In “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman’s seminal work on the largely unquestioned role of TV in American life, there is a passage that points out that the televisual medium’s ubiquity undercuts the sense of arguing that, in order to combat TV’s deleterious effects, we need simply to ban TV itself. Postman states, unequivocally, that to suggest banning TV is to suggest nothing. That is, outlawing television does nothing to compromise the values that allowed for its prevalence, even though in the abstract such a proscription might curb TV’s atrophying of the faculties that make democracy possible.
It is a standard response when faced with something vile to wish the salient structures that seem to have fostered its existence to be razed. Though occasionally backed by strong arguments, such responses frequently do little to eradicate the problem when the problem in question is a social ill or public health crisis. For lack of a better metaphor, these responses end up treating symptoms rather than the disease.
In much the same way, Jordan Sargent, in an opinion piece for Gawker, has responded to the rape culture endemic to college campuses by proposing that fraternities, organizations long characterized as hives of unchecked male aggression and sexual thuggery, be banned altogether. While “social ill” barely scratches the surface of the incomparable horrors of American rape culture, Sargent’s argument fails for being similarly preoccupied with symptoms. However, this is not to say that his argument, as a hypothetical, is immediately disagreeable.
Sargent points out that fraternity members, according to a 2007 Ohio University study, are three times more likely to commit rape than their fellow students. The reforms required in effectively confronting such a statistic will, due to the nature of bureaucracy, be slow in coming and even slower in achieving results. Institutions, especially colleges, should be unwilling to take anything off the table in discussions about ways to keep students safe. Rape, in communities like fraternities, has the potential of becoming institutionalized and organized, a situation exacerbated by the college life’s well-documented abuses of alcohol and other recreational drugs. Sargent even provides some sober, albeit token qualification: admittedly, getting rid of frats won’t end rape. But shuttering facilities that incubate conditions that make rape easier, that even condone and promote rape, would be a significant and welcome first step.
So why not? Stacy Dougan, Board Chair of Men Stopping Violence, put it succinctly in a guest blog for the Huffington Post last year.
“Concluding this story by punishing and isolating this student and this fraternity will not solve the problem,” Dougan says. “That approach leaves rape culture, and how we participate in it, unexamined and unchallenged.” Put differently, treating fraternity men who perpetrate rape as pathological specimens somehow exceptional to the male population at large allows men who could not imagine themselves capable of raping a woman to distance themselves wholesale from those who would, can and do rape. This failure by even the self-identified allies and “good men” to acknowledge their place within rape culture, no matter how arguably peripheral, truncates honest critique of that culture. More to the point, implicit in the scapegoating of fraternities is the idea that men who join frats and then rape were indoctrinated into a community that holds contemptible views on women, views that the former pledge would not have held had he not have joined Greek society.
This is not an attempt to let frats off the hook. In fact, given that frat living appears to amplify rape culture by creating a single-minded, supportive environment where opinions about women considered (or at least treated as) abhorrent and aberrant in most social groups are greeted with humor and applause. And maybe Sargent is right in thinking that closing the doors on these incubators is a logical starting point.
Yet even in the Rolling Stone report Sargent was responding to, there are suggestions of the risks inherent in such a ban. Take the reactions that Jackie, Emily Renda and other University of Virginia rape victims received from their peers when they talked about what had been done to them: Suspicion, doubt, nudges in the direction of keeping quiet for the sake of the status quo, for the sake of their reputation (“You don’t want to be that girl that got raped for the rest of your life”). Couple these responses with victims’ pondering the ways in which they could have avoided being raped, or mourning, as Jackie did, “what easy prey she’d been” and it is hard to get over the fact that, even outside the frat house, the values espoused by Greek brothers manifest themselves, albeit it in more subtle and insidious forms. Ridding college campuses of fraternities, for all the good such a move might do, would give the illusion that a significant blow had been dealt to rape culture in general without ever having to really talk about rape culture.
Top-down reforms like the one Sargent proposes, or even more practical ones like the mandatory reporting of allegations of sexual assault and rape, are, at best, only part of an effective strategy that must be accompanied by a grassroots sea change within masculine ideology. The study Sargent cites via a CNN report discusses “rape supportive attitudes and beliefs” that are tolerated within frat houses. It is obvious that frats can become a gathering place where such “rape supportive attitudes” are condoned and even rewarded. But banning frats won’t ban the men that comprise them. Will it lower the incidences of rape and sexual assault? Assuredly. But so would banning alcohol and college. None of these would confront the real problem, but rather only the symptoms.
In any event, Sargent’s opinion piece is perhaps laudable for suggesting that drastic measures need to be taken to confront the scourge women must contend with in the form of rape culture. His stopgap solution is troublesome for how easily agreeable it might seem to male allies and the not-all-men crowd and its obscuring of the notion that there are no men who exist outside of rape culture.