Can fraternities be feminist?

After Frezza, MIT fraternities should make their stances clear

The Tech received an email from William A. Frezza ’76 a bit over a week ago containing a submission to our opinion section asserting, “Drunk coeds represent the gravest threat to fraternities.” Identifying himself as the “president of the alumni house corporation” of MIT Chi Phi, he portrayed female undergraduates as the true cause of accidents at fraternities, universally hapless beings unable to consume alcohol responsibly, and a steady source of “false rape accusations.”

The Tech declined to publish the piece, which was both offensive and inaccurate. Frezza published a slightly toned-down version on Forbes, which then promptly took it down and fired him, but not before the piece launched an online firestorm lampooning the MIT alum.

Frezza’s sentiments are certainly not original — thinly veiled victim blaming is pervasive from students to politicians and sadly common among both men and women. What is far more troubling, however, is that he presents almost without pretense the fact that he cares far more about preventing the dissolution of his fraternity than preventing whatever sort of accident or incident that would cause such an outcome.

Those who concede that Frezza has “a few good points” peppered throughout his sexist essay forget that he makes his halfhearted suggestions for harm reduction only in the context of reducing fraternity liability. An actual line: “Although we were once reprimanded for turning away a drunk female student who ultimately required an ambulance when she passed out on our sidewalk, it would have gone a lot worse for us had she collapsed inside.”

But no reason to waste words refuting Frezza’s points. I am somewhat glad the piece was published, after all, because it provides a grotesque caricature of the entrenched proponents of sexism more poignantly than any Onion article.

But the fact that Frezza ever became the alumni president of Chi Phi begs troubling questions.

Is Frezza’s concern for preventing suspension over preventing rape or fatal accidents shared by others in the MIT fraternity system? Frezza said that one of his responsibilities was to work with Chi Phi brothers “to identify and manage risks,” raising the concerning possibility that the ubiquitous “risk managers” at fraternity parties might not be trained to prioritize the health of their guests.

How many others in MIT’s fraternity system secretly share such regressive views but simply have the prudence not to express them publicly? How often are such views perpetuated in new member education programs, or by alumni who should be serving as mentors?

I expect those within the MIT fraternity system to say that Frezza was an aberration, and I sincerely hope they are right. But the image of a wholesome group of brothers tied together by core values — the image of fraternities fed to freshman men (and their parents) during rush just weeks ago — is at odds with Frezza’s portrayal of full houses a few drunk miscalculations away from disaster.

And as Frezza himself demonstrated, any claim that there are no longer those with sexist, regressive, and outright dangerous views in the MIT fraternity system must be met with suspicion.

By asking these questions, I absolutely do not mean to imply that Frezza’s views are shared by most undergraduates in MIT fraternities or that his characterizations of MIT fraternities are accurate.

But if this majority allows those with regressive views to continue unabated, the worst aspects and members will continue to dominate the oft-sensationalized public narrative and may disproportionately influence actual fraternity culture.

Most fraternities will avoid tragic accidents. And the Frezza-induced media buzz is already dying down. But merely avoiding a public blunder or avoiding sanctions is an insufficient goal.

If MIT fraternities are as different from the stereotypical image of the state school frat as both their members and MIT admissions assert, standing still on matters of safety and consent is not an option.

Fortunately, fraternities do have the kind of power to shape their own image as well as the invaluable opportunity to educate their new members. Is it unreasonable to hope that fraternities adopt a strong stance — internally and externally — in favor of feminism? Not merely in platitudes and public statements, but in real, measurable actions?

Fraternities are uniquely positioned to aid the cultural shift required to transform opposing sexism from a laughable notion or cheap bogeyman into a core value for their members. And MIT fraternities, which pride themselves as being rather distinct institutions and home to so many future leaders, should be even better situated to do so.

This is not to ignore the efforts of many fraternity members who already take strong positions and actions to promote social justice and safety. But doing so on an institutional scale would require serious introspection and self-examination by MIT fraternities and cannot stop with good intentions.

Frezza and his ilk do not define MIT fraternity culture, but he serves as a stark symbol of why fraternities themselves must be proactive in leaving no ambiguity — to their own members and the outside world — that the views and behaviors he represents must be left behind.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

Until Chi Phi fires him as housing corporation president, I think you have your answer: no, they can't be feminist (at least this one can't) and yes, Frezza's views are shared by others.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

The number of stories I've heard from MIT women being assaulted at fraternity parties, and the number of fratboy conversations I've overheard about getting BU chicks drunk... no, our fraternity system is nowhere near feminism.

Gary Pajer '77 over 9 years ago

I think you miss Frezza's point. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Drunk women at parties are putting themselves and others at risk for rape, injury, or death. It is not advantageous to feminism to deny this. Am I now a misogynist for not calling out the behavior of drunk men? No, I'm not. I am, however, presenting an incomplete argument, as did Frezza.

Underneath all this discussion are questions that can't be answered. Consider an example regarding sexual conduct. Can a woman who has two beers give meaningful consent? Is a man who accepts consent after either or both have had two beers committing rape? How about three beers? Four?

My point: can we please have a discussion about these issues? Can we talk about the unanswerable questions? Can we challenge all assumptions and preconceived notions? Can we abandon (at least temporarily for the sake of discussion) fixed ideas that we ever-so-much wish to be true, but might not be true? I thought universities were supposed to be places where ideas can be discussed, studied, and vetted, but it seems that this is an outmoded idea. Ask Larry Summers. Universities used to be safe haven for free thinkers. Ideas that challenged the status quo, radical ideas even, were valued. Not so much today. Today you must toe the line or be outcast.

Examine you conscious. Are you thinking for yourself, or are you a yes-man/woman to commonly held ideas?

My challenge to you (and me) is to re-read Frezza's piece, extract the ideas from it, and talk about them like intelligent adults. I presume you got good SAT scores. I think you can do it.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

If a woman - or man - consumes alcohol under no pressure and becomes sufficiently drunk to walk off a balcony and become injured, that's all on her.

But women do not put themselves "at risk" for rape. There are rapists. The rapists need to stop raping.

Rape is a crime, not an accident.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

4 - If that's the case, why did LCA get shut down? They were having a dry party (as enforced by MIT), and a woman showed up intoxicated/brought her own/etc, and fell out a window. Why is a fraternity shut down for that, any all other fraternities punished? Unless they can prove that she was served alcohol at the party (under pressure of the brothers), then the fraternity should not be considered at fault. Innocent until proven guilty, no?

I believe a large part of the article was focused on the punishment of fraternities for the actions of others in their household. Personal responsibility does not exist for guests in these situations, nor does due process.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

5 - That one's easy. We're not in an ideal/logical world. There are wrong people on both sides here.