Fraternities and Violence Essay

There are two very distinct literatures on violence as related to fraternities, with only the smallest overlap. One literature, on hazing, touches lightly on predominantly White (PW) fraternities and is mainly concerned with violence in hazing in historically Black (HB) fraternities. The other literature is almost completely focused on PW fraternities and deals with sexually predatory and aggressive practices. In neither case is the empirical support in the literature particularly strong.

Sexual Aggression

Sexual aggression and date rape are discussed here only in the context of PW fraternities, as there has been little research on these behaviors in HB fraternities. Often, people studying fraternities have felt that these organizations have provided a sort of subculture that insulates their members from the general norms or rules of the entire campus. Over the years, studies have shown that fraternities promote conformity, and earlier work showed that fraternity members were more likely to be accepting of racial prejudice and hate crimes. A preoccupation with loyalty, a very strong concern with masculinity, and the abuse of alcohol can easily lead to either individual or group violence. A historic indifference by most college administrations to violence against women has provided a lack of deterrence that allows such behavior to continue. If fraternity men think that they can get away with violence against women, it is because on most campuses, most of the time, they can.

Most of the citations in the literature have been to the earlier ethnographic studies of Patricia Martin and Robert Hummer or Peggy Sanday, or to an array of surveys on rape supportive attitudes, which did not find as clear an association between PW fraternity membership and self-reported sexual aggression as more recent empirical studies have found. For example, in a meta-analysis of a variety of empirical studies, researchers found a significant but modest relationship between fraternity membership and admitted sexual aggression. One reason why the effect is only modest may be that researchers lumped all fraternity members together into one pool, while in truth some fraternities may be more sexually aggressive than others. Further, fraternities are rarely monolithic entities where all members think alike; some members may be much more sexually aggressive than others, especially where they are more influenced by male peer support networks. Thus, those who live in the on campus houses of the most predatory chapters may be the most influenced by male peer support and perhaps be the most aggressive. Male peer support further sustains hyper masculinity, group secrecy that promotes a lack of deterrence, and a culture of alcohol abuse that has repeatedly been associated with sexual aggression. Research indicates that bedroom wall pictures show that fraternity men engage more in the sexual objectification of women.

Physical Hazing

Hazing is rarely recognized as a criminal act, although virtually all states have laws against it. It has a long history on American campuses, particularly in the 19th century, but more recently it seems to have been limited mainly to fraternities and sororities. Hazing might include relatively lesser forms of degradation (marching around campus, singing songs on the campus green, wearing beanies), or it might include any uncomfortable activity that a young person could think up for the pledge: for example, spanking with paddles as often as daily for months or a year, forced drinking of large quantities of alcohol, eating disgusting foods designed to induce vomiting, being left outdoors in winter overnight wearing only underwear, not being allowed to sleep for days. Both fraternities and sororities practice mental forms of hazing, which are commonly dismissed as pranks, but which have occasionally left pledges so affected that they develop such symptoms as speech impediments.

To deal with abuses, physical hazing is banned today by all fraternity national organizations and central offices, such as the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the coordinating body for the eight historically African American fraternities and sororities, which has banned hazing in any form whatsoever. Spurred by the potential liability from lawsuits by harmed students, universities have also instituted strong antihazing rules. However, the net effect has been to hide the extent of current hazing; anywhere it continues it has been driven off campus and underground, where critics claim that it is getting more physically abusive beyond the control of campus officials and alumni.

There are strong pressures to keep hazing alive. Students often have not bought into the antihazing prohibitions. Alumni may be strong advocates of hazing and a problem in preventing university action. Pledges volunteer for hazing, not unlike some street gangs where those who join without major pain and stress are given much less prestige as members than those who are beaten. This has been particularly true in some HB chapters, where it may be a badge of masculinity, self-esteem, and pride to have undergone painful hazing.

Virtually all of the literature on hazing suggests that although PW fraternities are now only using humiliation techniques, some HB fraternities still engage in serious beatings of pledges and branding of members. In PW fraternities, pressure from national chapters seems to have cut back or ended beatings in the past 20 to 30 years, although a lack of alcohol and beatings has not meant an end to deaths or injuries in PW hazing.


  1. Jones, R. L. (1994). Black haze: Violence, sacrifice and manhood in black Greek-letter fraternities. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  2. Murnen, S. K., & Kohlman, M. H. (2007). Athletic participation, fraternity membership, and sexual aggression among college men: A meta-analytic review. Sex Roles, 57, 145–157.
  3. Ruffins, P. (1997). Fratricide: Are African American fraternities beating themselves to death? Black Issues in Higher Education, 14(8), 18–25.
  4. Sanday, P. R. (2007). Fraternity gang rape: Brotherhood and privilege on campus (2nd ed.). New York: New York University Press.
  5. Schwartz, M. D., & DeKeseredy, W. S. (1997). Sexual assault on the college campus: The role of male peer support. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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