Rape Culture And The Cycle of Victimization Within Black Greek Letter Organizations
The first college party I attended was thrown by a popular historically Black fraternity on my college campus. It was both a welcome back party for students as well as a welcome back from suspension for the frat, and as far as I’d heard during my week-long career as a college student, it was a party you didn’t want to miss.
My roommate wasn’t a member, but she believed being the daughter of two lifelong Black Greek Letter Organization members made her the resident expert on Black Greek life. And despite her warnings to watch out for party strollers, avoid wearing most of my favorite colors, and resist the urge to stan my intended Greek affiliation, nothing really could’ve prepared me for the crash coarse I’d actually receive. I had never seen so many sweaty, shirtless men in one place in my life. Grabbing, groping, barking. I thought to myself, these can’t be the same well-suited men I’d seen proudly displaying their colorful line jackets around campus. These couldn’t have been the same men, not these men with their hiking backpacks full of liquor strapped to their backsides, tossing young women up on their shoulders and simulating sex acts.
I found myself trapped by three of the fraternity’s members near the ladies room as I attempted to ditch the party. One took me by the hand and lead me back inside the party, at which time I found myself being touched between my legs by a complete stranger, surrounded by other women who were also being touched. It wasn’t our brief tussle that caused my attacker to release me, it was the sound of George Clinton blazing across the speakers. As he darted off to join his eager line brothers, I made my escape out of the student union where my roommate would join me shortly thereafter. I asked her why we bothered to come there, why anyone bothered to come knowing the environment we’d be in.
“That’s just how they are when they get around each other, my dad and his frat brothers are the same way. You just can’t take it personal.”
In other words, there was nothing to see there, just a bunch of frat boys being frat boys.
The origin of Black Greek letter organizations isn’t as Greek as we think, nor is it anywhere near as Black as many Black Greeks would like to believe. In fact, all Greek letter organizations stem from the same tree, a tree with roots dating back as far as 1776. John Heath, a Greek scholar studying at the College of William & Mary, founded the first collegiate Greek letter society in Phi Beta Kappa. Using the letters of the Greek alphabet to name his organization was both homage to his field of expertise and a covert way to maintain a public identity in conjunction with a secret motto. While Heath gets the credit for being the father of academic fraternities, social fraternities got their start some 49 years later on the campus of Union College. Kappa Alpha Society, founded in 1825, was established as the first social fraternity for the purpose of creating confidential spaces for non-university sanctioned discussions, debates and the unification of rhetoric that defied socially acceptable narratives.
Over time, with social pressure and the mysterious death of a supposed fraternity whistleblower, the society’s focus was said to have shifted to scholarship, ethical conduct and leadership, the jury is still out on whether or not that shift ever actually took place. What we do know is that a turbulent 20th century and the end of World War II saw a membership boost as returning troops were encouraged to attend universities and found that these fraternities provided a familiar sense of brotherhood. As interest increased and diversity efforts became political talking points, new fraternities with diversified target populations became more commonplace, and around this time we see the emergence of Black Greek Letter fraternities.
We’ve come a long way from the riveted debates and cardigan characterizations that once accompanied fraternity members. Somehow these seemingly well-meaning organizations went from boasting about graduation rates and alumni donor-ship to being branded by their propensity for partying, a little too hard maybe. And as this reputation became more of a calling card, these organizations began attracting potential members who were looking not only for brotherhood but the benefits that accompanied it, mainly access to influence, social visibility, and sex. Who would’ve guessed that a competitive, testosterone-fueled, casual-sex promoting, alcohol induced environment could potentially result in an increase in cases of rape and sexual assaults on college campuses?
Studies say we should’ve seen this coming from miles away. Not only are men who join fraternities three times more likely to rape, but their female cohorts, sorority members, were also said to be 74% more likely to experience rape or sexual assault, and it doesn’t stop there. Studies show that of the few women who do report their sexual assault on college campuses, 44% of them were under the age of 18 which coincides with the emphasis fraternities place on freshman students and their easily exploitable inexperience in college spaces. Before graduation, 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault on a college campus, most being assaulted by a familiar person, either while under the influence or by a drunk perpetrator. It’s no secret that sexual assaults account for 15% of all fraternity insurance claims. And with secrecy as the common denominator and key factors like binge drinking, partying and casual sex as a measure of social success within these organizations, it’s no surprise that these issues seem conflated. But when we take the culture of fraternal organizations and merge that with the culture of secrecy and male-coddling that’s prevalent in the Black community, we get the pledgees from hell.
Black Greek Letter fraternities are a blend of two worlds that ironically have more in common than it appears on the surface. On one hand, there’s the fraternity culture that promotes an environment of secrecy, competition and social climbing. And on the other hand is African American culture that fosters an environment of sexual shame, secrecy and male coddling. When these cultures combine, we’re left with a smorgasbord of opportunities for violation and violence. Not to mention, there’s already a pre-existing history of brushing sexual assault and rape aside in the Black community. When we take a deeper look into why this dismissive attitude exists, we see a historic devaluation of Black women’s bodies and their reproductive freedoms that starts on the plantation. For centuries Black women have been reduced to their sexual organs and that didn’t stop when we left the plantation. Those beliefs became sewn into the fabric of Black America’s culture, which is evidenced by the ongoing exploitation of Black women within it. This exploitative dynamic has led to a lack of understanding as it pertains to how and why Black women’s bodies are to be respected. And because Black women are seen as sex objects, extracting sex from them, however you can, is seen as a socially acceptable behavior.
And not just that. The Black community is known for its propensity to coddle boys well into adulthood, so much so that it’s almost become our culture to consider Black men’s safety even when they refuse to consider their own. Black women who experience sexual assault often fail to report their attacks because of their concern for how the justice system might mistreat or abuse their attacker. For every 1 Black woman who does report her attack, there are 15 more who do not. So when affluence, influence, accessibility, and social reputation are folded into the mix, Black women are often frozen with fear. Fear of the outcome for their attacker and fear of the outcome for themselves because a culture that would require a victim to first consider their attacker is a culture that ensures these attacks never stop. Black fraternity culture is a culmination of the worst of both worlds. And as with all cultures where the safety of women is an afterthought, the abuse they endure goes overlooked, undiscussed and invalidated.
When I saw the variety of #Surviving hashtags trending on Twitter, each referencing a different set of Black Greek Fraternity letters, I thought about my first college party experience. I thought about my friends reminding me how well-known and well-liked my attacker was, how any admission would ruin my college career. I was stuck all over again and would stay there for four full years. Fraternity culture has almost become a magnet for predatory men. There’s safety in an environment that normalizes the endangering of women because no one is checking what their brother is doing if they’re caught up in the hype themselves. This isn’t a white fraternity issue, it’s a man issue, and all fraternities, including the Black ones, create a safe space to deny the existence of the issue altogether.
There are more stories of Black women having their sexual assaults swept under the rug by university administration than there are actual studies investigating rape culture and how it ties into Black Greek life on historical Black college campuses (only one). We know these assaults are happening, why would our institutions refuse to do something about it? The reality is that these organization’s members go on to to occupy powerful positions in visible spaces. It’s not the members who ultimately end up being protected but the entities themselves. You speak out against one member, you suddenly have a million enemies. You expose one lowly college senior for inflicting four years of torture, suddenly you find your personal information being smeared across online publications and discredited by men of means. There is a hedge around these fraternities and the hedge surrounding Black Greek Letter fraternities is double fortified, ironically with Black women doing the gatekeeping. Black men, especially the ones who benefit from this fraternal vow to power and secrecy, aren’t going to denounce it themselves. At some point we cannot be more concerned with Black men’s disenfranchisement under the law than they are themselves, especially when they appear intent on breaking it. Community service doesn’t absolve anyone of decades of indecency. If they’re not bound by their own bylaws, then why should we be?