What Women Have to Fear From Men in Fraternities

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With the story hitting the news about Palo Alto University psychologist Carrie Cage’s allegations of sexual assault by then-high school student Shane McGrew, attention is focusing once again on the conditions that breed mistreatment of women in male-dominated organizations. According to the Washington Post story that first documented the details of Dr. Cage’s account, McGrew committed the assault while a high school junior at the elite male-only Georgetown Preparatory School. He and several of his friends were present at the time of the attack, she stated, which occurred at a party in which everyone was drinking beer, but especially the boys. In his senior yearbook entry, McGrew made a number of references to drinking, and claimed that he was a member of the “Beach Week Ralph Club” and “Keg City Club.”

Although not too many people would like to have all the details of their high school escapades revealed to the world, debate about McGrew is now occurring around the issues of whether a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the U.S. can be made after Dr. Cage’s revelations came to light. It is too early right now to determine how the accusations will affect the outcome of the nomination. However, the situation brings once again into the public consciousness the impact of sexual victimization on young women over the course of their subsequent lives. New research shows the circumstances that can lead adolescent and young adult men to commit sexual assaults when they enter groups that sanction violent behavior against women.

Negative publicity about college fraternities recently has focused on the existence of hazing rituals which can turn deadly when excessive amounts of alcohol are involved. However, perhaps as part of this climate of alcohol abuse, fraternities can also promote attitudes among members that allow for the victimization of women. As Center on Violence Against Women at Rutgers University psychologist Rita Seabrook and colleagues (2019) point out, fraternities can change the men who join them or, alternatively, the men with these proclivities seek fraternities out as a place where their sexual aggression is tolerated. Previous researchers, they note, “have found that fraternity members are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence and have attitudes that are more accepting of sexual aggression as compared to non-members” (p. 510). Until now, it’s been impossible to tease out the direction of causality. Seabrook and her colleagues used a longitudinal design to test out cause and effect in the fraternity-sexual aggression relationship by examining the pre-existing attitudes and behaviors of men who subsequently joined a fraternity during their first year of college.

According to the “Male Peer Support Model,” the framework for the study by Seabrook and her coauthors, “Spending time with peers who are accepting of sexual violence leads men to be accepting of sexual violence themselves” (p. 510). There is a socialization process that can go on in patriarchal organizations—such as fraternities—that can reinforce feelings of male social dominance and control. However, it may not be the fraternity membership per se that leads to this culture. Instead, men with these interests may be the ones who decide to join a fraternity in the first place. The only way to know which way the causal arrow points, the Rutgers researchers maintain, is by testing men’s attitudes and proclivity toward sexual violence against women before they join a fraternity at all. In fact, they propose, it’s necessary to test the men who are interested in joining vs. those who are not even before following fraternity members and non-members over time.

With these considerations in mind, Seabrook et al. were able to take advantage of the opportunity to test incoming male university students before they entered a bystander intervention program given during the new student summer orientation sessions held on the campus. A total of 4311 students were surveyed, of whom 1390 provided data during orientation and at the first follow-up. Of these, 315 men became the focus of the study. Participants completed the Rape Myth Acceptance Scale in which they are asked to respond to a scenario in which, for example, a woman is raped by a man while she is alone with him at a party. The subscales include “She asked for it,” “It was not really rape,” “He did not mean to,” “He did not mean to—intoxication,” and, “She lied.” Participants also completed a proclivity-to-perpetrate measure that asked participants to indicate whether they would use force if they didn’t think they would be found out, and whether they would use force against someone else who was intoxicated.

Prior to entering college, 195 men (61%) stated that they weren’t interested in joining a fraternity, 90 (28.6%) said they were interested, and 30 (9.5%) ultimately joined a fraternity after coming to college. The final testing took place one year after the original pre-college surveys were collected. Unfortunately, the small number of men who ultimately joined a fraternity somewhat limits the design’s ability to detect the kinds of relationships that would test the Male Peer Support Model and, indeed, the fraternity men did not seem to become more likely to be violent against women over the course of the study. However, the post-high school men who became fraternity members had, at the outset of the study, higher scores on two of the Rape Myth Acceptance Scales. In addition, the men who were interested in fraternities scored similarly to those who became members on the “It was not rape” and “He didn’t mean to—intoxication” scales. With regard to proclivity to perpetrate, again, there were no observable changes over time among the fraternity members compared to the other students. However, the fraternity members had, at the outset, higher scores than the other men in the study on proclivity to perpetrate by force.

The authors concluded that although they could not demonstrate effects of time in the fraternity on attitudes toward victimization of women, their findings suggest that men who are interested in and eventually become fraternity members ascribe to more accepting attitudes of raping and coercing women. In addition to the small number of fraternity members, it is also important to keep in mind that not all fraternities adopt the same cultural set of norms toward women. Furthermore, the study only covered year one of college, and did not include any changes that may occur among men in their later college years after they move into a fraternity house.

From a practical standpoint, the Rutgers team note that college administrators may want to focus their attention not only on men who join fraternities, but also those who express interest in the period between high school and college. They also suggest that “the provision of specific education on the role of alcohol, consent, and incapacitation in sexual assault is needed for fraternity members,” given that the men who ultimately joined a fraternity agreed with statements suggesting that rape only involves physical violence and that when this occurs, it is acceptable to put the blame on the role of alcohol.

To sum up, acceptance of sexual violence in male-dominated organizations may reflect the make-up of the men who join these organizations, not the evolution of the culture of rape acceptance itself. The Seabrook et al. findings suggest, then, that interventions targeted at men of high school age, or even earlier, will ultimately provide the greatest value in changing the culture against the acceptability of violence toward women.

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