There is a common conception, despite warnings, that three issues the fraternity and sorority community must tackle before completing anything else (such as having people to recruit) are hazing, sexual assault and alcohol abuse.
These topics are very emotional, very disturbing, and, conveniently for us, great causes to improve our public relations.
It is in my humble and lightly-experienced opinion that we focus so heavily on these issues because they are unsolvable, they distract us from actually needing to run organizations with real products. If we teach our men not to drink, not to sexually assault and not to haze, we’ll have done our job of making them better.
Why are these three topics so difficult to wrap our heads around? Shouldn’t it be obvious that a decent person would drink to a limit? Shouldn’t it be obvious that a decent person not humiliate or torture another person? Shouldn’t it be obvious that a decent person does not have sex with an unwilling victim?
We spend more money to educate about hazing than any other type of organization and still can’t seem to have a solid answer for our students’ questions.
It should be obvious, but our failure to define these issues has forever limited our ability to take action. We know that people are more likely to respond to an issue if it applies to them, and so we widen the definition of hazing, alcohol abuse and sexual assault in hopes that more men and women will feel affected and will therefore take action.
Unfortunately casting as wide a net as possible does little to help those lucky fraternity and sorority professionals looking to “solve” these issues. In much the same way that diluting a brand or product can ruin a company, diluting a definition can ruin a cause and any effort to make change.
So listed below are the three trouble areas for us, why they are trouble issues and some thoughts on defining them.
Every chapter asks the same question: “Is a scavenger hunt considered hazing?”
Our answer is almost universally: “It could be.”
Our answer doesn’t deserve the period at the end of its sentence; it is not a statement, just a passive aggressive way of saying, “We’ll find a way to get you little frat boys! Just you wait.”
No one can seem to piece together that the offenses of hazing are for the most part already illegal or protected speech. I identify the big problems with hazing as incorporation of assault, coercion, or humiliation.
A chapter that has a problem with assault needs a membership review. Coercion is a little trickier, but obvious in life-affecting situations. Humiliation is what sticks out like a sore thumb. Unfortunately, our world is riddled with the idea that humiliation is either hilarious or a well qualified “test.”
Think about growing up. Siblings always fight and pick on one another, bullies run the playgrounds, and, sorry graduates, it all continues in the work place. The fact is that so long as some members can decide who members are, there will be a chain of power, and we may either want to re-think our structure or embrace and channel that power elsewhere.
No one needs 8 weeks to learn about a fraternity. It took me 5 days to train as an orientation leader, where I served as a liaison for our University. A few organizations have taken this step, but we should all be so bold.
My concern with our approach sexual assault is very similar to my concern with hazing. The definition has been widened to the point where humans may one day need to sign contracts to have sex (what ancient Romans called marriage).
Sexual Assault incorporates everything from violent rape, to verbal sexual harassment to confused interactions. Unfortunately, this coupled with the emotional weight of sexual violence has encouraged a few headline-seeking reporters to diminish the issue with poorly-researched, highly speculative articles.
To me there is a difference between an instance of rape (we’ll say sexual assault) and chronic rape or harassment (sexual abuse). Neither of those are quite in line with cat-calling (sexual inappropriateness).
That is not to say; however, that cat-calling is proper, only that we need to be serious about communicating with those we are trying to educate. Our current approach reminds me of this scene from Mean Girls:
Some people are wise enough to use condoms, birth control or abstinence to prevent pregnancy, others are not. A man who practices abstinence is not in the same category as a man who uses condoms or a man who has sex without condoms. We do little benefit to prevent pregnancy by teaching abstinence to a man who practices safe sex, that only makes him feel diminished or resentful.
Much like not everyone will die or get pregnant from having sex, not every guy who cat-calls is a rapist. We paint our arguments against sexual wrongdoings with too broad a brush. The message must be tailored for the crowd, not the deliverer. We must acknowledge that different acts require unique conversations. Finally, we must not let go of one of the founding principles of liberty in this nation: We are all innocent until proven guilty.
That makes for highly emotional debate, but what happened at The University of Virginia should never happen again.
I’m not even sure why we have an “issue” with this. No wait, I’m sure, it’s because we are control and liability freaks.
FIPG (the standards that make it impossible for a chapter to host a respectable social event and be covered by their organization’s insurance) is not an educational curriculum. It should not be what our programming is based on.
Here are some words that could be considered new “rules”:
If it’s illegal, don’t do it. If it’s not illegal, follow your school’s policy. If you are using intoxicants, don’t embarrass your family/friends by throwing up, being arrested, assaulting someone or demeaning your friends.
Let’s partner with Alcoholics Anonymous. In a Gallup survey fraternity men and sorority women performed better than their unaffiliated peers in almost all quality of life metrics, but were more likely to be alcoholics. . . hmm, just a “stereotype” kids? We should be adults and treat a partnership with AA as a means of addressing a legitimate concern.
Secondly, we should be fighting for a lower drinking age. Does anyone seriously think that 21 matters as an age? Eighteen is a transitional age for most teens, it fits well to incorporate drinking legally into that transition and will significantly reduce the number of witch hunts headquarters staff and campus professionals perform each year. (UPDATE: apparently people do think that 21 matters, as California recently put up a measure to increase the smoking age. . . hmm)
Finally, stop talking to these students like they are idiots. Binge drinking is the issue here, and our folly is that we come off as condescending nannies. We need to make it cool not to get hammered and throw up all over someone. We need to make it cool again to host old-school parties where folks gathered around, got buzzed and had great conversations.
Making drinking like a classy, presidential person cool again should be our intent.
In all, I believe that all of these problems could be solved with smaller memberships and better brands, but both of those cost money; the former in lost revenue, the latter in investing in someone who can come up with a word better than “better.”
Some groups are making strides. Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s recent transition to immediate initiations is in line with the idea that you should offer membership to a man once and after determining the quality of his character.
The major flub of the Rolling Stone’s article about sexual assault at The University of Virginia has already called in to question the loose terminology that has made a mockery of an urgent cause. Finally, our own stupid prohibition has caused alcohol to rebrand itself from a casual pleasure to the only pleasure. Sad face.