Special Journey to Our Bottom Line

On hazing and counterinsurgency

Adam Ekberg, Extinguishing a Small Fire. 2014. Courtesy of Adam Ekberg and ClampArt, New York.

In 1983, the University of Pennsylvania instructor Peggy Reeves Sanday learned that one of her students had been gang-raped at a frat party. The student had been drunk and on LSD at the time. Sanday, an anthropologist and anti-rape activist, had already done a cross-cultural study of sexual assault. She decided that her next scholarly endeavor on this topic would focus on a single culture—that of fraternity brothers at Penn. Her book Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus (published in 1990, with a second edition following in 2007) synthesizes the results of this investigation with data about sexual assault in colleges across the United States.

Today, Fraternity Gang Rape remains an unsurpassed frat-guy ethnography. It’s also a truly shocking book, thanks to Penn’s very candid fraternity brothers, many of whom spoke at length to student interviewers trained by Sanday. In addition to calling the author’s raped student “an ignorant slut” and campus feminists “rug-munching dykes,” the guys say things like “no is meaningless” and “She was responsible for her condition, and that just leaves her wide open . . . so to speak.” Even more disturbing are those passages in which the men expound upon their worldview. “One of the few barriers left in this society is sexual barriers,” says one. “It’s cutting down [sic]. When you can strip somebody down, and get everything possible out of them, whether it’s sexual, sexual parts, sexual this and that, and just say, that’s where you are.” This has the ring of genuine sadism. Another interviewee defines a “nerdy” guy as someone who will not “allow any sexual needs to invade someone else’s rights.” My needs matter, your rights don’t: this, too, is a sentiment Sade would find relatable.

But if the Sadean libertine is individualism’s sociopathic limit case, Sanday’s frat guys make clear that for them, libertinage is a group activity, and morality begins and ends with esprit de corps. One says: “Real individuality, and the arguments that go with it, never looked as attractive as the shared, seemingly revolutionary creed that we could all champion as a group, supporting each other as we inflicted our rowdy common self on the world and its stuffy sensibilities.” Another passionately fleshes out this vision:

Everyone and everything was open to ridicule, all people and all standards became vulnerable, because we had powerfully felt our own vulnerability [in initiation hazing]. . . . We knew how insignificant people can feel when they are really up against the wall. . . . We had staggered through hell, and came out to look at the world with the jaded, contemptuous eyes of the combat veteran. Our initiation experiences . . . gave us a secret weapon and invisible armor. It made us special, and it united us against the world. . . . We were privileged not only economically but in our souls as well. Whenever we chose we could bring yet another into the circle, mold and manipulate him as we retraced our steps and took him on the special journey to our bottom line.

We had staggered through hell, and came out to look at the world with the jaded, contemptuous eyes of the combat veteran. Some people might think it’s hyperbolic to describe a frat initiation as a hell akin to combat. Those people don’t know much about frat initiations. While stories of brutal and sadistic initiation hazing regularly make the news, usually because a pledge has died, the coverage of these tragedies tends to suggest that the brutality and sadism are aberrations, excesses, instances of boyish roughhousing spinning out of control. In fact, brutality and sadism are perfectly normal in fraternity initiations and always have been.

One of the things that makes Fraternity Gang Rape valuable is Sanday’s persuasive case that the significance of frat initiations is underappreciated, that these violent rituals are absolutely foundational to fraternity culture, that they are not merely mettle-testing bonding exercises but something more profound: a “radical resocialization.” Supporting such a claim requires demonstrating the genuinely radical nature of initiations, the extent to which the experience warrants the language of extremity (“really up against the wall,” “bottom line”). And this, in turn, requires documenting initiations from start to finish, in blow-by-blow detail—something that media accounts, however graphic, almost never do.

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