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.
For boys who attend college, the experience is usually when they begin to determine their identity away from their family and the anchors they’ve known since childhood. Experts say that the college years, when they are expected to somehow independently transition from boyhood to manhood, are also the stage at which they feel the most vulnerable. Researchers have described boys’ freshman year as characterized by separation anxiety, loss, and grief. At the same time, these boys frequently think that they can’t express those feelings, because they are strongly pressured to fit into what academics call “traditional masculinity.”
What does it mean to be masculine in the 21st century? Masculinity can, of course, take multiple forms, but psychologists say that men are commonly expected to suppress emotions, desire multiple sexual partners and casual relationships, engage in risky behaviors and physical aggression, want to dominate situations, assert independence, and have control over women.
Just because these are the prevailing masculine characteristics doesn’t mean that the majority of men want to follow them, however. Surveys have found that most college guys don’t endorse traditional masculine norms, but believe that most other men do. More specifically, college men overestimate their peers’ use of alcohol and other drugs, amount of sexual activity, desire to hook up, willingness to use force to have sex, acceptance of homophobia, and tolerance of behavior that degrades women. They don’t necessarily know what their peers truly believe, possibly because they think that having intimate conversations about those things would be unmasculine.
At many colleges across the country, fraternity brothers told me that, in general, the guys who are considered most masculine are the ones who hook up the most—and, especially among underclassmen, the ones who drink. To be considered masculine at one Florida college, “you gotta be fit, very social, good-looking, love to party, be able to talk to girls, play the field well, hook up,” a sophomore fraternity brother told me. “And on my campus, everyone loves to be involved, so also having high-up positions or a good job.” At an Oregon school, a junior said, “a zero-cares attitude makes you more masculine.”
Several studies have found that men who adhere to traditional expressions of masculinity (such as the aforementioned) have comparatively worse mental and physical health and increased chances of illness, injury, and death. College students who follow this path are more likely to drink more, become depressed, and commit sexual assault. And it’s common for men to become emotionally isolated because they worry that showing vulnerability isn’t manly.
But researchers have found that the traditional idea that men are innately tough, independent, and stoic is not true. Actually, in infancy, boys are more emotional than girls. As children grow up, however, while girls are permitted to express their feelings, boys are taught to suppress them. “But this doesn’t mean men aren’t experiencing the same feelings,” the neuroscientist Lise Eliot wrote in Pink Brain Blue Brain. “In laboratory studies, men respond even more intensely than women to strong emotional stimuli.”
Now consider the predicament of a new college student, an 18-year-old boy who is expected to become a man, with these masculine norms discouraging him from expressing his emotions or seeking intimacy—important tools for forming meaningful connections—at precisely the time when he is most vulnerable and alone. At precisely the time when he most yearns to make friends.
That’s where some healthy fraternities can be helpful. They specifically promote their friendships as “brotherhoods,” seeming to promise the kind of supportive relationships that could alleviate a freshman’s separation anxiety, loss, and grief.
Fraternity brothers told me that because the point of fraternities is to form close friendships, they bonded more quickly than they otherwise would have. “Guys are more expected to hold emotions back and [have] everything in control. Classes and organizations only get you so far in terms of having personal connections. So for guys, it’s much more difficult to meet a lifelong friend,” the Florida brother said. “There’s always the fear of not being accepted anywhere. It’d be very tough to open up to people if you didn’t already have a fraternity as a catalyst for your emotions.”
Then how do we explain the disturbing fraternity behavior in headlines? We could call it the result of a clash between nature and culture.
Non-Western cultures don’t necessarily have the same prejudice against male intimacy. It’s acceptable in many countries for male friends to hold hands or shed tears, the NYU psychology professor Niobe Way says. But in the U.S. (and other countries influenced by Western culture), boys’ emotional skills and intimate same-sex friendships are often ignored or insulted. It’s possible, then, that fraternities are such a distinctly American phenomenon because other cultures don’t stigmatize men who seek these relationships.
Fraternity culture changed significantly in the first half of the 20th century, when the term homosexuality entered popular usage. Because fraternity brothers lived, ate, and slept together in close quarters, outsiders began speculating that fraternities were dens of homosexuality. To prove that they weren’t gay (though some were), members loudly boasted about their dating lives and heterosexual conquests. Some fraternities still struggle to reconcile male intimacy with society’s pressure to perform heterosexuality, per traditional masculine standards. Rituals and living conditions encourage guys to bare their souls. Some chapters participate in activities that brothers might worry could be perceived as having gay overtones. Members might discuss the physical attractiveness of male recruits, for example, or in a small minority of chapters, participate in nude or seminude all-male rituals, as did the chapter of another brother I spoke with. (“Showing private parts is probably the most expressive way of proclaiming, ‘You’re in our brotherhood now! No more walls or secrets between us!’” he told me.) And recruits and pledges want fraternity members to desire them as brothers. A recent ASHE Higher Education Report noted, “This is a challenging concept for men to express when most language they know at their age about desire depicts a romantic or sexual connection, rather than an emotionally vulnerable relationship.”
That might be one reason some fraternity brothers overcompensate, resorting to stereotypically hypermasculine behaviors to try to prove their manhood and gain acceptance. Or why some pledges are willing to, for example, drink life-threatening amounts of alcohol. “There’s a lot of fear when you feel like a little boy being yelled at by all the big kids. You don’t feel like a man,” a recent Massachusetts grad said. Some of his pledge brothers created a challenge they called “Team Savage”: They voluntarily drank a Solo cup of their own urine (talk about toxic masculinity). “It’s disgusting, but it made them seem tough, and they gained status.”
This is not to defend the fraternities that haze or engage in other dangerous behavior. But understanding how students might get to the point where they want to participate in such things is a step toward changing that culture. Oliver’s chapter was relatively healthy partly because it didn’t emphasize masculine stereotypes, but kindness and respect. It’s probably not coincidental that this chapter had fewer alcohol and sexual-assault issues—and was more vigilant about preventing and addressing them—than a typical fraternity.
Many chapters like this exist; people simply don’t hear about them, because they aren’t embroiled in scandals and focus more on their members’ inner qualities than their chapter’s external image. Chapters like these have the power to free men from the constraints of society’s narrow definition of masculinity. A recent Rhode Island grad entered college with “the view [that] I gotta go in and drink well, get a lot of girls, never show emotion, always tell everyone classes are going great, I’m not having any issues. I was trying to make it look like I could fit in and have a great time, even though I wasn’t sure of myself. But I wasn’t finding the traditional hookup scene and what I’d seen in the movies.”
Second semester, he joined a fraternity in search of that stereotypical environment. To his surprise, the fraternity’s alternative views on masculinity made him reconsider prioritizing toughness and hookups. “Yeah, it had partying and the social aspects, but it also had the idea that you can do all that stuff without having to put on a show. You can be yourself entirely in front of these people. I didn’t think you’d find a fraternity who wanted to talk about toxic masculinity and sex assault. That was eye-opening. It changed me,” he said. “I wasn’t a douchebag at heart; [I was] just thinking [that acting stereotypically masculine] was how you become successful in college. When I saw these leaders in my fraternity having success without being those guys, I realized, Wow, I don’t have to do that if I don’t want to.”
This article is adapted from Alexandra Robbins’s new book, Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men.