The first speech that Oliver, a West Coast fraternity-chapter president whose story I closely followed for a year, gave his new pledges was not the lecture one might expect from a fraternity brother. “We’ve worked really hard to build a reputation as a house of nice guys. If you endanger that reputation, you’ll immediately be kicked to the curb,” Oliver told the pledges. “That’s not the kind of people we want. We’re not the douchey frat house. We’re not here to ‘get bitches and get fucked up.’ We’re here to learn how to grow up a little bit. And with that comes learning how to be a nice human being; how to look out for each other, for guests, and for girls; and how to properly treat girls. If you’re consistently nice and respectful, you’re going to build a good reputation, and that’s going to help you a lot in life.”
As I learned in more than two years of reporting for my book, Fraternity, about fraternities and masculinity on campus, Oliver’s attitude is much more common than the dominant narratives about college men suggest. (I used a pseudonym for Oliver so that people in his story are not easily identifiable; similarly, other sources in this article are not identified because they appear anonymously in the book.) Too often, when the public hears about boys in college, the context is negative: sexual-assault cases, for example, or boys’ dreary academic performance compared with girls’. Media coverage about college guys tends to lament the problems they cause rather than explore the challenges they face. The message that doesn’t come across often enough is that the same forces that have led to what has been called “toxic masculinity” on campuses do more than oppress girls; they can suffocate boys, too. And, surprisingly, the college organizations that might be best positioned to battle this culture are the ones that publicly take the most heat for representing it.