Photo via Steve Snodgrass/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The shameful double standard behind punishing fraternities

Penn State and Oklahoma's fraternities both screwed up. Only one was expelled for it.

Mar 1, 2020, 7:36 am*

Internet Culture

Jaya Saxena 

Jaya Saxena

Earlier this week, the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity at Penn State University was placed on “full chapter suspension” by the Penn State Interfraternity Council after they had posted, among other things, photos of nude and unconscious women on two private Facebook pages. Police obtained a search warrant and searched several computers and Facebook pages, but by the time they did, the computers had been wiped. Still, they have about 20 photos, and according to a statement from IFC President Rick Groves, “The chapter will eventually undergo a Conduct Review Session and the appropriate sanctions will be determined.”

A few weeks ago, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at University of Oklahoma was disbanded, and two of its members expelled after a video surfaced in which its members were scream-singing an extraordinarily racist chant about lynching and never letting black students into their frat. There was swift action by the school’s president. “I hope that the entire nation will join us in having zero tolerance for such racism,” he said in a statement.

Is there a double standard going on here? Are the women of KDR’s Facebook page not getting justice the way the black men of SAE’s song did (if justice was even found there)? It would be easy to enter a racism v. sexism argument here, screaming over who is more maligned and whose plights are more ignored. 

This is not about who has it worse, because it’s bad all around, just in different ways. In the SAE video, there is no direct victim, and yes, technically they had every right to say the vile things they said. In KDR, the photos were of specific women, robbed of their consent, along with alleged photos of drug deals and other illegal things. Both actions were reprehensible and understood to be socially unacceptable, but only one was coupled with something illegal. And yet the illegal action seems to get the lighter punishment.

While KDR has no official social media policy, fraternity leadership consultant David Cooper published a paper to its members in 2012, that warned: “A picture’s worth a thousand words, videos even more, and they are almost never taken down. Media uploaded to the web and social networking sites in particular can have very harmful consequences to our image.” 

More than their image, it can be bad for their legal standing. The first of KDR’s Facebook pages was taken down after a victim found her photo on it and complained. Pennsylvania recently enactedrevenge porn” laws against posting nude photos of people without their consent (though some argue the scope is too narrow). The Facebook pages were being investigated by the police, and the fraternity is now under criminal investigation.

When there are criminal investigations and illegal activities taking place, there is protocol that must be followed. Penn State University President Renu Khator said, “Pending further investigation and due process, if the allegations prove to be true, those responsible will be subject to immediate disciplinary action.” But first, those allegations have to prove true, and until then, the members of KDR are sitting ducks who still get to live in their frat house.

What the members of SAE did on that bus was protected by the Constitution, as it did not suggest “imminent danger” to anyone, and some have argued that Oklahoma, as a state institution, broke the law by expelling two of its members. Some of the frat’s members are now considering legal action. What the university was responding to was not any illegal activity, but SAE’s very clear violation of the social rule that you should not be overtly racist in public, and in a lot of ways, that sort of outrage can be as powerful as the law. It doesn’t matter if it’s illegal or not—as a society, we’ve collectively agreed this is unacceptable public behavior. However, with no rules on the books there is no protocol. There’s no criminal investigation, no pending review, just a terrible media shitstorm, and a bunch of guys that clearly need to be punished for their actions, illegal or not.

The media shitstorm is perhaps why SAE was punished so harshly and so immediately. At Penn State, the evidence was there on social media, but so far, none of the victims’ photos have been published. It has stayed relatively quiet and rules are being followed, which is exactly what the university wants. At University of Oklahoma, there was no private page, there was no investigation, just an instance of racist activity that was probably very common, given the fraternity’s Confederate history, that was made public before the school could make any attempts to handle it without outside influence. The school knew it needed to act, and there was no precedent for punishment.

Both scandals deal heavily with the role colleges can and should play in non-academic situations. Both schools do not want their reputations affected by sexist or racist activity, but due to the nature of the crimes committed, they’ve gone about it differently. At Penn State, the school can comply with police officers since there is a criminal investigation, but as many sources, like the new documentary The Hunting Ground, point out, most of the time colleges want to deal with sexual assault internally. Girls are told to let it go, to not ruin another student’s life, and that they just might have brought it on themselves. Most of the time, the victims do not find justice, and the perpetrators are not punished.

It’s entirely likely that, had that bus of boys not been members of SAE, had they just been a group of friends with no academic or other affiliations caught singing that song, they would not have been punished at all. Socially, yes, plenty of people would think they’re assholes, but they would be unlikely to be punished by administration. Colleges can either provide some sense of justice when no other will be found or hinder it for their own protection, and there’s no guarantee which will occur.

In a recent interview, one member of KDR says the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. He admits to having been on the private Facebook pages, but never posting or liking any of the photos because he’s a “good guy.” However, he defends it, saying, “It’s not that it’s funny. But it’s just satire. … Nobody’s sitting there like, ‘Oh … how are we going to victimize these people?’” And that’s precisely the problem.

The fraternities’ actions have one fundamental thing in common. In both instances, the perpetrators thought they were safe. They knew it was unacceptable in public, and they were saying and posting the kinds of things they’d never say in “mixed company,” but among their frat brothers they figured they were understood, that they didn’t actually mean it. Maybe in their heart of hearts, the members of SAE hate black people, or maybe they’re just participating in the casual racism that festers in every crack of society. Maybe the members of KDR think women are objects that exist for their amusement and sexual pleasure, or maybe they thought they were participating in some version of “satire.” We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter.

Both scandals exist because, while it is not socially acceptable to be A Sexist or A Racist, it is still acceptable to casually participate in both behaviors, as long as it’s plausibly deniable, or as long as you don’t get caught. Despite singing what has to be the definition of a racist song, the members and family of SAE rush to claim that, no, they have not been able to find any of those racist bones everyone has been accusing them of having in their bodies. The boys in KDR say it was just a joke and that they were “misguided college kids” who didn’t mean any harm. In the interview, the member of KDR says, “There’s misdemeanors every day, thousands and thousands of little misdemeanors in every single community in the United States.” 

What are we going to do, he implies, make a big deal out of every one of them? Well, it’d be a start.

Photo via Steve Snodgrass/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Mar 19, 2015, 4:30 pm