On Sept. 22, Wesleyan University announced it would require all residential Greek organizations to become coeducational by 2017. The administration posited this as an effort to promote inclusiveness, equality and safety, with an implicit focus on reducing the threat of sexual assault on campus.
This controversial course of action is not unique to Wesleyan. Several liberal arts colleges, including Trinity and Middlebury, have mandated mixed-gender fraternities in recent years. But forcing fraternities to become coeducational in an effort to reduce the threat of sexual assault is an ineffective, superficial solution to a larger, more complex problem that prevails far beyond fraternity walls.
Wesleyan has recently been under pressure to take a tougher stance against sexual assault after two incidents in fraternity houses. One female student withdrew from the institution after reporting being raped in the common room of Psi Upsilon in 2013, while another fell out of Beta Theta Pi’s third story window this past month.
The timing of these events seems too coincidental to many, including Melody Oliphant, a recent Wesleyan graduate. Oliphant helped found the school’s only sorority, and she wonders whether the decision to go co-ed might be more about protecting the college’s image than about protecting victims.
“[The school’s decision] is more of a publicity stunt than a step in the right direction,” Oliphant said to the Wall Street Journal.
It is especially hard to recognize the schools’ mandate as a legitimate, well-reasoned strategy when one considers its practical implications and the insinuations the administration makes in defending it. First and foremost, it is difficult to imagine a reason why any woman would want to a join a fraternity with a reputation for rape. Apart from their dignity, these women also have their safety to consider.
Secondly, the decision unfairly affects fraternities alone. Due to property ownership details, the college’s sorority will not be required to start accepting male members. Forcing fraternities to make these accommodations alone inevitably presents any prospective female fraternity members as desperate outsiders, who complained to their parents until the cool kids included them. It also tacitly promotes the idea that men must come down to pick women up; that they can’t empower themselves on their own.
Wesleyan’s administration failed to provide a defense for their actions other than their broad aim “to promote equity,” but forcing fraternities to accept women will not make men respect them more. If the decision fosters anything at all, it will be resentment—especially among the fraternities that continue to do the right thing without being told. Fraternities aren’t responsible for fixing rape culture; rapists are.
In a wise move, the Occidental administration implemented mandatory sexual assault prevention trainings led by Project S.A.F.E for all campus clubs and organizations. This approach, aimed at the entire student body, instead of just at fraternities, frames Greek organizations as part of a larger solution to the epidemic of sexual assault rather than as the brunt of the problem.
Wesleyan’s coeducation mandate also implies that men shouldn’t have “guy time,” and women, “girl time.” Yet there is nothing wrong with male students wanting to hang with just their boys, just as there is nothing wrong with female students wanting to hang with girlfriends. Same-sex social spaces are not the source of the issue. The administration even admitted in an email that they “recognize that residential fraternities have contributed greatly to Wesleyan over a long period of time.” If colleges force fraternities to become coeducational, men will inevitably find another space for their “guy time.”
Beta Theta Pi’s national spokesman Martin Cobb got it right when he said that there should be “a purposeful place on college campuses for young men to come together and forge the bonds of fraternal brotherhood as they develop academically and prepare for a lifetime of civic duty.” And there should be a place for young women to do so, too.
Colleges must avoid policies that blame fraternities for the existence of rape culture and instead provide opportunities for them to become part of the larger movement to end it. College administrators cannot expect to create a fraternity full of allies while simultaneously casting them as enemies.
“[These rules fail to recognize fraternities’] potential to be progressive institutions and progressive spaces,” Oliphant said.
Since their founding some 200 years ago, many fraternities nationwide have admitted blacks, gays and sometimes even transgender brothers, before other, much larger American institutions have. According to USA Today, last year the brothers of Emerson University’s Phi Alpha Tau raised $16,000 for a transgender member’s sex-change surgery after his student health plan and mother’s insurance refused to fund it.
It is these fraternities we should praise and study so that we can emulate their cultures in other male-only organizations. Fraternities—as well as sororities—have a huge influence on overall college culture, and we should be working with them, rather than punishing them, to change that culture.
Women have been trying to get this message across for years, but what we really need is to find a way to get men to send it to each other. And because of the inherent influence Greek organizations have on many college cultures, they can be a crucial tool in disseminating these new definitions. It is not necessary to change the foundation of fraternities by making them coeducational; the key is to change the culture and make respecting women cool.