A [belated] reply to Bill Frezza’s piece in Forbes

If you go to MIT (or even if you don’t), you’ve likely heard all about the article that Bill Frezza, an alumnus of the MIT chapter of Chi Phi, wrote as a contributor to Forbes. This article was controversial and promptly taken down, but information about it and copies of it linger on the internet, because, well, it’s the internet. There have also been reply posts, most notably one by a female MIT student.

Firstly, about Bill Frezza, this article should be nothing if not expected from the author. Last year, Frezza wrote this piece in The Tech, preaching his mantra of moderation over prohibition. Although the article itself is relatively innocuous, if you look through the comments, you’ll see nearly the exact same statements as those he wrote a year later, as well as comments like this:

But I must say I feel marginalized by being accused of marginalizing people because I use language that was totally acceptable in my day that has now become politically incorrect. This kind of ageism is deeply troubling. And here I was just getting over my shame in being falsely accused of being homophobic. My inability to keep up with the language police that control campus speech is one of the reasons I generally avoid engaging in campus speech.

These sorts of statements sound defensive, to say the least. I’m going to leave that topic here, but I’d encourage you to read the whole comment string; there is more revealing/amusing information there.

Before I go any further, I’d like to mention that I have spent a significant amount of time at the Chi Phi house, and count a good many of them among my friends. I write this in no way attempting to make a statement about the current brothers or MIT’s chapter of the fraternity.

What I’d like to address (because there’s so much to this article that is problematic) is the point that Frezza makes relatively early on: “Yes, boozed up males also show up at parties … But few are allowed in, especially if they are strangers.” This, only a piece of the more offensive two paragraphs Frezza devotes to why drunk girls (and not drunk guys) are the problem, does manage to capture a major problem with fraternity culture: the key to fraternity’s success is the girls that spend time there. This is obviously somewhat reductionist; fraternities are also about brotherhood, scholarship, philanthropy, etc. But a large part of fraternity life involves parties and social gatherings, and since Frezza seems to focus exclusively on this, I will, too.

On a superficial level, Frezza is right; drunk women are often allowed into parties or are encouraged to drink to the point of excess once inside. Any drunk non-members, male or female, are a legal liability, and are impossible to discipline for rule infractions. But that’s a narrow view of the problem. What Frezza fails to address is why brothers are allowing or are being encouraged to allow drunk girls (and not guys) into parties. And if this is taken to its logical conclusion, the blame certainly lies not on the girls themselves, but on the fraternity and the Greek system.

I think we can take it as true, at least using anecdotal evidence, that Frezza is right when he says that drunk guys, especially those unknown to the brothers, are rarely allowed into parties. But this shouldn’t turn into a crusade against women who are or might be or might get drunk. Instead, I think it invites the question: why allow drunk women, especially those unknown to the brothers, into a frat party? This question has an obvious answer: because it’s in their best interest.

Even ignoring the major problem of sexual assault in college and specifically fraternities, having drunk female guests at parties is beneficial to a fraternity. A quick internet search reveals that college Greek life has an unfortunate emphasis on the status of each organization within the communities. Sites like greekrank.com purport to define which chapters on a campus are the “best” or “top tier.” A big part of that ranking, or more generally a frat’s perception on campus, is based on how good the parties are.

This is where we start to run into trouble. Who finds parties where the music is too loud, the floor is too sticky, and the drinks are too cheap fun?  Generally speaking, this is drunk people. Of course that’s not always true, but it is often in a fraternity’s best interest to let in drunk people, because they’re more likely to have a good time. (This, in itself, says something questionable about American college culture, which equates drunkenness with a good time and sobriety with being uncool. It is in this realm that I think Frezza makes his best argument – why is drinking excessively the goal here?).

But why only girls? One could make the argument that frats let in primarily girls because fraternities are exclusively guys. They might also make the argument that attendees will assume all men at the party are brothers; this is potentially problematic if a male guest misbehaves. But I would argue that the biggest reason is prestige. Women at fraternities are treated like a status symbol – a fraternity gains status by attracting the most and most attractive women to the party. By letting women in, even those they don’t know or whose sobriety they can’t vouch for, a fraternity can fill its dance floor with many attractive women. All of these women, can, when asked what they did last night, can say they went to fraternity XY. If enough people around campus are saying this, a fraternity has gathered just the kind of publicity it wants. Dance floors crowded with drunk girls also give the brothers who are interested in meeting girls a better chance – a higher ratio of women to men means better odds for a brother looking for a lay. Terrifyingly, it also anonymizes the crowd, letting early signs of alcohol poisoning go unnoticed and making sexual assault all the more likely. Girls lose their friends, brothers feel less accountable for the safety (both as it relates to sexual assault and alcohol poisoning) of their female guests, and the “incidents” about which Frezza speaks so sympathetically begin to arise.

If fraternity parties aren’t enough to convince you, think about fraternity rush girls, whose sole job is to attract freshmen to a fraternity by being attractive and flirtatious. In many ways, fraternity culture as it currently stands is based on the notion of women as status, as conquest, as proof of worth. It’s based on the idea that sexual impulses and exploits should be placed on the same level as academics. Yet this, too, is not unique to fraternity culture. It’s a trope common to television and film, comic books and novels, advertising and anecdotes. But it presents itself in a dangerous way in Greek life; by teaching teenage boys as they first come to college that the women you can attract, regardless of their safety or health or sobriety, is a measure of your worth, you create an unhealthy environment. Rape culture exists only a short leap from the idea of parties as prestige, even without explicitly encouraging sexual assault; if hoards of inebriated girls are the source of a fraternity’s status, why shouldn’t one drunk girl be the source of a guy’s?

All in all, I think the best thing we can do is reevaluate the way we look at women and the culture of college fraternity parties; drunk women (and men!) certainly pose a superficial threat to fraternities, but instead of blaming the inebriated, the responsibility falls to the brothers to determine whether this antiquated ideal of status is worth risking the safety of their peers, both men and women, brothers and not. And to Bill Frezza, I say this: Thank you for further enumerating the problems with fraternities as they exist now, even if it’s not in the way you intended.

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One thought on “A [belated] reply to Bill Frezza’s piece in Forbes

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this! and also posted the link to Rose’s blog post — it’s absolutely important to evaluate the assumptions (and double standards) about gender and sexuality that underlie Frezza’s comments about women in fraternities. If we really want to take a stand on sexual violence and its promotion through social (and gendered) (ab)use of alcohol at fraternities, we have to examine the broader context in which these dynamics are occuring, a context shaped in part by the attitudes and opinions of people like Frezza who locate themselves as frat members. Your post goes a long way toward making sense of why frat culture treats women as they do.

    Like

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