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

Power dynamics based on gendered interactions can be seen widely in Western societies in particular. The most prominent negative repercussions of these dynamics can be seen as instances of rape and sexual assault. Similar gendered interactions and discourses can be seen as heavily embedded into initiation and bonding rituals and fraternity culture at large. These rituals have been sometimes seen to rely on rape, sexual assault, and sexual discourse in general. In her book, Fraternity Gang Rape, Peggy Reeves Sanday chooses to focus on all male group bonding rituals at a college campus in the United States, particularly the bonding ritual of “pulling train,” or, gang rape. Peggy Reeves Sanday is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She has authored a number of books, focuses primarily on matriarchies and acquaintance rapes occurring in societies. She was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania at the time that the specific gang rape addressed in Part One of this book occurred and was teaching the victim.

Sanday constructs an argument that focuses on exploring how groups of men bond through the use of sex. This is further developed as not only being constructed through actions but also through discourse amongst the group. Her argument is crafted around these group acts existing to allow for homoerotic and sexual experiences to be shared between the men involved. This is particularly explored due to the heavily homophobic mentalities usually seen in these environments. Finally, Sanday focuses on how sex can be seen as a marker of power societally and the constructs that exist which uphold these dynamics.

Fraternity Gang Rape begins with a delving into a discussion of, societally, how the differences between men and women have been seen. This is primarily done through the lens of looking at the three sexual revolutions and models that have been used to understand gender power dynamics. While discussing the various sex models, Sanday constructs a picture of the act of rape as societally upheld by the sexist subjectivity that people have been raised within. Sanday also explores some of the problematic structures that exist within college, mainly fraternity, party culture. Namely these are seen as the seduction tactics used by males, which include feeding girls drinks until they are drunk enough to give in. The ability to do this successfully is often used as a marker of one’s masculinity and reinforces the gender hierarchy that exists within these party interactions.

Sanday constructs her study in two parts. The first part is specifically tailored towards what she calls “The XYZ Express,” which focuses on trends discovered following a specific incident that happened at a fraternity on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in 1983. This part contains a lot of information that primarily applies to the the fraternity “XYZ” and various incidents recounted primarily by women. This goes through interviews with both members of the fraternity and a number of women who have unique relationships, either sexual, friendly, or both, with members of XYZ. Their interviews highlight social bargaining for a better position within the group’s hierarchy, primarily through having sex with members, an ability to hold your own while drinking with the brothers, or both, which is heavily encouraged by party culture. Sanday also depicts structures within XYZ that reinforce these dynamics, primarily what the brothers refer to as the “Little Sisters Program” as well as aggressive circle dances, which end with a mass heap of all of the brothers, sometimes on top of a woman. The concept of this program is that the brothers of XYZ essentially scout out females to be sexually available for members within their organization. The major rape that spurned Sanday’s writing of this book was the gang rape of one of her students, referred to as Laurel, whose rape was referred to as an audition for this program by brothers. Sanday uses this discourse and the actions of gang rapes and circle dances to discuss the manners in which these actions allow for brothers to bond homoerotically within a heavily homophobic and hegemonic masculine environment.

The second part of her study is heavily focused on phallocentrism, male power, and silencing the feminine. This part focuses on discourses and interactions that are seen in groups, primarily in male centric groups. This focuses heavily on rituals utilized to break young men out of “the feminine”, or their dependencies on their mothers seen prior to adulthood, with a heavy emphasis on the ways in which this is done through fraternity initiation rituals. Sanday discusses in particular detail the exact ways in which the fraternities psychologically mess with their pledges in order to shift their mindset from a loyalty to oneself to a loyalty to the fraternity. This is done not only to promote male social and sexual dominance, but also to construct widely felt male bonding throughout the new members. This is opened up to how initiation rituals in non-Western cultures either create rape free societies or uphold gender power dynamics similar to the ones seen in fraternities. Sanday raps up this part by focusing on how sexist subjectivity is created through discourses and how difficult these structures are to deconstruct as they are so embedded into our language and interactions.

The book ends with an afterword, written in 2006, discussing how much has actually changed since this book was first published. Sanday explores the various ways that hookup culture and these sorts of incidents are perpetuated not only by fraternity culture. An interesting discussion can be seen about the roles that sororities play in upholding the hookup and rape culture that is perpetuated by most fraternities.

Ultimately, Sanday argues that while these issues are discussed much more heavily than they used to be, the statistics haven’t really changed at all. This is primarily due to the persistence of privileged positions of all male organizations of cisgendered, heterosexual white males in society. While this is not 100 percent true about fraternities,  they are predominantly filled with white, cisgendered males. Sanday does comment on the prevalence of discourse regarding sexual assault and rape that is happening in what she dubs the “New Sexual Revolution,” with a particular focus on the affirmative consent policies that are becoming widespread in colleges and universities. She concludes that protecting those more vulnerable and deconstructing these power dynamics that uphold and allow for rape and sexual assault to occur commonly is the most important move we can make societally.

This book gives an interesting overview into a very serious occurrence seen in many all male university organizations. A particularly interesting perspective can be seen when looking at rape and sexual assaults through an anthropological sense instead of sociological. The discourses and interactions are vital to understanding more about why these events occur at the rates they do, whether through groups or by individuals. Furthermore, Sanday does a good job at comparing these discourses and structures across Western and non-Western cultures. However, a further delving into other experiences with in Western fraternity culture would be beneficial. Also, while Sanday provides commentary that this is applicable to groups of men that are not fraternities, more evidence and discussion of these alternative groups would be helpful to support her argument. Furthermore, the generalizability to other fraternities at the University of Pennsylvania or on other campuses is slightly problematic. Through this part, Sanday offers a limited gaze into a few other situations, providing token examples, but a wider spread study that expressed experiences truly representative of the diversity of colleges seen in the United States would provide a more appropriate generalizability.  The manner of splitting the book into two distinct parts makes the main argument hard to connect or follow at some points. Sanday also fails to discuss that all of these interactions she is exploring have occurred in aggressively heteronormative environments. While she briefly highlights homophobic discourse, the addition of this could be beneficial to helping strengthen her argument. This is presented as central to her argument, but discussion of it is lacking in comparison to her other points. I would recommend this book as a good eye opener to someone looking to delve into how fraternity culture upholds and reinforces gender power dynamics and privilege in a heteronormative, white centric perspective.

Sanday PR. Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus. 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press; 2007.