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Tarnishing the fratstar name

About a month ago, I opened my e-mail to find a message from someone I didn’t know. “Dickheads,” the salutation read, “we are going to have a party on Saturday. As of now it is a valentines day theme (easy way to get laid).”

Considering I currently possess neither a penis nor an interest in attending parties whose mission statement is to find women to have sex with, I had a hunch that this invitation wasn’t intended for me. Chalk it up to a mistyped NetID or just the fact that I have parents who, circa 1989, sincerely believed that Ryan was an appropriate name for a female child. In any case, I relegated the bizarre message to my saved mail folder and returned to a life in which no one endearingly referred to my head as a phallic object.

But I was suddenly reminded of the invitation last week as I watched a strangely Duke-like drama unfold at the University of Southern California. An offensive e-mail sent by a member of a campus fraternity had gone viral and—stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere before—the greek community was scrambling to figure out how to minimize the embarrassing situation.

This time around, the e-mail in question was one sent by a member of the school’s chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity to his “brothers,” offering a detailed set of instructions for assessing the sexual prowess of the women (or “targets”) they slept with. The purpose? “[To] strengthen brotherhood and help pin-point sorostitutes more inclined to put-out.”

The lengthy message is full of helpful words of wisdom, reminding its readers that “sometimes targets that look like a Mack truck ran over their face have the greatest bodies” and “[n]on-consent and rape are two different things.”

Classy, gentleman, but may I just say, a bit amateur. Here at the Harvard of the South, we prefer that our offensive frat e-mails also include a little homophobia, and maybe a Helen Keller joke or two. And at the Harvard of the North—which is, of course, Yale—they cut straight to the chase and just send their pledges around the freshman quad shouting, “No means yes, yes means anal.”

As the greek community at USC went off in search of the misguided fratstar who had tarnished their reputation, it made me think of the e-mail I’d received a few weeks before. The two messages, I realized, were a bit like twins separated at birth—they’d grown up with different friends, different priorities, even a different way of talking. But when they were brought together as adults, it turned out they had a lot in common, like being left-handed and treating women exclusively as sex objects. Family reunion!

Point being, this USC e-mail didn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s just one end of a spectrum of objectification that occurs constantly, all around us. It’s the same culture that breeds party themes like “lax bros and Karen Owen hos,” the same culture that makes female Duke undergraduates leave this campus at age 22 less confident than when they arrived at age 18, and the same culture in which 29 women have reported a rape or sexual assault to the Duke Women’s Center in the last six months (needless to say, many more of these crimes go unreported).

Yet every time something like the leak of this USC e-mail happens, the blame falls squarely on an individual or small group. The national director of Kappa Sigma said that the message was “contrary to everything [we] stand for” and that an isolated individual had “tarnish[ed] our name.” When Duke had its own frat e-mail debacle last Fall, the president of one of the fraternities involved told me in an interview that it was “a single individual who wrote it ... not representative of the views of our organization.” And that whole thing at Yale? One of the participants informed Salon.com that what happened had been “a thoughtless and hurtful joke, not an indication of a dangerous culture.”

In some ways, these defenses are far more troubling than the events themselves because they reveal a clear disregard for the danger of the hyper-privileged, uber-masculine world view that breeds them—a worldview in which degrading women carries serious social capital.

As it turns out, that USC e-mail started circulating among members of the fraternity back in January, according to an anonymous USC student commenting on Jezebel. But it didn’t become “contrary to everything we stand for” until it went viral in mid-March.

That doesn’t sound like an organization interested in promoting respectful conduct to me. It seems more like a group of boys who realized a little too late that their sexist humor doesn’t match up well with the century they live in, and had to find someone to blame for it. It seems like a bunch of, well, dickheads.

Ryan Brown is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday.

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