At Yale, fraternities exist in a split-level system because the word “fraternity” has two different meanings. On the one hand, fraternity means “brotherhood,” an organized group for the men who are members. On the other hand, fraternity means “frats,” disorganized parties that exist primarily for men who are members to hook up with women. To have an intelligent conversation about fraternities, we need to address both the “brotherhood” and the “frats.”
I see no real problem with “brotherhood” because I don’t find a single-gender organization inherently dangerous if that organization is internally focused. As I argued last week, women join sororities looking for things other than sisterhood, so a sorority is not primarily an internally focused organization.
Yet a fraternity, for some members, offers important social refuge. The loneliest people I know here are men without a well-articulated group of friends. In the abstract, fraternities offer a social structure to expedite male intimacy. Men at Yale often join semiformalized groups anyway, be they a cappella groups or club sports teams. Similarly, some men stay with the same suitemates through college, imprinting on each other out of the convenience of having friendship ready-made. The allure of brotherhood is powerful and ancient, and it would be futile to condemn that impulse.
But as we know, fraternities are also “frats,” the unchallenged lynchpin of underclassman social life. They exist as semipublic spaces where many undergraduates — in Greek life or not — feel entitled to the fun and alcohol they serve every weekend. Because frats are run by men and are often the only parties available, they implicitly destabilize gender dynamics at Yale. And because these semipublic spaces have no obvious rules of engagement, frats explicitly make Yale more unsafe by making room for dangerous sexual encounters between individuals.
If a frat were a nightclub, there would be authority figures even within the free-flowing bacchanal. Clubs have bouncers and bartenders, promoters and security guards. And there aren’t exactly beds and condoms waiting upstairs, either. Similarly, if a fraternity party were private, guests and hosts would follow basic rules of etiquette. Guests would be on their best behavior because they would have been personally invited; hosts would be protective over their guests because a bad party would reflect badly on them as individuals. Private parties are civil because they necessarily eliminate anonymity.
Yet a frat is not quite private, and neither is it exactly public. At a frat, there are no rules once you enter, no nightclub authority or guest–host expectation. Thus, men become the ones with power in the space, while women are often forced to cave to men’s expectations to participate in the party. Frats force women to be performative in their femininity, dressing and acting in certain ways to gain male approval and thus entry. Further, frats force women to ask men for things like drinks because men control the space. There is nowhere at Yale quite as lawless as a frat, nowhere else that gives men the power to do whatever they want.
There is a better culture possible, one where fraternities can still exist both as single-gender spaces that provide brotherhood while not simultaneously being the dangerous and degrading party spaces of a “frat.” To do so would require a radical reimagining of fraternities.
For one, fraternities and sororities could choose to disassociate from their national organizations. As a result, sororities could host parties, creating woman-controlled social spaces open to everyone. Their dues are certainly steep enough to afford the requisite amounts of alcohol, and I know many people who pay rent and have insurance in New Haven without the help of a national organization. Similarly, if they were Yale-specific groups, fraternities could make their own decisions about the gender identities of potential members. Perhaps we’d have more places like Fence Club, which, although exclusive and frustrating in its own right, is a positive mixed-gender space.
Alternatively, if Greek organizations do insist on clinging to their feudal allegiance to “nationals,” fraternities could be more intentional about co-hosting parties with other groups rather than just inviting women as guests. Perhaps a fraternity would provide the space for a party, and a woman’s sports team or sorority would provide the alcohol. A co-hosted party between a men’s organization and an organization that is either mixed gender or comprised of women would be less obviously corrosive of the power dynamics between guests of the party.
As of right now, though, fraternities are a problem because there are so few alternative party spaces available. No one would care that groups of boys hung out in a house together and played beer pong on weeknights if they did not also control conventional fun at Yale and thus reinforce harmful gender dynamics. The men who make women feel unsafe at Yale would have less power and less opportunity to enact gendered violence. If fraternities were just fraternity, and if “frats” were just one of the party options available, we’d live in a much better Yale. That, to me, sounds like progress.
Amelia Nierenberg is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .