Interconnectedness of Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus: Fraternity Gang Rape

On February 17, 1983, a female student at the University of Pennsylvania reported that she had been carried upstairs during a fraternity party and raped by five or six men, sparking outrage across college campuses. The victim eventually confessed the rape to her professor, Peggy Reeves Sanday, inspiring Sanday to investigate the societal context which normalizes gang rape. Fraternity Gang Rape is the culmination of Sanday’s investigation of sex, brotherhood, and male privilege on college campuses and provides valuable insight into the persistence of dominant masculinity in brotherhood perceptions of rape. Sanday divides her examination of fraternity gang rape into two parts; the first part analyzes the events leading to the gang rape of her former student in order to flesh out themes of male dominance underlying fraternity practices of “working a yes out.” Twenty-six years later, the campus environment described in Fraternity Gang Rape maintains its privileging of white males, promoting reluctance to accuse rapists and shaming victims as asking for it, evidenced by the lenient sentencing of Brock Turner.
Sanday’s anthropological approach to examining fraternity party culture illustrates the attitudes guiding brothers and party goers; young women engage in heavy drinking or drugs, pressured to gain social acceptance, which fraternity brothers interpret as consent to brutal sexual victimization. In order to assemble various perspectives, reflective of the campus environment, Sanday trained students to interview guests and fraternity members at fraternity parties over a two-year period. These interviews were recorded and then transcribed, to reflecting typical conversations about sexual aggression among fraternity brothers. Analyzing this web of interviews, Sanday reconstructs the fraternity environment through the perspectives of victims, fraternity brothers, and party goers, exposing the social prevalence of a rape inducing sexual subculture during a period in which fraternity gang rape was secluded from public discourse.
Sanday meticulously details the gang rape of her former student, revealing the sexual subculture of fraternities which perpetuate male dominance through rape. Using interviews with the victim and two witnesses, familiar with the fraternity, Sanday ascertains that the victim, who she refers to as Laurel, was heavily incapacitated after taking hits of LSD and engaging in heavy drinking the night she was raped. At the end of the party, Laurel was taken to a room upstairs and to crash and was later raped by five or six fraternity members. According to girls who witnessed conversations among brothers, fraternity brothers initially boasted about their sexual conquest of Laurel. When directly confronted by one of the girls, the brothers claimed that rape could not have transpired since Laurel was unable to say no, viewing her state of mind as irrelevant. As a result, Sanday asserts that fraternal discourse perpetuates misogynistic ideology, positioning members to blame Laurel for failing to resist their sexual advances. Analyzing the experiences of girls familiar with the environment of fraternity parties, Sanday illuminates an environment constructed to break down female resistance and ensnare vulnerable women. Reflecting on their experiences at fraternity parties, these women recalled being assaulted with stares and subjected to disparaging remarks under the fraternal practice of “riffing on women.” Unraveling the multiple experiences of being plied with alcohol and drugs and repeatedly pressured for sex, Sanday deciphers the practice of “riffing on women” as a mechanism employed to sexually abuse women and celebrate the power of the brotherhood (p. 46).
Arguably, Sanday provides her most powerful insight into fraternity life through her analysis of a “highlights sheet,” a humorous version of meeting minutes written by fraternity brothers. The sheet serves as an uncensored account of the gang rape, as told by the brothers, reflecting their true attitudes regarding sexual abuse of women. Sanday deconstructs the euphemisms employed by the brothers, who bragged about the success of a new “little sisters program,” referring to the raping young, vulnerable women, and expressed optimism in recruiting “little wenches,” or future victims, providing insight into sexist fraternal discourse (p. 66). Exploring the fraternal ideology is crucial to understanding how fraternities normalize gang rape as a valid form of sexual expression. Sanday exposes the misogynistic fraternal discourse underlying the “good Samaritan rift,” mentioned in the highlights sheet, in which brothers praised one another for having sex with a victim drifting in and out of consciousness (p. 67). Evaluating the minutes, Sanday asserts that gang rape is perpetuated through public displays of masculinity and fraternal bonds, seen in the brotherly pride associated with various forms of “riffing.” Carefully examining direct quotations from the perpetrators, Sanday frames sexual aggression as prioritizing fraternal sexual prowess over displaying compassion for a vulnerable peer.
Describing three cases of fraternity gang rape reported at various universities, Sanday uncovers the same values of misogyny and male privilege underlying the 1983 UPenn gang rape. Drawing from student interviews of fraternity brothers, as well as personal revelations from fraternity brothers, Sanday expands upon the persistence of dominant masculinity through phallo-centric ideology across fraternity circles. Centered exclusively around channeling sexual aggression, fraternity parties allow brothers to search for victims and emerge at the top of the social power structure, united in brotherhood. Women who drink are seen as flirtatious and “asking for it” in the eyes of fraternity brothers, and victims are shamed for making a mistake. Sanday asserts that these experiences, similar to the gang rape of Laurel, are an extension of male privilege, allowing fraternity brothers to seek empowerment through inebriating and then sexually victimizing women, later denigrating these women for allowing themselves to be alone with a group of drunk men.
In the second part of her book, Sanday implicates the fraternal environment in constructing a sexual subculture which normalizes sexual coercion. One of the most shocking fraternity practices Sanday outlines is the marking of drunk women with colored dots to signal their sexual availability to other brothers. Practices such as these help fraternity members to “work a yes out”, by targeting the most vulnerable party goers to coerce into sex. Instead of retreating after their sexual advances are denied, fraternity brothers feel encouraged to push copious amounts of drugs and alcohol onto women until they obtain a yes. However, as Sanday reveals, a yes to the brothers doesn’t mean verbal consent; instead fraternity members push until the victim is drifting out of consciousness or nearly comatose and cannot say no. Strategizing together, fraternity brothers aid one another in their sexual endeavors, using excuse sexual aggression under the privilege of the brotherhood.
Referencing student interviews with fraternity brothers, Sanday uncovers phallocentric ideology undergirding party gang rape, privileging the brothers to take advantage of compromised women. In these interviews, fraternity brothers admitted to working a yes out of hesitant women, organizing parties “get ‘em drunk and go for it” (p. 115). Illuminating inside fraternal discourse, Sanday uncovers the prevailing ideology which blames women for what happens after they are drunk. In response to the UPenn gang rape many brothers blamed the victim, asserting “that girl just totally brought everything onto herself” (p. 119). One perpetrator mocked the situation, remarking “she was responsible for her condition and that just leaves her wide open…so to speak” prompting laughter among the brothers (p. 119). Examining these direct statements from fraternity brothers demonstrates the explicit callousness of members towards the suffering of victims. Verbal coercion, Sanday asserts, provides an escape only if victims have the physical and mental strength to do so, ultimately placing the responsibility of rape onto the victim.
Sanday also illuminates egregious initiation rituals, such as those requiring pledges to lie to lie in feces and vomit, demonstrating the construction of abusive social order. Using various tapes of initiation rituals and incidents reported by brothers, Sanday highlights the aims of pledging a fraternity to destroying any aspects of vulnerability and emotional accessibility, which normalizes the subjugation of women. Throughout initiation rituals, pledges are ridiculed for their femininity, whilst constructing the fraternity as a source to alleviate anxiety over insufficient masculinity. As a result, a template for masculine identity is forged through granting pledges the ability to abuse party women under the shared power of the brotherhood. This “radical alteration of consciousness” constructs a callous attitude towards women, normalizing sexual behavior and discourse that subject women (p.192).
Fraternity Gang Rape was a landmark publication, serving as one of the first comprehensive accounts of the abusive sexual behaviors encouraged by fraternity parties. Sanday’s graphic portrayal of aggressive sexual attitudes and practices of fraternity members gained widespread public attention; illuminating fraternal ideology centered around the sexual exploitation of women. As a result, the unprecedented nature of her analysis left Sanday with little discourse to engage with. However, Sanday mentions vigorous debate over the roots of sexual violence, analyzing cross-cultural studies in order to invalidate the argument that gang rape can be excused as the manifestation of the “explosive, biological nature of male sexual expression” (p. 61). Referencing anthropological investigations of matrifocal and patriarchal societies which argue against the existence of a single gender template, Sanday positions the social influences of fraternity gang rape within a global context, demonstrating the silencing practices of sexist fraternity practices, which largely subject female college students to unwanted sexual interactions. Sanday’s monograph is powerful, exposing the grotesque, secluded behaviors of fraternities which construct gang rape as normal behavior, providing a framework upon which universities can construct effective policy. However, Sanday undercuts the significance of her work by ignoring race in her accounts of fraternity gang rape. Taking the accounts of minority women and fraternity brothers would lend to a more expansive construction of male privilege and help universities to better work against fraternity gang rape culture.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus. New York: New York University Press, 1990. Print.