The intersection of excessive drinking, fraternity culture, and sometimes-violent misogyny has been highlighted in recent weeks, given the controversy surrounding Yale University graduate and Delta Kappa Epsilon brother Brett Kavanaugh. Many accounts have emerged linking DKE in general—and Kavanaugh in particular—with heavy drinking and abusive behavior. Sunday night, HBO's John Oliver referred to him as "Judge Animal House."
Before the toga-party clichés start circulating, it's worth looking at the research and asking: Does fraternity membership encourage such behavior, or simply enable it? In other words, are hard-drinking, groping-prone guys attracted to fraternities, or does fraternity life shape them in that unfortunate direction?
New research suggests the answer is: probably both.
In a timely new study, Adam McCready of Salem State University reports both the level of alcohol consumption, and the level of hyper-masculinity that defines a fraternity's culture, varies enormously from one chapter to another. He also finds a strong link between the two.
Comparing the attitudes of 76 chapters of the same fraternity at different universities across the United States and Canada, he found a relationship between the amount of drinking members indulge in, and the degree to which homosexuality is perceived as bad or shameful by chapter members.
Altogether, 44 percent of the difference in alcohol consumption between chapters can be attributed to their culture regarding this issue. Basically, if you as a member are expected to act in stereotypically masculine ways, you're at a higher risk of drinking heavily and habitually.
The study, in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, analyzed the results of a large-scale survey of undergraduate members of a major fraternity (which is unnamed in the paper). Altogether, 2,678 members from 76 colleges or universities participated.
All were asked a series of questions about their alcohol consumption, including how frequently they drink, how many drinks they have at a session, and how often they binge drink.
They also filled out a detailed questionnaire designed to discover the extent to which they conform to traditional masculine norms. These norms include emotional control ("I never share my feelings"), winning ("In general, I will do anything to win"), sexual adventurousness ("If I could, I would frequently change sexual partners"), and violence ("I am willing to get into a physical fight if necessary").
One group of questions focused on "heterosexual self-presentation," or the perceived need to emphasize one's macho qualities. Participants noted the degree to which they agreed with statements such as "I would be uncomfortable if someone thought I was gay" and "I try to avoid being perceived as gay."
McCready created composite scores for each participant, as well as overall scores for each chapter. The latter indicate the culture of the chapter, which members often feel pressured to conform to.
He reports members of chapters with a strong affirm-your-straightness culture were more likely to drink heavily than those in less-homophobic chapters. As noted earlier, this effect was quite large, explaining 44.2 percent of chapter-to-chapter variation in alcohol use.
"Alcohol consumption may serve as a mechanism for members of chapters with homophobic climates to maintain and prove their masculinity," he writes. Drinking may also increase "their willingness to be intimate with their peers, and engage in other perceived 'feminine' behaviors that would otherwise be acceptable in homophobic chapters."
McCready emphasizes that this atmosphere is just one factor that contributes to heavy drinking. "Individual differences in conformity to traditional masculine norms may better explain the drinking behaviors of fraternity men than collective masculine-norm climates," he writes.
He adds that other relevant experiences include "their pre-college socialization"—such as the drinking that was allegedly rampant at the exclusive prep school Kavanaugh attended before being admitted to Yale.
So, it seems some male students who love beer are indeed drawn to fraternities—and the sexist culture at some fraternity chapters apparently exacerbates this proclivity. It's hard to "just say no" in an atmosphere where you're expected to assert your masculinity, and drinking is a conspicuous way to do just that.