On September 13, the front cover of the Sunday Review of The New York Times was taken over by a cartoon featuring a multi-story, crumbling red house adorned with mostly pink men hanging out of its windows and carousing on its front lawn. They drink, smoke, play sports, and make noise amidst abandoned bras and broken bottles, panties, condoms, and a fried egg. There are only three women in this scene. One is shuffling up to the front of the house so burdened with crates of beer that they reach to her chin, another is climbing out of an upper story window, as if the risk of falling is less dangerous than whatever sort of ominous things are going on inside, and the third is a cheerleader with bandaged, bleeding head (perhaps an injury sustained during her own leap from window?).
While it was surprising to find such an image on the cover of the Review, what was all the more incomprehensible to me was the presence of the accompanying article, “The 38-Year-Old Frat Boy.” In it, Alex Stone details his life as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. What Stone took, apparently, from receiving this coveted honor and moving from New York to Ann Arbor for a year was that he should join a fraternity.
Says Stone: “This mission started during a nine-month fellowship for mid career journalists that I recently did at the University of Michigan. One of the first things that caught my eye in Ann Arbor was the vast number of fraternities and sororities dominating the landscape with their imposing colonials, manicured lawns and thunderous parties. Before long, a heady brew of curiosity, ethanol and an anxious yearning to suspend adulthood got the better of my judgement, and I decided to see if I could persuade a frat to let me join.”
Stone proceeds to attend multiple parties per evening at a variety of fraternities, playing beer pong and “Whirly Ball” with the mission of impressing the brothers and landing a place among them. On the night he hopes to seal the deal with Alpha Delta Phi, he takes a bong hit for the first time since his twenties and ends up in the hospital with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and clothes covered in vomit. When the attending E.M.T. reveals Stone’s age whilst picking him up from the frat house in an ambulance, all chance of joining the frat is squashed. But cry no tears for Stone: another frat (“a motley band of misfits who got high together and played video games”) ultimately asks him to pledge, and to boot, he appears to encounter no legal repercussions from the incident.
I am a PhD student at the University of Michigan, and when I arrived to the leafy campus five years ago, I too noticed the strong presence of Greek life in certain corners. The dilapidated frat houses on the campus fringes at South State Street, ringing with beer-soaked revelry every weekend, did not, however, lure me to suspend the adulthood I came to Ann Arbor to foster. Instead, they served as conspicuous markers of where not to tread. Having been an undergraduate once myself, and perpetually employed as a full-time female, I know well enough that areas with a high concentration of intoxicated males is hardly a safe place for a gal to be.
Perhaps I am lacking in imagination, but I simply can’t think of a clearer signal of white male privilege than an instance in which an adult white male receives a highly competitive fellowship and uses his time on that fellowship to join a frat (because, as Stone writes, “I was in college!” No, he was not.) and gets so inebriated he ends up in the hospital, but instead of reprimand from the law or university, he gets to turn the ridiculous tale into a cover story for the country’s second largest circulating paper. Maybe they call this “immersion journalism” but I call it downright disgraceful.
The article, timed to come out the weekend after most schools in America started back up from summer holidays, is remarkably tone deaf to a very real issue on our college campuses: the correlation of alcohol and sexual abuse. Since Stone’s piece was published, the Times ran another cover story about social life at the University of Michigan, this time covering what Stone fails to seriously address—but in the Sunday Styles section, as if assault is a lifestyle choice. The article focused on the responsibility placed on R.A.s (“most of whom are no older than 21 themselves”) to address these issues with students in their dormitories at a time when “binge-drinking and drug-taking, which often play a role in campus sex and sexual misconduct, continue to escalate.”
Katherine Rosman reports that a recent survey conducted by the University “found 22.5 percent of undergraduate females and 6.8 percent of undergraduate males said they have experienced non-consensual kissing, touching or penetration.” The article, and the decision to focus on Michigan, was likely in response to the recently published results of a survey by the Association of American Universities, which found that, among the 27 universities polled, the University of Michigan came out looking the worst, tied only with the University of Southern California, another campus with a very active Greek life.
In this survey (conducted outside the university, and related here as reported by The Washington Post), thirty percent of female undergrads at Michigan “said they were victims of non-consensual sexual contact through force or in situations when they were incapacitated and unable to consent. Among undergraduate men, the rate was seven percent. Thirteen percent of undergraduate women said they suffered incidents involving non-consensual sexual penetration or attempted penetration. Twenty-nine percent of students said sexual assault is very or extremely problematic at the school.” There is absolutely nothing amusing in these findings, and yet, in Stone’s piece, he makes light of the sexual debauchery prominent in fraternity culture. He writes that the frat he’d hoped to join was “otherwise known by students as ‘Shady Phi,’ a popular frat on campus, with a beach volleyball court in the front yard. (As I would later learn, the prevailing rumor about A.D.P. was that even the sand in the volleyball court had herpes.)”
Neither The Washington Post nor The New York Times draw a correlation in these recent articles between the survey findings on which they report and the presence of frats on campus. But, as Jessica Valenti wrote this time last year in an article for The Guardian chronicling egregious instances of rape culture in fraternities (such as a 2010 instance at Yale, in which brothers paraded around campus shouting, “No means yes, yes means anal.”), “numerous studies have shown that men who join fraternities are three times more likely to rape, that women in sororities are 74% more likely to experience rape than other college women, and that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in four years away at school.” As Stone’s article and its illustrative cartoon highlight, sex, alcohol, and frat houses go hand in hand, and far too often, what results is a concoction extremely dangerous for women on campus.
Last year, Valenti asked why we don’t have the conversation about banning frats. This year, with the onset of a new semester, Stone is given prime real estate in the Times to suggest it’s never too late to join up and become one of the guys. A conversation about sexual assault on college campuses in America that does not address the role fraternities play in this problem is failing to address the issue fully. A prominent national paper that runs an article making light of the the way Greek life embodies a culture of excessive drinking and the objectification of women is simply irresponsible.
Lead image: Kiera Wood, Columbia Daily Spectator. (Capturing Emma Sulkowicz and “Carry That Weight” at Columbia’s commencement, May 2015.) Inset image: Kyle Platts for The New York Times.