Crass Frat Boys at Old Dominion

The crudely suggestive banners hung to greet first-year students were in poor taste, but the condemnations lacked all sense of proportion.

Student housing at Old Dominion University (Brett VA / Flickr)

At Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, someone at an off-campus fraternity house hung crass, homemade banners from the balcony for incoming freshmen to see while being dropped off by their parents. One banner said, “Rowdy and Fun, Hope Your Baby Girl Is Ready for a Good Time.” Another said “Freshman Daughter Drop Off” and featured an arrow pointing to the front door of the house. A third sign said, “Go Ahead and Drop Off Mom Too.”

The banners were crude and distasteful. Even at 18, I wouldn’t have hung them. If I were a professor there, I’d have told the kids that they have a First Amendment right to display the signs even as I tried to shame them into taking them down. If my kid put up those banners––not that I’d ever pay for a kid to live in a frat house––I’d tell him to take them down or never ask for my help with tuition again.

Even so, it staggers me that this is an international news story covered by scores of outlets. How did we reach a place where Local Frat Makes Crude Joke causes staffers at the BBC, CNN, The Washington Post and USA Today to spring into action?

The answer begins with one interpretation of the banners. For some observers, they aren’t just vulgar, rude, suggestive, bawdy, ribald, derogatory, or uncouth––they’re an example of “rape culture.” As Old Dominion’s President John Broderick put it, “While we constantly educate students, faculty and staff about sexual assault and sexual harassment, this incident confirms our collective efforts are still failing to register with some.” Nearly every press outlet that has covered the controversy connected it to ongoing efforts to reduce the number of rapes that occur on campus.

One Old Dominion student told Jezebel, “I feel very strongly about how the attitude towards sexual assault on campuses is met with a slap on the wrist … As a woman, it’s frustrating to see the media bring awareness to the issue and then witness something related in your own community/school and see that nothing is changing.”

To other observers, those reactions make little sense.

As they see it, a college’s sexual-assault problem is best gauged by the number of sexual assaults. They regard the banners as an obvious joke. And they insist that the humor is rooted in confronting parents, who like to guard the virginity of their daughters, with the trope that they go off to college and have sex with frat guys. In this telling, nothing about the trope implies a non-consensual encounter. And regardless of the joke’s meaning, they believe it irrational to operate as if a sophomoric prank that seems like something a couple 19-year-olds cooked up in a few hours reveals their attitudes toward rape; the likelihood that they would rape someone; campus attitudes toward rape; or the success of campus anti-rape efforts.

“I’m usually in the position of defending extremely offensive speech on the grounds that it is protected by the First Amendment,” Robby Soave wrote at Reason. “In this case, I struggle to grasp what was even so monstrous about the banners. Hope your baby is ready for a good time, oh, mom too! is certainly crude and in bad taste. But no specific person is being maligned, threatened, or disparaged. And some frat brothers are eager to have sex with girls—is this surprising?”

He added that, “associating the banners with sexual assault, as Broderick did, is a considerable exaggeration. Sigma Nu members certainly didn’t threaten anyone with sexual assault; putting up some mildly suggestive signs does not constitute an act of violence. The banners don’t even clear the sexual-harassment bar. They aren’t severe, pervasive, objectively offensive, or directed at anyone in particular.”

Where do I come down? It’s lamentable that some women arrived on their college campus only to be greeted by signs treating them as sexual objects. These immature 19-year-olds displayed bad judgment, but so do the adults who are reacting as if they were stockpiling GHB. Pop culture is filled with material far more vulgar and offensive, including content that actually does transgress against the value placed on consent.

Debates like this are polarizing because a false choice is often presented: defend the transgression that is generating outrage or join in condemning the perpetrators. But there is a third way. It requires circumspection and a sense of proportion.

The banners do deserve criticism.

Sigma Nu, the national fraternity, is within its rights to complain about the way this chapter is representing it; on Monday, it suspended the chapter pending the outcome of an investigation.

Should someone at Old Dominion explain to those kids the offensive assumptions implicit in their signs? Yes. Did they do something so awful that it warrants overnight CNN alerts, a BBC headline, and a university investigation into what happened?

No. Of course not.

Should the university president have made a statement? Sure. He could have said, “I've been getting inquiries about crude signs hung by some of our students from their off-campus house, as is their right under the First Amendment. I encourage those students to exercise their rights more thoughtfully in the future, to treat women respectfully, and to take this opportunity to learn from a youthful mistake. We’ve all made them. And I hope members of the media will recall instances when they showed poor judgment at 18, 19, or 20, as they cover this story.”

Instead he showed no sense of proportion.

In a nation where the First Amendment guarantees the rights of Nazis to march through the streets of a Jewish community, the president of a public university declared of clearly protected speech: “Messages like the ones displayed yesterday by a few students on the balcony of their private residence are not and will not be tolerated.”

And he asserted that one or two undergrads with bed sheets and black markers “undermine the countless efforts at Old Dominion University to prevent sexual assault.” If that isn’t hyperbole, he should try a different approach to preventing sexual assault.

Meanwhile, Sharon Grigsby writes in The Dallas Morning News that if you think the frat’s banners were an obvious joke, as many students at the college reportedly concluded, You’ve got to be kidding. Anyone who believes that is part of the problem.” In fact, believing that they made a tasteless joke rather than an apology for rape culture does not make someone “part of the problem” of sexual assault.  

Ultimately, this story lays bare a divide.

It is not a divide between people who care about reducing the rate of sexual assault and those who don’t; rather, the divide concerns how best to achieve that common goal. Insofar as I can tell, one theory holds that what’s best, in this case, is to hold up whoever made those banners as possible-rapist pariahs; to pursue disciplinary charges against them; to suspend their frat; and to condemn them as if they’ve consigned more women to rape by undermining their college’s efforts to prevent it.

I have a different view.

It would be convenient for Old Dominion if harshly denouncing and punishing these boys would be taken as the prime measure of how seriously the school takes sexual assault.

It’s easy to grandstand against frat boys with crass signs.

But reducing sexual assaults requires sounder metrics of success. Controversies like this are a distraction; they distract from what’s really required to make college campuses safer for women; and they alienate a portion of the public that tires of exaggerated outrage.

Focusing on the core problem of rape (rather than seizing on offensive comments from obscure undergrads as if they bear meaningful responsibility for that problem) also makes it easier to avoid getting trolled by provocateur 19-year-olds. Words they thoughtlessly scrawl on bed sheets do not belong at the center of our discourse.