and I can’t even begin to speak on that experience. When I first heard about discontent with the fraternities, one of my friends pointed out that, as a trans person, they felt very uncomfortable in such a space. This hadn’t even crossed my mind as a girl who definitely fit in with the fraternity party type. Even with my extreme privilege, I do sometimes feel uncomfortable in these spaces. While reading the Tumblr stories, I related to many of them. I’ve been groped countless times and have stories to share that are probably too graphic even to post there. I’ve heard fraternity members slut-shame and make misogynistic and homophobic comments. I’ve seen fraternity seniors take advantage of the power structure and young freshmen girls. I’ve been one of those young naïve freshmen.

    I don’t think getting rid of the fraternities would solve all problems that come with drinking and college parties. I don’t even know if they are the root of the problem. Still, I’d like to emphasize the main part of this article that I agree with: the frats monopolize social space. They have “free beer, owned venues, party-hosting structures, and outside funding” which ensures that the fraternities throw the biggest parties on campus. They control the space and prevent other people from accessing it. Additionally, fraternity members always have access to a safe space where they can drink. Other students do not have access to this. A person cannot have friends over in their dorm to drink without risking issues with Pub Safe. I’ve tried to organize events with friends but being under 21 has caused issues. The fraternities are a space where I don’t get in trouble with Pub Safe. If the fraternities gave up their leases, other student groups would be able to have access to more party spaces and be able to control their own parties. At the very least, fraternities should allow other student groups access to their houses.

  9. I’m sorry so many people in the comments pushed back against you since clearly you were right about everything!

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