Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan has a long history of turning out short-sighted treatises on hookup culture and the sexualization of young woman and blah blah blah. But her latest piece for the magazine, a 14,000 word behemoth, manages to take on a different culture – frat culture – while insulting and ignoring a variety of factors.
Flanagan spent a year investigating "The Dark Power of Fraternities," a piece which purports to explore the dangerous world of U.S. fraternities that has been the subject of so much attention lately. The actual piece might be long, but in all those words, Flanagan hits home but once. She outlines issues involving hazing, drinking and sexual assault, but only her explanation of how fraternities deal with liability insurance, as Choire Sicha points out at The Awl, delivers new, well-researched and enlightening information.
We probably shouldn't be let down. On some level, we should be celebrating: there is something valuable in this piece! After all, this is Flanagan, a woman whose obsession with the downfall of girls managed to win her a book deal. And yet the disappointment lives on, mostly when one considers the many trees that had to die for this Atlantic cover story to make its way into the homes of NPR-affiliate members who got a subscription the last time they re-upped during their local pledge drive.
But let's go through what Flanagan, in all her many words, misses.
To Flanagan, the only part of fraternity life worth exploring is that which belongs to the realm of white men. Despite the fact that black fraternities have a noted history of hazing problems, it is the white men who matter and who have issues with drinking and hurting people. (The big secret that Flanagan doesn't reveal: it's always the white men who matter.):
College fraternities—by which term of art I refer to the formerly all-white, now nominally integrated men's "general" or "social" fraternities, and not the several other types of fraternities on American campuses (religious, ethnic, academic)—are as old, almost, as the republic.
2. She ignores the role class plays in the college system and subsequent success of former students when they leave it
Flanagan argues that colleges "could never attract hundreds of thousands of [students] each year—many of them woefully unprepared for the experience, a staggering number (some 40 percent) destined never to get a degree, more than 60 percent of them saddled with student loans that they very well may carry with them to their deathbeds—if the experience were not accurately marketed as a blast." She then goes on to argue that the chance of many young Americans "would be far brighter if they knocked off some of their general-education requirements online, or at the local community college—for pennies on the dollar—before entering the Weimar Republic of traditional-college pricing."
While the student loan crisis in this country is a serious and ever-growing problem and there's not a particularly compelling argument that many of America's top colleges provide a legitimately better education than some of the cheaper ones, to argue that people just wouldn't go to college if they didn't have such great dining halls denies the basic requirement for many jobs that one have a college degree. This is especially true for some of the nation's most high-paying jobs, which require Ivy League or liberal arts educations and ignore the many students who don't get that kind of education. Many students would certainly be "better off" if they didn't have student loans, if "better off" means "would have more money upfront but less potential to be taken seriously by employers from whom they could make even more money."
Moreover, fraternities tie alumni to their colleges in a powerful and lucrative way. At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters.
A no point does Flanagan point out that many of these men who join fraternities are able to be generous to their alma maters because they started out wealthy to begin with. Fraternities and sororities exist because of the dues their members pay, which means that they start excluding prospective brothers and sisters right at the get-go. After joining, these organizations expect their members to dress a certain way and live a certain lifestyle. While some fraternities and sororities have pushed back against these classist requirements, Greek life has always has an elitist quality to it.
Sororities, to Caitlin Flanagan, are not part of fraternity life. They're not complacent in allowing their members to be put in danger by fraternity members, they don't engage in binge drinking, they don't exclude members because of their race or social status – they don't exist, save for the few sorority members that occasionally are legitimately sexually assaulted.
Though Flanagan ends her piece by sympathetically describing the long, complicated and horrendous legal saga of a Jane Doe at Wesleyan College who was raped at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and eventually settled with the college, she shows a glaring lack of understanding of what rape actually is. To Flanagan, rape is only rape when the victim a. does not drink or take drugs b. is raped by someone "unfamiliar" c. makes a series of "sound" decisions that don't go as she intended d. is physically restrained:
According to Wesleyan—courageous combatant in the "battle against sexual assault"—Jane Doe was responsible for her own rape because she was "not alert to situations that could be misinterpreted"; "did not remain in a public place [but rather went to a private room] with a person with whom she was unfamiliar"; "failed to make reasonable and proper use of her faculties and senses"; and failed "to exercise reasonable care for her own safety." I disagree. Jane Doe's sworn statement describes a series of sound actions taken toward the care of her own safety—including making the decision not to drink or use drugs, attempting to exit a room when she was about to be left alone in it with an unfamiliar man who had used drugs, and attempting to fight him off when he began attacking her. But she was physically restrained by a powerfully built man intent on assaulting her.
Surely there are many collegiate sexual encounters that fall into legally ambiguous territory; a number of Americans, among them reasonable people of good will, believe that "regretted sex" on the part of jilted coeds is as responsible for college "rape culture" as is male aggression. This is not one of those cases. This was a violent assault that occasioned a police investigation, an arrest, criminal charges, a conviction, and a jail sentence.
I've also taken the liberty of bolding that last paragraph to explain what Flanagan really thinks about rape. Perhaps I should have just bolded the part where she puts her description of rape culture in quotes. "Okay" Caitlin.
Despite totally fucking up her entire piece and wasting a year of her life, Flanagan has still miraculously come to a solid conclusion about Greek life, albeit one that has been bubbling up for years now. These institutions "have only grown in power and influence," she writes. "Indeed, in many substantive ways, fraternities are now mightier than the colleges and universities that host them." While that's absolutely true, she proposes no solution for what colleges or students could do to fix it. Instead, she manages to hide an actually fascinating explanation of the way fraternities take out insurance and work with lawyers to protect themselves by ignoring basically every college student whose issues already aren't getting enough attention. If Flanagan had stuck with actually revealing this "sophisticated system for shifting the blame" the subtitle of her piece says she'll discuss, she might have actually gotten it right this time.
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