On Wisconsin: Jumping Around Toxic Frat Culture

This weekend, a friend from Wesleyan and I planned a trip out of our small, NESCAC liberal arts schools to visit a friend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Big Ten school with around 30,000 undergraduate students. Unsurprisingly, it was a complete culture shock. My friend lives in Statesider, a private and predominantly Jewish dormitory that has little diversity, so I need to put in a disclaimer that what I experienced is obviously not representative of the entire University of Wisconsin student population. But I do believe that my weekend relates to the experiences of at least part of the population of first-year girls living in private dorms who are involved in Greek life.

This weekend in Wisconsin, more than any other weekend of my life (besides the entire 2016 presidential election), I was acutely aware of the patriarchy. Whether that was solely due to the Greek life on campus is something I am still trying to figure out.

On Saturday night after dinner, my friends and I were standing on the sidewalk in Madison when a group of middle-aged men clad in Iowa gear walked by us.

“Nice ass,” one of them called, leering at my friend.

It took us a moment to process what had just happened before we could begin to yell at him as he walked away. After being sufficiently brainwashed in the Wisconsin student section at the Wisconsin-Iowa football game, I could just attribute this behavior to the Iowa jersey. But in all seriousness, this minute encounter is representative of what is wrong with our society. I have been lucky to have never experienced this vulgar catcalling before this weekend and the lewd statement made me so angry. Why do we live in a culture where this objectification of women is accepted? How has this middle-aged man gotten as far as he has in life believing that this is permissible?

This question, of course, brings me to the younger “men”: the frat brothers. To get the real Big Ten experience, we wanted to go to a frat party, a social experiment of sorts. The theme: tight and bright. We showed up to the basement of the party and were “greeted” (read: stopped) by a rising frat star (read: probably a random freshman forced to do this to gain entry into the “brotherhood”).

My three friends and I were wearing jackets because it was below 30 degrees outside, and we were neither wearing anything tight nor bright. The closest we were to the theme was that we bedazzled one of my friend’s faces with jewels to be weird and funny. The boy began to question us on whether we go to Wisconsin, and my friend who actually does go to Wisconsin was being asked to prove who she knew in the frat to determine whether we were worthy of being allowed in. At first, I may have been naïve enough to believe this boy’s excuse of lack of space in the venue — that is, until two girls came in after us, wearing far less clothing and immediately allowed inside.

Behold: the patriarchy. This boy was not letting my friends and I into the party because we did not dress nor act the part. I am not referring to the theme: I mean that we were not attending this party to hook up with random guys by wearing cute, revealing, black clothing. To be fair, it may well be that the girls chose to wear these outfits because they genuinely felt good wearing them. I don’t want to vilify the girls in this situation because they are in a male-dominated party culture where they must constantly monitor how they behave and look in order to be granted entry into a small overheated space.

My friend named a random connection she had to the frat, and once we were actually inside the party, I saw that there were far more girls than guys. This toxic fraternity culture completely reaffirms the patriarchy and reduces the girls to who they know, what sorority they are in and, most importantly, what they look like. If they want to get into the party, they must conform to the societal expectations placed upon them by boys in positions of power.

At the same time, I also really do not know if it is fair to place all the blame on the frat boys. Not all fraternity members are disrespectful, but in my opinion, the fraternity culture is not doing anything to help this situation. Instead, it is promoting this sort of atmosphere both directly and indirectly by discouraging individuality, affirming the unequal power dynamics that favor men and minimizing the girls to objects.

After the party, my friends and I were rightfully disgusted by the scene but quite frankly felt like there was nothing we could do about it. How do you combat this fraternity culture that, as our experience with the middle-aged Iowa fans on the street showed, is pervasive in all age groups and facets of society?

We talked to my friend’s brother, a senior in the AEPi (Alpha Epsilon Pi) fraternity at Wisconsin, about the culture, but it was not an optimistic conversation. We learned that girls who might fall short of the frat’s superficial standards and fail to gain entry once the party is underway will usually show up early to secure their spot. Then, once the party becomes overcrowded, the frat brother stationed at the door gets in trouble for letting in too many girls who — again, for whatever superficial reason — would not have been let in at a later hour. The party becomes more selective and the shallow judgments more severe, creating a toxic cycle.

Ultimately, this weekend in Madison made me miss Amherst. During my first semester at Amherst, up until this trip, I would have considered some of the parties here “fratty.” But after this weekend, the difference is clear and I do not think I can fairly classify the parties I have gone to here as such. At Amherst, I can walk into any party without being stopped at the door and scrutinized based on what I am wearing — or not wearing — to be granted entry. I never feel the need to dress or act a certain way to get in, and the party culture is, in my experience, inclusive.

Despite the lack of official fraternities at Amherst, I cannot ignore the feeling that at some parties here, there is a dominant and prevalent male gaze. Judging from the #StopItNow posters sprinkled around campus and initiatives by the Title IX office and the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect, there is serious work that is being done about toxic masculinity and sexual assault on campus. This is a step in the right direction, but so many more steps must be taken to put an end to this fraternity culture that has seeped into all aspects of our society — or that could just be representative of the larger societal injustice that positions women as inferior to men. Either way, we need to stifle this toxic fraternity culture that disadvantages society as a whole and work to literally smash the patriarchy.