Feminizing fraternities

Short of banning fraternities in order to put an end to their violent proclivities, it may be worth considering the idea of opening their membership to women.  Of course, we expect the traditional fraternities to say they would rather disband themselves than admit women into their male-bonded organizations.

Such reactions are to be expected.  They are fueled by the obsolete idea that the vigor and purity of exclusively male domains would be compromised by the entry of women as members.  We heard the same objections when the idea of making the Philippine Military Academy co-educational was first proposed.  But look where the PMA is today; that is why it must warm the hearts of feminists that this year’s class baron is a woman.

The hope that human communities led by women would be less prone to aggressive and violent behavior rests on the view that violence is largely perpetrated by men.  In a recent essay, “Women and the Evolution of World Politics”, Francis Fukuyama cites the work of two psychologists who surveyed the existing literature on differences between the sexes.  They found very little agreement on what could be regarded as definitive characteristics of men and women.

“On one issue, however,” says Fukuyama, “there was virtually no disagreement in the hundreds of studies on the subject: namely, that boys were more aggressive, both verbally and physically, in their dreams, words, and actions than girls.  One comes to a similar conclusion by looking at crime statistics.  In every known culture, and from what we know of virtually all historical time periods, the vast majority of crimes, particularly violent crimes, are committed by men.”

Indeed, if one looks at the history of the University of the Philippines, where there have been more deaths from fraternity hazing and rumbles than in any other school, one would not find a single record of a sorority or a female student figuring in the same type of activities.  It is simply unthinkable.

But my friend and colleague, sociology professor Ric Zarco, who has studied fraternity rumbles, tells me that opening up fraternities to women would not necessarily make them less violent.  He cites instances when knives, lead pipes, and pillboxes were brought into the buildings by women acting as auxiliaries for fratmen during rumbles. But it may be different, I argued, if women become the leaders of fraternities. They could “move the very agenda of politics away from male preoccupations with hierarchy and domination.”

My hope and belief is that women would make fraternities less violent and aggressive, less dependent for recognition on supremacy in rumbles, and less interested in measuring camaraderie by one’s capacity to endure physical hazing.  What I am less sure about, however, is whether feminizing fraternities might not just provoke the emergence of more violent underground male-bonded gangs.

This is also where Fukuyama parts ways with feminists.  “Some feminists talk as if gender identities can be discarded like an old sweater, perhaps by putting young men through mandatory gender studies courses when they are college freshmen….But socialization can accomplish only so much.…Male tendencies to band together for competitive purposes, seek to dominate status hierarchies, and act out aggressive fantasies toward one another can be rechanneled but never eliminated.”

Male tendencies?  As a sociologist, I have always thought that these were products of culture and society, which would be erased as soon as the culture and institutions of patriarchy are abolished.  But citing recent studies from evolutionary biology and primatology, Fukuyama argues that, “male bonding is in fact genetic and predates the human species.”  This is a quality that we humans share alone with chimpanzees, he says — “to live in male-bonded, patrilineal communities in which groups of males routinely engage in aggressive, often murderous raiding of their own species.”

If Fukuyama is correct, that male aggressiveness is rooted more in biology than in patriarchal culture, then the murderous inclinations that we have seen on full display in recent fraternity-related violence in the UP campus could be harder to check.  As Fukuyama warns:  “What is bred in the bone cannot be altered easily by changes in culture and ideology.”

In Fukuyama’s view, the containment of the aggressive energy of its young men remains one of the biggest problems of every society. From this perspective, one can understand the tremendous problem that a university like UP faces, for having in its care easily the largest concentration of the country’s most aggressively competitive young people.  The challenge is to create alternative paths into which the energy, particularly of its male students, can be safely channeled. Competitive sports is the favored route of many schools, but it may not be adequate for UP.  In the late 60’s and 70’s, political activism did provide a new avenue for youthful commitments and energies, which is the reason why during this period, the fraternities nearly expired from irrelevance.

We cannot be content, says Fukuyama, with just displacing these energies from the inside to the outside; these violent and aggressive impulses have to be constrained “through a web of norms, laws, agreements, contracts, and the like.”  I do not accept Fukuyama’s view of an unchangeable human nature.  But I agree that violence has to be ritualized, compacts have to be forged, and rules strictly enforced, so that the strength that is now wasted in frat rumbles and senseless hazing may be harnessed instead in the building of the nation.


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