This week, Forbes columnist Bill Frezza wrote an article titled “Drunk Female Guests are the Gravest Threat to Fraternities” that complained about the female students who get fraternities in trouble for getting injured, alcohol poisoning, or raped. “In our age of sexual equality, why drunk female students are almost never characterized as irresponsible jerks is a question I leave to the feminists,” he writes. Frezza complains that women who attend frat parties often arrive drunk, filling the parties with “ticking time bombs” who might cause a problem at any minute. Frezza’s column was piggish, of course, and he was fired that day.
But before we dismiss Frezza’s column entirely, it’s worth noting that his basic point (once you fish it out of the trash and clean off all the beer, vomit, and sexism) has just the smallest bit of merit. In frat basements, men and women do not follow the same rules, and for many reasons, that’s a bad thing. That's why Wesleyan University made the right decision this week in requiring fraternities to be co-ed.
On most college campuses with Greek life, fraternities host parties more frequently than sororities. That’s for a variety of reasons: sororities often have more stringent rules imposed from the national organization or university, plus there’s the inertia of Greek tradition. So, when a female student wants to party, she’ll go to a fraternity. And when an affiliated male student wants to party, he goes downstairs.
At many fraternities, this constantly gendered guest-host dynamic empowers men and makes women vulnerable. The men, inevitably, are surrounded by “brothers” who at least nominally care for one another. The guests don’t have that benefit; they’ll come with a friend or two, maybe a group. There is no safe ground upstairs to retreat to for the guests (except the bathroom, a widely-used refuge), because it isn’t their space. And most dangerously, men control the alcohol—they know how strong that punch bowl is, and what else might be in it. It’s easy to see why Greek parties are a swamp of sexual assaults.
At the Greek-dominated college that I called home for four years, my well-meaning male friends would occasionally complain about the way that their fraternities were reamed by feminists. “I paid for all of that beer,” they would tell me. “Why shouldn’t I be able to cut the pong line in front of people who don’t?” It’s not unreasonable. But, when that sense of entitlement is magnified to a more extreme level—“She got drunk off my beer, at my party, doesn’t she owe me something?”—the power dynamic becomes unsafe for female guests.
But there’s a flip side to the power-imbalance: The men also have much more responsibility in this guest-host dynamic. Being a woman in college means four years of access to free booze, while fraternity brothers pay hundreds of dollars a semester to bankroll the debauchery. Men have to clean up the party debris the next morning—or if not, live in it. And when a party goes wrong and police or paramedics end up at the front door, it is the fraternity that deals with the legal and financial repercussions.
Many activists who want to fight the scourge of sexual assault on campuses advocate making fraternities go co-ed. Indeed, Wesleyan’s decision to force fraternities down this route was influenced by the school’s recent problems with sexual violence on campus. And while the ra-ra-status-quo fraternity members—Bill Frezza a shining example—would surely fight to the death against such an imposition, it does them a favor too. If women can be members of the social institutions that host campus parties, they would shoulder the responsibility that comes with it.
Making fraternities co-ed eliminates those gendered lines of victimization and power. Women should feel safe in fraternities. They should be able to demand changes to the way fraternities operate, and to stand toe-to-toe with a fraternity member who is misbehaving. But the most effective way to do that is as a fellow host rather than guest. That means paying for their share of the beer, taking out the trash, hosing down the floors and managing the legal and medical crises that arise. It’s their party, too.