November 28, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Toxic Masculinity in Fraternities: A Combat Veteran’s Perspective

Print More

I’ll preface this column by stating my intentions. I’m here to attempt to calm down these masculine macho men we see too often in many of the fraternities here at Cornell, and to approach this subject through my experience with it in the Marine Corps. That’s right, I’m a jarhead.

During boot camp, we were legally and illegally hazed. The specificities of my treatment are best left unsaid because quite frankly, they were disgusting and atrocious, and absolutely insane, but there was some purpose to this hazing. We were about to go to war. This hazing’s purpose was to prepare us for the stress of battle, you know bullets flying over your head, explosions, and death… the typical war stuff. I’ve read that they horribly haze us to see if we’ll crack, to see how much we can handle. If we can handle extreme amounts maybe they’ll put us in Special Forces; if we crack, they’ll send us on our way. Interestingly enough, most recruits make it through training. The Marines having a failure rate of about 14 percent, so 86 percent of recruits make it through the hazing. Looking at that rate,  it’s safe to say that many fraternity members would be able to pass the training.

I’m not devaluing the intensity and toughness Marine Recruit training entails; I’m just saying that it might not be that special of a thing to brag about.

Okay, I’ll be clearer. Imagine you there’s a hot stove. You know that it’s hot but you also know that you’ll survive putting your hand on the stove. It may burn, but you’ll live. What if people started burning their hands for bragging rights? What if they started comparing scars like fraternity members compare hazing stories?

Well, that’s how dumb it is.

I’ve been there. I remember bragging about the amount of hazing I’d gone through, and comparing my stories with other recruits.

There’s this idea that going through something tough or rigorous brings you closer to your brothers or sisters, or perhaps creates the bond to begin with, and it’s true. When we have a common enemy, the hazer, we grow as brothers and sisters. Similarly we as Cornell students all share common enemies: fear of failure, prelims, insane schedules… and debatably, this may be a form of hazing, but we’ve all come to accept it, and you do have the option of dropping out.

The point is that there are other ways to create bonds. When I look  back on my experience, I see that the times I truly grew with my brothers were when we had just completed an exhausting hike. As we silently took our packs off, our breaths finally slowing, we’d talk about our lives. We’d share intimate details about our views on marriage, war and politics. It didn’t take a psycho screaming at us to bond; it only took exercise.

The second part to this machismo is the hypermasculine “bro!” mentality. It’s best described by my experience at a fraternity party I attended last year.

I had been invited to and reluctantly made an appearance at this party, and I  was unpleasantly surprised when I walked into a mansion reeking of booze, sweat and mold that most likely came from the booze and sweat being absorbed by 1920’s hardwood flooring. Quite a disaster, and such a shame to see these beautiful homes in such terrible conditions.

My friends guided me through the crowded hallways, up the stairs and onto a section of the roof. This was much nicer than the inside. We could finally breathe and hear each other. I had just finished my drink, and I noticed there was a case of beer just off the roof. Rather than climb off the roof, I asked a fraternity brother to “please hand me a beer.”

He turned to me and said, “Who the fuck are you?”

I replied politely, explaining that I was so and so’s friend and that the beer was literally inches from him.

This macho man looked me in the face and said, “I don’t fucking like you, you better watch yourself.”

Now, being a Marine, there was a time in my past when this would have been settled with fists. But there were reasons I left the military, and one of them was to leave this toxic masculinity behind!

I did, however, get frustrated and said, “Listen up, kid. Your party isn’t that cool, and if you want people to continue attending, stop being a dick.”

At that, my friends begin apologizing to the man-child — apparently he had a “big role” in the fraternity. I found the apology pathetic. This guy is clearly rude, and now you’ve justified his unnecessary response. He’ll likely continue to treat people this way because no one stops him.

Here’s the solution to this, and it’s much simpler than other alternatives to hazing: stop thinking being a man means being macho! It’s so easy, gentlemen. The best kinds of men are humble, kind and compassionate, and the only time the “macho” should come out is in defense of someone who is defenseless. Save your testosterone for those moments; you’ll make more friends, and you won’t be seen as a bully. And remember, if you treat anybody like the way I was treated, you’re a bully, and bullies are losers.

The third part to this toxic masculinity is the treatment of women, and again, this is best described by a recent experience.

It’s 12 a.m. and the West Campus streets are crowded with drunk students. I’m in a fraternity sober car about to attend another frat party, which I was barely allowed  into on account of a bad female to male ratio. Meaning that I didn’t have any women with me, and that’s just not acceptable.

We pulled up to stop sign at the end of Campus Road, and on the corner we saw a girl puking as a boy pulled her hair back, which was sort of sweet and disgusting at the same time. Then the passenger in the car said, “don’t bring me around her, she’d be in big trouble.”

I asked, “what do you mean by that?”

“I mean a drunk girl… I’m a dude, what do you think would happen.”

I thought to myself, this guy can’t possibly be insinuating that he’d rape her? I though there’s no way so I pried further. “Do you mean that you’d rape her?” to which he replied, “I mean I’d do what any straight dude would do.”

I couldn’t believe it, and when I explained my concern to him  I was told to calm down and made to feel like an overactive child. It was almost as if this was the way you had to act to fit in. Disgusted, I asked the driver to pull over the car so I could walk home, but I felt a bit helpless. You can’t report someone for claiming they’d rape someone, but that dude’s out there, and he said he would… and even worse, I was the only one who was surprised and ashamed for him.

But this is the rape culture people are talking about. This is the grimy, disgusting side of fraternity culture people don’t want to discuss, and while there are many great things about Greek life, this is not one of them.

The solution is even simpler than machismo mentality, stop fucking raping women. Stop thinking it’s okay to joke about raping women. Say something when your toxic and atrocious friends make sinister comments towards drunk puking women on the side of the road. Maybe use your toxic masculine identity for the good of mankind and butt heads with the dude making rape jokes in the passenger seat of the car. Stop silencing other men who oppose these actions!

To conclude, I’ll add that I’m also a gay Marine, so maybe it’s a bit easier for me to not rape women. Maybe it’s a bit easier for me to see the horrible side of masculinity, but I assure you that my straight friends in the Marines would never talk about women like some of the fraternity members at Cornell. I chose my friends wisely, and one of their qualities just happened to be the one that stopped them from raping, making rape jokes or belittling women in any way.

None of this is about being a man. This is about being a decent human, creating a campus for any person, and better yet, creating a campus that’s safe for women.

Just remember that this is coming from a jarhead who’s literally had bullets flying over his head. You want to seem tough, you want to be a “man”?  Start by showing compassion and kindness to everyone.


Johnathan T. Gilmore is a student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.