When news broke this week that members of a Pennsylvania State University fraternity were allegedly posting photos of naked, unconscious women to a private Facebook group, the condemnation was nearly universal.
“It was absolutely ridiculous and inhumane,” Colleen Miller, a Penn State sophomore, told the campus newspaper.
“I can’t imagine anybody that’s not appalled by the alleged behavior,” University President Eric Barron said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Participants in the group could also face charges under Pennsylvania’s “revenge porn” law, State College Police Chief Thomas King said Wednesday.
But one member of Penn State’s Kappa Delta Rho chapter, which has been suspended by the school and the fraternity’s national council, thinks the story has been blown out of proportion by the “self-righteous” media. Speaking anonymously with Philadelphia magazine, he said that the page may have been inappropriate but not immoral.
“Here’s a quick reality check: everyone — from Bill Clinton to your grandfather to every Greek organization in the nation does the same old stuff, just as they have been for the entirety of human history,” the KDR member said in a statement. “The fire of indignant, misplaced self-righteousness that looks to ruin people’s lives and unjustly ruin reputations is the abuse and violation that should be at the center of discussion, not the humorous, albeit possibly misguided, antics of a bunch of college kids.”
Those “antics” included circulating photos of women “passed out and nude or in other sexual or embarrassing positions,” apparently taken without their consent, according to a police search warrant. The images, along with photos depicting drug use and hazing, were posted on an invite-only Facebook group named “2.0.” (The fraternity’s first group, “Covert Business Transactions,” was taken down after a woman saw a picture of herself on it and complained.)
In a question-and-answer with Philadelphia magazine, the KDR member argued that those photos were harmless, the kind of thing that shows up all over the Internet.
“Everybody fools around,” he said. “… There’s literally sites like that that millions of people access, whether it’s totalfratmove.com or any of the other thousands of sites that post, you know, pictures of girls and post funny text conversations and Snapchat stories and things like that. It was a satirical group. It wasn’t malicious whatsoever. It wasn’t intended to hurt anyone. It wasn’t intended to demean anyone. It was an entirely satirical group and it was funny to some extent.”
(Total Frat Move is a site founded by two Texas State University graduates, known for posting snarky and sometimes questionably raunchy stories about fraternity life.)
The KDR member compared media coverage of the group to a witch hunt, saying there was no reason for the story to be reported on CNN and in the New York Times.
“It’s not anyone else’s business, pretty much. It’s an inter-fraternity thing and that’s that,” he said.
When asked whether the women whose photos were put online also had a right to privacy, the KDR member said that the Facebook group was private — until one person decided to “snitch.”
“It is a brotherhood and nobody expects anyone to go and post stuff publicly or so forth and so on. It’s a real disappointment that this kid went and did this,” he said.
Coming in the wake of several weeks of harsh news about fraternities nationwide — a racist chant at Oklahoma State, vulgar e-mails at the University of Maryland — the interview offered insight into how scandals like these happen.
Fraternities are close-knit, often homogeneous communities — “brotherhoods” in the KDR member’s words — so members’ activities are often unguarded and unchecked. Even if a brother feels something is questionable, it’s rare for him to speak out. The KDR brother told Philadelphia magazine he didn’t post any nude photos because he’s “a good guy” and acknowledged that the Facebook page was “possibly misguided.” But he evaded questions that asked him to pass judgement on those who did post photos. He wasn’t going to criticize his brothers.
“I think that the entire world and all of society would do better to return to higher standards of morality, of moral and ethical conduct, and that certainly includes fraternities, but doesn’t exclude anyone else,” he said. “And to single out individuals or organizations who happen to get caught in compromising situations that everybody else is equally complicit in, is not fair.”
Fraternities create pressure “to be one of the guys and hang out with the guys,” researchers A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade wrote in a study on fraternities and rape culture for the journal “Gender and Society.”
“The fraternity system intensifies the ‘group think’ syndrome by solidifying the identity of the in-group and creating an us/them atmosphere,” they said, adding that the pressure to conform in Greek groups often made members act in ways they thought were wrong.
The “us vs. them” mentality promotes unity but can also discourage dissent, not just when it comes to treatment of women but also about racism, substance abuse, hazing and other issues.
Andrew Lohse, a former member of a Dartmouth fraternity, discovered this the hard way when he wrote a column in the campus newspaper condemning what he called a “systemic culture of abuse” in Greek groups. In it, he describes the intense appeal of fraternity membership — an appeal so strong it fosters absolute loyalty even when members are mistreated.
After he wrote the column, one of his closest fraternity brothers “launched into a tirade about how I was a traitor,” Lohse told Rolling Stone in 2012. When he tried to calm the brother down, asking whether he thought hazing rituals (including forcing pledges to eat a mixture of scrambled eggs and vomit) were actually good or beneficial, the brother yelled “I ate the vomlet. … I made other pledges eat it. That’s brotherhood.”
Lohse, who wrote a tell-all book “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy” last year, believes that the insular nature of frats inevitably leads to the kinds of activity that make scandalous, national headlines.
“What do you think is going to happen when you have 70 19- and 20-year-old boys in a giant mansion and they have all this money and they’re allowed to operate totally in secret?” he told Mashable. “… Most of these people are really intelligent, hard-working, well-meaning people, but in the context of that culture, things become baser.”