Whenever I read or hear about a new student group or project that promotes the discussion of sexual assault and harassment, consent, and male privilege, I feel proud of my generation, my alma mater, and my fellow human beings; I become excited about the new and innovative ways students are looking to change society and change our world’s perceptions of gender, the deservedness of sex, and the value of women and their bodies; I become eager to learn about what I can do to not only disperse these positive messages in the modern world, but also to look back upon myself and question my own conditioning and socialization.
Projects that make individuals dedicate even one extra second to thinking about consent and issues of gender and power in modern day society are projects that indeed do some good for our world. However, I have recently come across one group that, while well intentioned, appears to have a rather distorted understanding of the reality of consent and male privilege.
The nonprofit organization “Consent is So Frat” was founded only one short month ago. For its mission, the group boasts, “Making consent and healthy relationships part of what it means to be a fraternity brother.” The group sounds promising; an organization that specifically targets fraternities in its efforts to bring consent culture and education to college campuses – what could be better than that? Based on its mission, “Consent is So Frat” appears to help fraternities question their own opinions, perceptions, actions, and conversations about sex and women and then begin to work towards those that better promote gender equality, respect, communication, and consent.
A quick scroll through the Facebook wall, however, tells me this is not the case. Tank tops that read, “Are you DTF? Consent is So Frat” and photo campaigns that showcase different groups of fraternity brothers holding signs broadcasting “Consent is So Frat,” tell me that rather than working towards radically changing the attitudes of fraternity brothers towards consent and sex, “Consent is So Frat” merely aims to equate fraternities with consent in the eyes of its peers. Hold a sign that says “Consent is So Frat” and you become part of the solution, not the problem. Hold a sign that says “Consent is So Frat” and you tell the world you believe in consent and a world free from sexual assault.
I understand that these campaigns aim to use trends and brands to equate consent with something that is popular and cool, and I acknowledge that this group succeeds in making consent a topic actively present in the minds of fraternity brothers. But I do find something very concerning and problematic in even the very title of this group; “Consent is So Frat” neither means “I Believe in Consent,” nor “I believe in consent and therefore I try to think about consent in all of my actions, thoughts, and words.” Instead, “Consent is So Frat” means, “Consent is, in the present, part of fraternity life and all of the men who belong to it.” And that is simply not the case.
I believe that every man who holds one of these signs believes in consent. However I also know — by interacting with them in relaxed environments and hearing what they say when they think they are behind closed doors — that what they believe and how they act are not always in line with one another. I applaud these men and am proud to see so many of them acknowledge the importance of consent in relationships, but acknowledgement is not enough. In order to see a decline in the number of sexual assaults on campus we need to see action: a change in the language men use to talk about women and a change in how college-age men view drunk girls (i.e. not as an “opportunity”).
“Consent is So Frat” operates under the notion that consent culture is something that is active in fraternities in the present and, in my opinion, this is one of the largest problems with this organization. How many other non-profit organizations function in the present? Most organizations work towards change and therefore operate in the future. Whether they concern themselves with cancer, HIV, domestic violence, hunger, or animal abuse, they explain, “These conditions we have in the present are detrimental to our society and harmful to individuals who live in it; we must therefore find ways to change them and to work towards a better future.”
If an organization does not operate in the future, it cannot challenge its own values and ideas and learn to improve them. If an organization does not operate in the future, how is it anything more than a mere PR campaign, simply self-promoting its own brand? If consent is already “so frat” and already a part of fraternity life, what work do we have left to do? How can we end the trend of sexual assaults taking place in fraternity houses or at the hands of fraternity brothers? Promoting the value of fraternity life as opposed to acknowledging its grave faults and working from the ground up to solve them, one by one, exhibits the reality that members of this group may believe in the value of consent, but they are not willing to put forth the hard work necessary to constantly educate themselves and actively make consent a value of fraternity life in the future.
At their core, fraternities are spaces of gender-based segregation. At their core, fraternities are exclusive groups united around brotherhood and maleness, and in this society, being a male holds power and privilege. Consent is not power and privilege; consent is individual and personal. Consent is not exclusive and segregated; consent is a basic, universal human right. Consent is not “so frat”– it does not depend on the existence of fraternities–but should fraternities continue to exist, it is vital that they begin to participate in consent culture.
Participation however, requires breaking down societal norms, expectations of sex, and notions of gender and power. It requires reflection on and self-awareness about one’s own position in society and one’s socialization and participation in a world rooted in patriarchy and sexism. It requires not defense, but acceptance of failure, and the willingness to learn how to make consent not the focus of a tank top or a photo campaign, but every word one chooses to utter, every site one decides to visit, and every encounter one chooses to engage in. Changing a mindset is exhausting. Changing the mindset of hundreds of men across the country and the world is even more so. But looking towards change is active and it is powerful and it is the only way to truly make consent a part of what it means to be a fraternity brother in the future.
Kirby Sokolow is a member of the class of 2014.