Frat Culture at Dartmouth: How Janet Reitman's "Exposé" is Misleading 

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
March 30 2012 5:13 PM

Frat Culture at Dartmouth is Only Part of the Story

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Is frat culture at Dartmouth College really out of control?

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Janet Reitman could have saved herself a trip to Hanover, N.H., just watched Animal House instead. She probably would have produced the exact same Rolling Stone story on hazing at Dartmouth College either way. Beer pong, fraternity basements, vomit, brutal pledge term traditions, white privilege, prep school boys—that is all the college is in Reitman’s piece. Her story is not an exposé of Dartmouth, it’s an exposé of Andrew Lohse’s version of Dartmouth—a version that is necessarily distorted by his decision to rush Sigma Alpha Epsilon, his struggles with depression and drug abuse, and his thirst for social status.

But that’s not the whole story at the Big Green.

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For one thing, there are women now, including alums like myself. And, despite the impression Reitman gives, we are not just passive rape victims. While assault occurs, I am insulted by Reitman’s representation of Dartmouth women as helpless pawns in a male-dominated game rather than the agents of change that we are.

I, like 44 percent of undergraduate women at Dartmouth, was in a sorority. And, just to be clear, sororities are not exactly dry, as Reitman claims—we just didn’t make each other drink until oblivion. My experience of pledge “hazing” was almost laughably innocent. It mostly involved running around campus with other pledges in ridiculous outfits and a plethora of free (but optional) Keystone Lights at meetings. Essentially, our hazing activities were an excuse to get to know more women on campus.

And, contrary to Reitman’s characterization of Dartmouth students as brainwashed zombies, concerned only with the superficial appearance of order—we were acutely aware of persisting gender issues on campus. While I was at Dartmouth, my peers went to great lengths to talk more openly about frat culture, hazing, and sexual assault. Students organized “Women of Dartmouth” panels where women shared very personal stories about their experiences at the college—from raw accounts of struggles with eating disorders to empowering anecdotes about coming out. Others put on student-run productions of the Vagina Monologues (like nearly every liberal college in the country). And many of us protested outside the office of Dean Thomas Crady to demand more spaces for women on campus and houses for sororities. We frequently talked with our male friends about what it is like to enter a frat basement—a social space dominated and, literally, owned by men. We were not, and are not, a silent group of victims.

But that is not the story Reitman wanted to tell. The real story would not have been nearly as juicy. And it certainly would not have provided the fodder for Felix Salmon’s utterly ridiculous article that questions the character of Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim and calls into doubt his ability to lead the World Bank—a position for which he was recently nominated by President Obama. Salmon’s comparison of Kim’s management of fraternities and sexual assault at Dartmouth to Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual behavior is almost comical. If anything, Kim should be recognized for understanding that attacking fraternities outright in his first two years at Dartmouth would not have gotten him anywhere. He has an outstanding history of leadership and service to the world’s poorest, most disenfranchised individuals and his time at Dartmouth does not change that. His career speaks for itself.

In any case, in considering the situation presented in Reitman’s piece, remember that there is more going on here than drunken, violent men abusing quiet, submissive girls. There are the women activists, of course, as well as the many students unaffiliated with the Greek system. There are even the frat brothers who have opted out of inhumane hazing practices and are trying to change Greek tradition from within. No one is excusing the dehumanizing behavior that Lohse and Reitman describe, but ignoring all the efforts of women and their allies to change the culture at Dartmouth is just another kind of violence in disguise. 

Caroline Esser is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

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