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Surprised by Fraternity-Related Sexual Assault?

Well, are you?

Most of the people I talked to about the recent article concerning the alleged sexual assault at Sigma Chi fraternity said, “No big surprise there.” A few were ambivalent, many were angry and disappointed. But when I asked people why they weren’t surprised they appeared uncertain before explaining generalized ideas about how it’s our society, or that it’s typical of men and so on.

When these kinds of things happen, I feel too much attention gets focused on why the individual event happened, which in this case was explained by irresponsible or underage drinking. In my opinion, the more important question should be why this isn’t surprising, even if it is shocking, because it tells us that this kind of behavior is common and expected to a degree in our society. And as a sociology major, that’s a major concern of mine.

Looking at the structure of a fraternity through the prism of sociology, it becomes clear how fraternities are in many ways like a perfect storm for sexual violence. To be clear, I do not mean that the assailants were victims of our society or that their actions were in any way justified, but rather I’m arguing that their actions are symbolic of a society that is androcentric and heteronormative and that it’s really important to remember this when we talk about sexual assault. While the university sanctions that have been placed on Sigma Chi may have the effect of stopping these assaults temporarily, they do not take into account how what happens in fraternities is situated within a greater social context.

Fraternities like Sigma Chi often include residences where large groups of young men cohabitate. For new members it will often be the first time living away from home, and away from a female presence such as a mother and/or sisters. Here we find an amplification of androcentric thought, where the often alternative views of women are almost entirely missing. And in the context of a society that fears and hates homosexuality, this male-centeredness creates another problem. Fearing that this close cohabitation exclusively with other men may cause some to doubt their heterosexuality, many young men may feel pressured to continually re-assert and prove their straightness to their peers. Combine these factors with irresponsible drinking and/or drug abuse, peer-pressure, and we begin to understand why fraternities commit 55% of all gang rapes on college campuses. This is a major problem. Clearly, these sanctions are hardly enough. Perhaps fraternity members should be required to take a class in Women’s Gender Studies.

The fraternity is of special interest because it is where these ideas and norms become highly concentrated, but it is important to remember that these ideas and norms exist outside of fraternities as well. I do not intend to denounce fraternities in general, though I do think they should be looked at critically from a social and contextual perspective. Instead, I mean for this article to ask us to take a step back and look at the broad social structures that guide our lives.

It upsets me to see people sigh and role roll their eyes when these kinds of events are printed. In service of the young women who were affected by the sexual assault I hope to open the discussion further, beyond fraternities, to the harmful implications of a society that devalues women and hates homosexuals. It is crucial that we take our whole society into account; otherwise these sad occurrences are nothing more than another shocking headline.

Since it’s taken the Minnesota Daily over 3 weeks to get back to me about printing this editorial I wrote, I decided to post it here.

For more reading on the problems associated with masculinity in our society, I highly recommend reading this short, 4-page article by Michael Kimmel, Masculinity as Homophobia

Please comment and tell me your opinion on this issue. And please share this among your friends!

Posted in Blogging, Soapbox, Sociology by Preston on November 7th, 2012

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