Frat parties have long been seen as bastions of masculinity, debauchery, and loose sexuality…and more recently, of sexual assault.
Recently, three sociologists at Indiana University decided to take a closer look at college social landscape, to see how the day to day social life and partying behaviors of college students contributes to this dangerous phenomenon. What they find is a dangerous mixture of gendered roles, social structure, and “interactional expectations” which creates a perfect recipe for sexual assault.
Here’s a closer look at the everyday factors that lead to sexual assault:
1. The expectation to “party”
Through media, young people are conditioned to believe that partying in college is normal and expected. Older relatives or friends may further lead to this conception, telling stories of their college days and glorifying “the party”.
The American college party is so institutionalized as a media trope that it’s become a symbol of what college is. Think “Animal House,” “Neighbors,” and “Revenge of the Nerds”. Even more than that, researchers found that students who didn’t participate in the “party” scene felt like social outsiders, and freshman felt a need to party every weekend to hold on to their social status in the group.
2. Gendered status seeking
Residence hall structures frequently make it difficult for women to meet men in a friendly way, as many times halls are only open to one gender. Therefore, frat parties become a main place of social interaction between sexes, but also places to both gain and lose status. They found women generally seek male attention, but men seek to achieve status by having sexual interaction with women. What this creates is a dangerous symbiosis of women wanting male attention (but not always sex), and men wanting sex, and who are willing to give women attention along the way to sex.
3. The Party atmosphere
Once at the party, there are strict sets of social rules that apply. Firstly, the space of parties is totally male dominated, so from the moment a woman walks into the house, the structure of interactions are controlled by men. Parties have hierarchies, as evidenced in the order in which partygoers are served drinks: brothers, personal guests, unknown female guests, unknown male guests. Men use their higher social status (as older, and as the hosts of the party) to facilitate their interactions with women. They will lure younger women into rooms with promises of “better alcohol.” Furthermore, women are expected to act as gracious guests, and accept the treatment (and advances) of the men in the fraternity. This means that many women are afraid to say no because they don’t want to “cause a scene”.
So why is this especially dangerous to first-year college women? First-year women are generally more susceptible to societal pressure and desire to fit in. Experts have even called the period between arriving at school and fall break “the red zone”, because freshman women are at much higher risk of sexual assault during this time period.
This study was groundbreaking in that it showed that sexual assault isn’t something divorced from everyday life; instead, it is embedded in the dominant social scene of American higher education. This isn’t a call to ban fraternities, or to tell people to stop partying. Those are facts of American college life. But this is a call to take a closer look at the world around you, and see the smaller social pressures that operate at every level.