The Endless Cycle: Rituals and Physical Aggression
This section looks at ways that fraternities could break the perpetual cycle of conflict. It explores how rituals are passed from one generation to the next for the sake of tradition, but the power of their fraternal bonds is not necessarily linked to their rituals. How can they promote more constructive bonds in the future?
It can be argued that the above summary does not apply exclusively to males and that other groups also reflect similar patterns. It is possible that many group living arrangements experience the same events. Drawing from personal experience, I can say that similar power struggles existed at the mixed-gender student cooperative where I resided as part of my research. Indeed, many different cliques and hierarchies existed which tended to divide the house and cause power struggles.
Many of the charges directed at fraternities were also present at the cooperative, e.g., sexual harassment, destructive behavior, excessive alcohol abuse. Likewise, there was a great deal of rivalry between cooperative houses. However, fraternal bonding is significantly different than other living groups because of its degree of physical aggression and its use of particular all-male rituals. It is these two elements which best illustrates the “maleness” of male bonding or, at least, characterize the “fraternity” in fraternal bonding.
With the use of rituals, fraternity members construct a sense of unity and shared identity, however, the same rituals may stress the difference which divide them and set them apart from other groups, e.g., pledge group vs. non-pledge group, associate members vs. initiated members, own academic class vs. other academic class, own fraternity vs. rival fraternity. At times, these rituals can provoke aggression against a different group of men or the rituals may protect certain men against another group’s aggression. On offense or from self-defense, physical aggression is responded to with more physical aggression. Fraternity bonding rituals, in themselves, contain rules that promote or regulate aggressive behavior. For example, Red Belly Wars, Road Tripping, Showering, Case Raves, Putting-in-the-Hole, and Keg Raves all contain a symbolic or literal element of violence. These are named rituals that have been passed from one generation to the next, and have been made known to each member who then responds accordingly. Moreover, these rituals all contain the dynamic of dominance/submission in which each group or individual constructs identity, negotiates power, and establish a structure for living among themselves.
An example of a sorority ritual may put fraternities into perspective. In my informal interviews with sorority women, I have learned about a ritual called Candle Lighting. In this ceremony each member gathers in a circle and passes a candle around. After the candle has made a few complete circles it finally stops at a member who is to be recognized for some achievement, e.g., winning her boyfriend’s pledge pin, pregnancy, taking a new position in the sorority. This communal ritual is non-aggressive and supportive of the woman it is held for. In my research, I could not find a similar ritual in a fraternity house. Although sorority women certainly have their share of power struggles, their rituals do not seem to reflect it. In this way I can refer to my interpretation of male bonding as a male phenomenon.
Despite the potential for violence, some participants believe that physically aggressive rituals help create stronger bonds and that they prepare members for stronger attacks against them. To a degree, a little friction can be used to reinforce a bond. A couple gets into an argument; they work it out and become stronger. However, after a fraternity conflict is resolved, the same divisions exist among them. A member is still divided by pledge class, academic class, or whatnot. A fraternity house may still be a rival after patching up the tension brought on by a fist-fight. Since these divisions and categories have been constructed a month themselves, and are reinforced in traditional bonding rituals, the same power struggles will continue to rise again.
In fact, the conflicts are inherited from one generation to the next until somebody finally decides to break the cycle. Although power will always be a process of negotiation, fraternity problems will never be worked out until they change the structure that they have created to govern male bonding. Moreover, these male bonding patterns can have long-term impact on fraternity members after they have graduated.
The endless cycle persists even after members no longer participate in the same fraternity rituals. In their future relationships and power struggles, fraternity members might resort to past male bonding patterns for negotiating social order, e.g., physical aggression, secretly. These patterns might manifest in different forms, e.g., alcoholism, dysfunctional families, domestic abuse, homophobia, poor father-to-son relationships. Being that men are the largest perpetuators of violence, and that men experience a high rate of violent assaults, it would be to the interest of fraternity members to eliminate rituals that promote physical aggression. The pattern of physical aggression can be carried into adulthood to resolve conflict or to gain power. Likewise, that pattern of secrecy can prevent men from learning more positive forms of communication. The endless cycle persists even after fraternity membership.
Male bonding patterns, with the use of certain rituals, ultimately serve to perpetuate gender roles. According to Patricia Yancey Martin and Robert Hummer (1993), fraternity members try to “avoid any suggestion of ‘wimpiness’, effeminacy, and homosexuality,” while encouraging a narrow conception of hyper-masculinity that “stresses competition,, athleticism, dominance, winning, conflict, wealth, material possessions, willingness to drink alcohol, and sexual prowess vis-à-vis women” (117). Although such ideals can exist prior to membership, masculine gender roles are often reinforced by fraternity rituals. In my research, I did not ask participants to define “male” or to outline the attributes of a “real man,” but many fraternity rituals did reflect Martin and Hummer’s description.
Most of the fraternity rituals discussed in this research include the elements of competition, dominance, winning, conflict, and the use of alcohol. The physical exchange in these rituals are based on aggression and not on affection. By incorporating these traits into their bonding rituals, members collectively define male gender roles. As a result, members can consider hazing, fighting, property destruction, excessive competition, and sexual coercion as normal masculine behavior. Unfortunately, many of these patterns exist even after membership.
This research focuses on male-to-male relationships, however women also play a significant role in the male bond. In the form of patriarchy, men have benefited from the control and domination of women. Women can also become the mutual targets shared by men to bridge the factors that divide them, e.g., race, class, status, fear of homosexuality. By living in an all-male household, fraternity members help maintain patriarchy and preserve traditional gender roles. At public universities, fraternities are one of the few organizations that are still allowed to segregate by gender. The absence of women allows fraternity members to behave in “masculine” ways that would be unacceptable in their presence. In the resulting bond, members emphasize a “stereotyped conception of women and femininity, and the treatment of women as commodities” (Martin & Hummer 127).
In this research, some participants discussed rituals that attempt to dominate women, e.g., sexual assault, woman bashing, watching pornography as a group, and Cock Blocking. In their mutual participation in these rituals fraternity members help to preserve a traditional gender order. Upon graduation, these beliefs can shape a fraternity member’s future relationships with women and can be passed from father-to-son in an endless cycle. In the words of one participant, the vicious cycle of sexism ultimately hurts themselves.
If I could change the woman bashing I would do it. What guys don’t realize is that when they bash women they are eventually only hurting themselves, because that is going to take them to the next step when they get out of college and get married, and they haven’t developed any civil respect for women. They are using them. They are going to have dysfunctional families. The cycle will just repeat itself again. The son of a bitch just carries over, so if you developed those habits when you are in school and learning, you will just take them into adulthood, and apply them to your kid, and he will end up doing the same stupid ass shit that you did. (The World is Mine)
If members are to learn to communicate in their adult relationship, with both men and women, then they must be able to build trust without secret handshakes, oaths, or rituals. For male bonding to be positive, it must allow individuals to break the endless cycle without penalty. If the fraternal bond is too weak to survive without physical aggression, than it might not have been so strong enough in the first place. Likewise, if a male bond depends on female-exclusion, than it hold questionable value for the times in which men and women come together. The ultimate cost of fraternity male bonding patterns is that the cycle repeats itself. The message of power and competition is passed from one fraternity member to another, and the resulting habits are passed from one generation to the next in an endless cycle.