This was a bad week for fraternities: after a racist video from the University of Oklahoma’s now-shuttered Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity went viral, it created a controversy both on campus and nationally. The two men in the video were expelled, and the University of Oklahoma has been filled with protests. The controversy over what is a pretty clear-cut case has moved into the absurd world of punditry, wherein rapper Waka Flocka Flame’s cancellation of his upcoming show apparently demonstrated that the fraternity’s chants about lynching were somehow the fault of Flame and hip hop as a whole.
The fact is that fraternity culture is toxic, and has been for decades. There have been many examples of excellent reporting on this subject over the years, so here are five stories that explore the ways in which fraternity culture veers from its ethos — a brotherly good time — into tales that are gross and disturbing.
“Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy,” Rolling Stone, March 2012
Famously, Dartmouth was the inspiration for Animal House, the 1978 John Belushi comedy classic about a wild college fraternity. In this Janet Reitman article, we see just what kind of influence the fraternity life really has on Dartmouth’s culture. A former SAE brother, Andrew Loshe, is vilified by writing an op-ed that states: “I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beer poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks… among other abuses.”
“Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: A Gross Excerpt From Dartmouth Tell-All,” Rolling Stone, August 2014
Yet Andrew Loshe, the subject of Reitman’s previous piece, did get something out of his frat-boy notoriety: a book deal. In this short excerpt from the memoir, we hear frat boys yelling “Whale shit!” and getting their pledges wasted in order to swim in the disgusting kiddie pool filled with all varieties of filth (human, in Loshe’s account; just gross vinegar and stuff like that, according to the vilified brothers).
“SAE Proudly Touts Association to the Confederacy on Its Website,” Think Progress, March 2015
The case of SAE’s racist video in Oklahoma is not an isolated incident; as this list by Ian Millhiser argues, SAE has a history and a culture of racism in its chapters. They’ve thrown gang-themed parties called “Cripmas,” and across the country, members of SAE have used slurs like the N-word in public. The fraternity’s site calls itself “the only national fraternity founded in the antebellum South.”
“Deadliest Frat’s Icy ‘Torture’ of Pledges Evokes Tarantino Films,” Bloomberg, December 2013
This report by David Glovin and John Hechinger goes deep into the torturous rituals of hazing that SAE pledges have to endure. According to one whistle-blower, he would have to stand naked in a trash can filled with ice as water was poured over his head; or stay in an empty basement for up to nine hours while a loud German rock song was blasted repeatedly.
“My Racist SAE Fraternity Brothers Broke My Heart,” Quartz, March 2015
In this heartbreaking essay, William Bruce James II, the second black man to be part of this Oklahoma chapter of SAE, 14 years ago, looks at what the SAE fraternity means to him now: “My sweet, innocent son saw the pain and anger in my eyes and I had a decision to make: a decision white Americans never have to face. Do I teach my four-year-old son about hatred today?”