In a dimly lit basement, I am playing my second game of pong with a guy I just met.
Feet sticking to the grimy floor, we try to hit a ping-pong ball into a crowd of red cups at the other end of the table, while our opponents do the same. If the ball lands in the piss-warm beer, you drink. The ball has also been in the bin, on the floor, and down the dusty back of the benches, but no matter – this is a Friday night at Dartmouth and if you want a beer, you have to play the game. As I hop around the room, I think fondly of the pub back home. Suddenly, a friend from England appears, and draws me to one side. He’s clearly feeling awkward. In a scene reminiscent of school-day playground politics, he says that those guys over there told him to tell me that I should “watch out”, because playing pong with someone is essentially like going on a date. I feel as awkward as the messenger looks, and we leave.
What strange world have I stumbled into, where men can’t talk directly to women, where playing a drinking game is equivalent to a date, where sharing a cup of scummy beer might lead to unmentionable consequences? I am in a fraternity. A “frat” is a members’ club that only men can join. Found at universities all over the US, Dartmouth has a particular overabundance of them, and one of the most active Greek systems in the country; the summer I spent there in 2011, around 80% of the sophomores were affiliated with a frat, or its female equivalent, a sorority. Features of a Dartmouth frat house include a large living room on the ground floor, littered with furniture in various states of disrepair, upper floors where the members, or “brothers”, sleep, and finally, exerting its presence over the rest of the house like a festering subconscious, a huge and stinking basement.
In the isolated town of Hanover, in a country where most undergraduates are below the legal drinking age, fraternities in Dartmouth are the hub of student social life; almost all parties and drinks evenings take place in their sweaty basements, dominated by the ubiquitous pong tables. While some sororities allow drinking, most don’t, and few hold parties. For women, going out means being a guest or a date in a space controlled by men. Women are seemingly better treated, often served quicker at the bar, or allowed access to hidden selections of spirits, but this outward generosity creates an atmosphere of ambiguous social debt. In a space where, as one girl puts it, “what brothers say is practically the word of god”, women are dependent on the goodwill and protection of the men that own it. As another student says, women “are on the losing end of a power dynamic the second they enter a fraternity.”
This power imbalance is compounded by the lack of alternatives on the Dartmouth scene. In the UK, students have countless options for nights out: pubs, bars, and clubs all provide neutral spaces where the sexes are on an equal footing. At Dartmouth, there are only three co-ed houses, which host one or two nights a semester, and the alcohol-free nights occasionally put on by the college are poorly attended. This leaves only the frats. Although there are seventeen to pick from, each with its own particular reputation, they are all variations on a theme, and, as in the student cafeteria where the plethora of options eventually reveal themselves to be the same greasy cheese and meat combination, choice here is an illusion.
In such an environment, relations between the sexes are warped. When I ask ex-fraternity member Andrew Lohse, who was profiled in Rolling Stone after writing an article exposing initiation rites at frats, about the way men in frats regard women, he says “for the most part like objects, or as a validating force of the fraternity’s ‘social capital.’” This is reflected in women’s experiences; according to student Rochelle Brown, “Guys just test the waters of what a girl is going to be comfortable with by ‘doing’ rather than ‘asking.’”
At their best, these replies point to the immaturity that the frat system encourages, a childish “I want” reaction rather than an attempt to relate maturely to another person. This is partly connected to students’ relationship with alcohol— the way beer only seems to be drunk after it has baptised a ping-pong ball, grown men and women drinking in basements like they’re hiding out from their parents. For a Brit, it’s like going back in time to teenage house parties, only this time all the boys’ voices have broken and the vodka comes not from dad’s drinks cupboard but from economy sized plastic bottles. The legal drinking age is not the frats’ fault, but the infantilising effect of the Greek system extends beyond the frat-house basements. Men and women traverse the campus in separate groups, uniformed in their frat or sorority t-shirts, or sit at separate tables in the cafeteria like something from a high school sit-com. Though men and women do sometimes form friendships, it is not immediately evident in the social landscape.
But this is a relatively tame problem. At their worst, Lohse and Brown’s comments point to something much darker. Sexual assault is an alarmingly prevalent issue at Dartmouth, and one that dominates discussions of women’s experience of fraternities. In 2001, Zeta Psi fraternity was banned after it circulated a newsletter giving tips on how to date rape girls. This frat, newly allowed a return to campus before my arrival, was described to me by a friend as “rapey.” Another frat was “sleazy” – “Don’t go there alone.” Dartmouth’s own Sexual Abuse Awareness Program estimated that in 2006, there were 109 rapes on campus.
The college is trying to tackle this problem through a Sexual Abuse Awareness Program, a Committee on Standards-Sexual Assault Review, and a Safe Ride program, among other initiatives. But, as student Juan Sanchez notes, “addressing sexual assault in itself is like curing the symptom of a disease an[d] not the cause.” When the sexes are so divided, it becomes much easier for them to objectify, and, in the extreme, assault each other. The faculty has tried to change the fraternity system at Dartmouth many times over the course of its history; in the 80s they argued for the co-mingling of all frats and sororities, but were met with severe opposition from the clubs themselves. Today, women are not a silent victim of the system; there are open and frequent discussions of how women feel at frats, and about the sexism they encounter. But this is not just a ‘women’s issue’, and it is dangerous to sideline it as such. A system based entirely on the segregation of the sexes isn’t positive for anybody. It affects men’s development and their experiences of university as adversely as it does women’s. After Lohse’s expose and the national attention it attracted, change is slowly coming to the fraternities, but it will be a while before real gender equality arrives in the strange world of their basements.