Note from the author: I had the terrific opportunity to speak with Jana Mathews, author of "The Benefits of Friends." This is not a paid promotion, and the questions and answers have been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Jana Mathews' book, The Benefits of Friends, does not read like a dramatic tell-all, and it doesn't serve as an effort to investigate wrongdoing. Its content is a mix of personal observations from her time working with fraternity and sorority students and research "culled from the fields of sociology, economics, and cognitive psychology." The Benefits of Friends tempers its critiques with empathy for modern college students as they navigate age-old social pressures.
I read about half of my copy before Mathews and I had a chance to speak and finished the remainder of the book while on bed rest from a little medical procedure. We focused our interview on the topic of homosocial relationships but covered many topics. If you are looking for well-cited, unique reading material on the fraternity/sorority experience; I'd suggest giving this book your time and attention.
Jana Mathews (JM): I was hoping to occupy the middle space that hasn't been talked about in-depth in a really long time. It was important that this be published by an academic press. UNC Press put it through a year-long process of rewriting and put it in front of people from different disciplines who critiqued it or pushed back on generalizations I was making, so I feel very lucky.
Outside of the histories, which are almost always written by academics or independent scholars, the other band [of fraternity publications] are journalists who are looking in from the outside and interviewing people or who publish exposés. I find those interesting to read, but they are also somewhat ethically problematic.
I wanted to provide a comprehensive, nuanced portrait of what's happening on the ground right now from my perspective as a fraternity/sorority adviser for 7 years coupled with observations and ethnographic research. I tried to do my homework to make sure that the things I was seeing and the arguments I was making were not one-off stories but could resonate with people in most places.
Mathews doesn't cover up the dark elements of the fraternity experience. She also doesn't minimize the redeeming qualities of fraternity or sorority organizations. Instead, she explains things as they are meant to be, as they are in practice, and in a way that highlights the decision-making processes of college students. Mathews hits on the topics we are familiar with - sexual misconduct, hazing, substance misuse, exclusivity, and alumni connectivity - but The Benefits of Friends highlights the complexity of these issues. As a result, it doesn't rely on cheap, simplistic solutions or blame gaming.
I mentioned that our interview focused primarily on the topic of homosocial relationships. This is covered in the early chapters of the book. It stood out to me as something I rarely read about - even from official fraternity publications. I connected her words and stories to my personal experiences with my chapter and working with other fraternity and sorority chapters as a volunteer and fraternity professional.
Fraternity Man (FMN): Explain what you mean when you say "homosocial". . .
JM: Homosocial means a close, emotionally intimate relationship with someone of the same sex that is not romantic. The ways that you demonstrate this bond is often through behaviors that could be perceived as romantic or sexual (touching, rubbing, pet names, etc.). The line between "homosocial" and "homoerotic" is blurry.
FMN: When did that stand out to you?
JM: The very first time I walked into a sorority house to attend a chapter meeting! The room was filled with casually dressed women. The number of people that were lying in each other's laps, braiding each other's hair, rubbing each other's arm - acts of formal grooming - was a little jarring. But it was also sweet and kind of cute.
That's something fraternity and sorority culture allows, endorses, and normalizes. You can have really close relationships with people outside of those organizations, but you don't go to a campus center and see a bunch of women in each others' arms. Physical touch is something that is very important for forming social bonds. An understated reason why people join is that they want to be touched by other people.
FMN: There are a lot of organizations that argue for the value of single-sex organizations, but you rarely see or expect them to point to physical touch and platonic intimacy as valuable/discussable traits.
JM: Yes - I know that [generally] as you grow up you are touched less often than when you were a baby or small child, and people miss that. It's part of why we yearn for romantic partners. But for so many people, this kind of innocent intimacy eludes you or, within hookup culture, it seems like the touch always has to lead to something sexual. So, this kind of authentic touch with no expectation, that someone just wants to be around you; it's something that's important in a young person's life.
Branching away from platonic, homosocial relationships, the book dives into hookup culture and sexual misconduct. One element that stood out to me was Mathew's perspective on gay and lesbian members in fraternities and sororities. She writes of the utility of such members and why they may be desirable recruits outside of the altruistic desire for diversity. Mathews also notes, through acknowledgments from gay students she advised, the role such members play in facilitating sexual misconduct.
Again, her work challenged me to reflect on my experiences as a fraternity student, professional, and volunteer, and how chapters recruit and adapt to those who fall outside of the "white frat" stereotype.
JM: Some of the most insightful things to me came from talking with the LGBTQ community within the fraternities and sororities. What's fascinating about the recruitment of gay members is if you look back 10 or 15 years, it'd be hard to find anyone who would be "out" in an open and accepted way [in a fraternity/sorority chapter]. Every community has its culture, but even at SMU or Ole Miss, you're going to find "out" gay members in certain chapters in a way that is totally normalized and socially acceptable. It doesn't mean that homophobia doesn't exist, but people know that it's "not cool" to be openly homophobic.
When you look at "top tier" chapters, they are perhaps more selective in recruiting gay members with certain conditions and terms. Such as, 'you can't be too gay,' 'you can't bring a partner to a house/formal,' 'you have to listen or participate in homophobic jokes,' and, ideally, they have a certain look or bring in a certain group of women. In talking with gay members who left those organizations, more than a few have taken a step back and see their role or relationship with that organization in a different light (e.g., playing the part and contributing to sexual assault by bringing packs of girls to parties)
FMN: Is it different on the sorority side?
JM: I think women are more fluid with what they accept, but even then there are restrictions around the type of lesbian one can be. Chapters [seem to] prefer a "lipstick lesbian" to some who's "butch," but there's perhaps less concern about the presence of girlfriends or female romantic partners attending social events with the group.
FMN: How does that compare to something like race or ethnicity? It seems more like a cost-benefit analysis to the recruitment of LGBTQ members and less like some altruistic desire to be diverse.
JM: There is not as much of an incentive [for chapters] to expand in that way. Or, there's only a willingness to push for the minimal touchpoint so as to appear non-racist. They may be happy to take in someone of a different race if they "act white," who come from a similar socio-economic class, or if they're not pushing the chapter to compromise or adapt to the non-white member. If they are allowed to bear markers, and I don't want to talk about racial stereotypes, some chapters expect Black members to "perform their blackness," often in a comedic, stereotypical way.
A few more questions and answers from my time with Mathews on topics other than intra-chapter and homosocial relationships.
FMN: How can fraternities and sororities improve their inter-organizational relationships?
JM: One Chi Omega chapter has a study hall in their sorority house. They can't have parties, but they did carve out a space in their dining hall where they study with a different fraternity every night. What some are reporting is that, for some of the men and women, it's the first time that they are interacting while sober and fully clothed. They are starting to see each other in a different way: as smart and intelligent. In that way, their relationships have improved and it has decreased anxiety or fear of mistreatment on both sides. I think something like that is an interesting way of incorporating something that both organizations are required to do and doing it together.
There are also more opportunities to work together to move up the ladder. I think fraternities have this down, but the women have room for improvement (She covers this in a later chapter of the book). I think an interesting thing would be to say something like, "Our goal is to have both of our organizations' seniors lined up with jobs prior to graduation." It would also be a good way to engage senior members and allow younger members to see one of the more tangible benefits of membership. They might support their senior members knowing that they will have the same opportunity. Everyone is job hungry; it's something everyone wants.
FMN: It's evident in the book that you have strong, trusting relationships with your students. What advice would you give to local chapter advisers to better connect with student members? What should they keep in mind?
JM: Students are human beings and they are in an interesting space where they are physically and age-wise adults, but emotionally and cognitively still developing. We spend a lot of the limited time we have with them telling them what to do instead of just listening to them.
So what I often suggest as an academic, an adviser, and a professor is that the most important work you do with students is not the official work that you are assigned to do. It's everything that happens around that. You are in a privileged position to oftentimes be the closest adult in a student's life. You are not their parent or their friend, but they need you and they need you to listen to them.
They can solve their own problems, they just need to talk it out. So, just ask them: "How was your day? Tell me about yourself? What's going on?" Just engage them in conversation. When you are genuinely curious about their life, you open up a kind of relationship where they feel they can share information with you and you may actually be able to help them.
FMN: You cite so much material in this book. What are some of your reading suggestions? (Links open in new windows)
Margaret Freeman, Women of Discriminating Taste. It's about sororities in the South.
Jane Ward, Not Gay. It has a section on fraternity hazing but is more broadly about homosocial relationships.
Sebastian Junger. I cited Tribe; he also came out with a new book (Freedom). He's a military journalist, so much of my thinking of how fraternities and sororities operate like tribes were inspired by his sociological studies.
Kate Manne talks about misogyny in a way that could be a little intense for the average reader, but she talks about some of the dating culture on college campuses.
FMN: If you were to write a follow-up, what are some questions you would like to explore?
JM: I am really interested in the ritual or the religious component/origins of fraternities and sororities. We live in a very secular society. The vast majority of fraternity/sorority members are not active members of the organization, but they go through a ritual that is highly religious. They say it's not a big deal, but to what extent is a fraternity/sorority like religion or serves as a surrogate to replace something that society might have held important 100 or 200 years ago.
We live in a world where we don't really keep secrets, and people join these clubs and are told to keep things a secret, and they do! That itself is really strange and bizarre. Like, what's going to happen if you tell someone? Nothing. But yet it feels as if even after they've graduated and there's nothing at stake, they treat it with a sacred reverence. Members will simultaneously say it's weird and creepy or that they just get through it because it's tradition, but it still has this hold over you. Why is that?
I'm also interested in the alumni side of things. Part of that is what ends up happening to alums in terms of involvement or engagement. Also, how does what happens in those four years work to shape lives and their senses of self? That might be hard to get information on, but I think about, as a teacher who works with college students, it's such a critical age range developmentally and it's wonderful but also awful. I don't want to fetishize the college experience - I think that's unhelpful - but what are the consequences of this organization that works to shape how you see things and how you see yourself? I'm still working on the methods for that.
Learn more about Jana Mathews from her site, and connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Learn more about The Benefits of Friends and where to purchase here.