The power dynamics at play during a frat party are nauseating and familiar. Fraternity brothers control entrance to high-status parties and access to alcohol, which gives them significant influence over underage students desperate to go out—and with this power comes the abuse of power in the form of sexual violence. Does the picture change when there are women at the door, at the bar, and watching from the side of the dance floor? Serena Lin, a member of the newly co-ed Edon Club, contributed an essay to The Cut that explores this question. She examines the impact of systemic change: the title asks, “Can Women Fix Fraternities?” But the author fails to make a claim, leaving readers confused and conflicted.
Co-ed membership has long been proposed as a potential solution to sexual violence at fraternities. The Edon Club, formerly the all-male fraternity SigEp, gave bids to its first mixed-gender class last spring. Despite this, it has yet to become the feminist utopia some had hoped for. As the author points out, the existence of women in an institution expressly built to funnel power towards already powerful men does not nullify the patriarchal nature of the space. What, then, does their presence do?
The author describes huddling in a yellowing bathroom of the Edon House with a fellow woman member while she suffers from a panic attack. She had just seen her sexual harasser downstairs. Though they all knew what he had done, it seems another member of Edon had allowed him into the party. In her piece’s final line, Lin writes, “So what do we [women] do? We go back to the party.” This ambivalence towards a continuing legacy of sexual violence specific to fraternity culture is troubling. She makes readers feel that there is no choice but to begrudgingly accept the norm. However, no human institution is so sacred as to be unchangeable, and no human is immune to growth. If we want to make a safer frat, we can. It will not happen by co-ed membership alone, though, but by hard work on the part of all members.
It will never be comfortable to ask men to change their behavior. However, sexual assault (and the constant fear of it) is not an “inherent [risk] of womanhood.” By claiming it is inherent, we are ignoring men’s agency and pardoning the culture they have actively created. As long as fraternity brothers with the power to deny entrance to sexually violent people choose to invite them in, they are shirking their responsibilities. This is as true for a woman in a frat as a man.
The presence of women’s bodies has never been enough. Male institutions have shown, over and over and in excruciating detail, that they do not care about our bodies. We can’t just stand on the other side of the door, sober in our beloved Air Force Ones, and keep an eye on one hundred freshman girls at once. We have to speak up, to say, “He is a danger, and he cannot come in.” If that fails, we have to be the body that blocks the entrance. There are structural and cultural changes within our reach. If we have the power, we have to leverage it to make safety a reality, because these historically-male institutions have no intention of doing so on their own. Perhaps women can fix fraternities, but only if they are willing to try.
I do not write to condemn the women and men who are part of fraternities. I only ask that if you choose to enter one of these groups, you make a choice: acknowledge that you are upholding a patriarchal tradition that perpetuates sexual violence or enact the difficult changes needed to keep us safe.