Nearly one in every eight U.S. male college students belongs to a social or cultural fraternity.
But that wasn't the case 40 years ago, when fewer than 5 percent of young college men belonged to one of the male-only membership organizations, which are collectively referred to as the "Greek system" because fraternities are named after letters of the Greek alphabet.
But just as Greek life seemed to be dying out in the late 1970s, the movie Animal House was released. Not only did the raunchy comedy about a hard-drinking fraternity become a blockbuster, it also helped redefine the expectations American students had for their college years.
“Animal House totally glorified the fraternity experience and made students think that that was the ideal way to experience college," says Alexandra Robbins, author of the new book Fraternity: An Inside Look At a Year of College Boys Becoming Men.
In 1984, five years after Animal House made it onto the big screen, President Ronald Reagan signed a law requiring states to raise the drinking age to 21 in order to avert a cut in their federal highway funds. All of the states complied.
"Raising of the drinking age in the early 1980s didn’t shift how much students drink so much as it shifted where students drank," Robbins says. "They went to the fraternity houses because they weren’t supervised by adults in there. And so, that’s how fraternities became the main purveyors of under-age alcohol in the country.”
By that time, fraternities were already associated with sexual exploration. That came about in the 1950s when the term "homosexual" became more widely known and members of fraternities, who lived and socialized with each other, were eager to showcase their heterosexuality.
“To try to prove they weren’t gay, even though some of them were, many fraternity men began loudly boasting about their sexual conquests over women," Robbins says. "Fraternities had not been about that until the mid 20th century, and that’s kind of stuck with them.”
That history — along with more recent news stories about deadly hazing rituals, binge drinking, sexual harassment or assault, and hard partying — are why many Americans, particularly parents, have come to view fraternity houses as potentially toxic environments.
Robbins cites grim statistics in her book. From 2010 to 2017, 72 young men died in incidents involving fraternities, 17 of them from hazing involving drinking, humiliation, isolation, sleep deprivation, and sex acts. About 2,000 incidents involving sexual assault, hazing, death, racism, alcohol abuse violence, and vandalism were reported between 2010 and 2018.
But Robbins says not all fraternities are about hard drinking and bad behavior. Statistics show that "low-risk" fraternities, which can include houses that take philanthropy and diversity seriously, are no different from the general student body when it comes to issues such as sexual assault and drinking.
She says the fraternities can play a key role in helping young men transition from high school to college and into adulthood.
“The most important thing that these groups are offering to young men that the universities aren’t necessarily providing are comfortable safe spaces that encourage brothers [members] to be vulnerable in front of other guys," she says, "to feel like they have people to talk to who will listen to them about their concerns about anything from girlfriends to what it means to be a man today.”
Many young men don't otherwise find the on-campus support they need, according to Robbins. While there are often specific support resources for a variety of subgroups — women's centers, multicultural centers, and LGBTQ centers — there are no men's centers.
“There is a gap in media coverage in terms of how we look at boys and young men," Robbins says. "People either assume that they’re fine or they’re safe or they’re privileged simply because they’re male, when it fact we’re talking about kids who are just as vulnerable and lonely and sometimes anxious...just like any other students and I think sometimes boys get stereotyped and demonized because of their gender and it’s time that we change our view on that and reach out to them.”
For now, she says, many fraternities are filling the gap, trying to provide a comfortable, healthy space where boys can learn there’s more than one way to be a man.