A new exhibit at Gund Gallery entitled “The American Fraternity” by Andrew Moisey is a jarring and captivating photographic illustration of the perverted and exploitative nature of fraternities in American society. It is a profusion of hypermasculinity, a distilled essence of the “boys will be boys” trope, exposing the truth of “brotherhood”: men pouring alcohol down each other’s throats, jeering and grabbing at women, groping naked genitals; images of glazed-over eyes and women’s bodies slumped on the floor. Each photo is universal. Every college student has seen it, experienced it or silently stood by.
While some fraternities exhibit worse behavior than others, and the stereotypical, immature, misogynistic beer enthusiast certainly does not describe every frat member, there is a general trend of behavior that the majority of fraternities in the U.S. display.
As I walked through the exhibit I marvelled that this behavior — emboldened by these exclusive male clubs — has been tolerated by society for so long. How do fraternities, spaces that thrive on objectifying women and serve as the pinnacle of heteronormative masculinity, continue to persist in this supposedly feminist and progressive age?
The photographer himself presented one theory. I attended a talk he gave at Kenyon about his exhibit, and when asked to share his thoughts on why fraternities get away with such typically abhorrent behavior, he responded by saying that fraternities only exist because women still attend their parties. He then went on to suggest that, if women were to stop attending frat parties, then fraternity party culture would fall apart all together.
I was instantly taken aback by his comment because, while he may not have intended to directly blame women, the argument implicitly posits women as the enablers of frat culture, perfectly coinciding with the pervasive and socially sanctioned narrative that women are responsible for men’s behavior.
In a very narrow sense, this idea holds some truth to it; without women, typical 21st century fraternities could not exist as they are. Fraternities function through the constant validation of their heterosexual status — frat members need women to demonstrate their heterosexuality, which, by society’s standards, is intrisically connected to masculinity. So yes, without women’s participation, fraternities as we know them would cease to exist.
Yet one cannot simply disregard the patriarchal norms that pressure women to conform to certain social expectations, nor the fact that some women want to be desired, and have fun at parties. Fraternity parties are often the only social option for a “night out” that college students can attend.
Women know the risks of walking into a party. Women go not because of men’s often-degrading behavior, but despite it. Women do not have a moral responsibility to uphold men’s civility by not associating with them,. To suggest that the onus falls on women only perpetuates a highly gendered and misogynistic rhetoric.
But fraternity culture is not self-contained — their behavior is a symptom of a larger cultural issue. Telling women to stop attending frat parties does not change the actual root of the systemic problem that holds holds men to unwavering standards of masculinity. Fraternities simply reflect America’s greater patriarchal culture, which encourages men (especially white men) to strive to be powerful, aggressive, strong, in control of women — and unaccountable.
Efforts to meet these standards often translate into highly inappropriate and violent behavior towards women, including sexual assault. Even though the recent #MeToo movement has made significant strides in attempting to hold powerful men accountable for sexual misdemeanors, more subtle misogynistic behaviors are still normalized within our culture. Frat members, and men in general, continue to get away with aggressive objectification of women, as portrayed in Moisey’s photographs.
How do we abnormalize this behavior? Most importantly, do not blame women for men’s behavior. The notion that women’s interactions with fraternities enable men’s objectifying behavior is deeply illogical and prevents us from dealing with the core of the cultural issue that allows this behavior to continue.
Women should not be denied the ability to go to parties, have fun, look sexy and feel good. Rather, we need to make men more attentive to their own actions. Grown men should not need the removal of women to prevent them from assaulting, harassing or objectifying them — they should know well enough to never act that way in the first place.
Lucy White ’22 is an undeclared major from New York, N.Y. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.