Be careful.

Frat Boys, Drunken Girls and Paternalism

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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Given the mounting concern about sexual assault on college campuses, you might expect activists to welcome a fraternity adviser's message that Greek houses should take positive steps to protect inebriated women from potential dangers.

You'd be wrong. Apparently it's not enough to watch out for the welfare of drunken young women. You have to do so without suggesting that they, rather than the diabolical forces of fraternity life, have any responsibility for their intoxication -- even if they arrive at a party plastered. Judging, or even acknowledging, the risky behavior of female college students has become a cultural taboo.

Hence the fate of Forbes.com contributor Bill Frezza, who briefly published a column -- under the deliberately provocative headline "Drunk Female Guests Are The Gravest Threat To Fraternities" -- warning fraternities to watch out for female party guests who show up intoxicated. "I don't care how pretty or flirtatious a young lady is; if she's visibly intoxicated, don't let her in," he wrote. The consequences, he warned, could be grave:

Alcohol poisoning due to overconsumption before, during, or after an event. Death or grievous injury as a result of falling down the stairs or off a balcony. Death or grievous injury as a result of a pedestrian or traffic accident as the young lady weaves her way home. False accusation of rape months after the fact triggered by regrets over a drunken hook-up, or anger over a failed relationship. And false 911 calls accusing our members of gang rape during a party in progress. (Yes, this happened, resulting in seven police cars and thirty officers storming the chapter house.)

The column was almost immediately jerked from the site, and Frezza, who has written for Forbes since 2011, was summarily fired. (Forbes columns are essentially blog posts, put up by their contributors without editing. Contributors are paid based on traffic, which may account for the headline and equally designed-to-outrage stock photo.)

Commentators were outraged that Frezza -- a man! -- appealed to the self-interest of fraternity members, and addressed the subject from their perspective rather than tackling broader issues of morality or condemning the decadence of Greek life. "Blaming the problem on other people and taking zero time for self-reflection is exactly how fraternities arrived at their punchline status in the first place," wrote Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan. Jezebel represents the same lack of introspection -- with the same punchline results -- among well-educated young women.

Read coolly, Frezza's rhetorical strategy is clear. Although provocative, the column wasn't just link bait. An adviser to his old Massachusetts Institute of Technology fraternity, which Frezza has described as "the central institution of my life," he was trying to scare young men into monitoring the behavior of wildly intoxicated young women, despite the immediate temptations they present. "It is precisely those irresponsible women that the brothers must be trained to identify and protect against, because all it takes is one to bring an entire fraternity system down," he warned.

His argument wasn't tactful or considerate of women's feelings. It was condescending. But kids who get falling-down, throwing-up, passing-out drunk have forfeited the respect due to grown-up women (or men, for that matter). The best they can expect is paternalistic protection from harm, and that's essentially what the column prescribed.

Nor was Frezza arguing for a double-standard. To the contrary, the column assumed that fraternities currently tolerate outrageously drunken women while largely excluding similarly intoxicated men. Frezza may be naive in his faith in fraternity rules governing member behavior, as opposed to drunken outsiders, but he isn't arguing that women should be held to a higher standard of temperance.

The reaction to the piece was entirely overwrought. You'd think Frezza had called for getting women drunk and raping them rather than suggesting that fraternity members escort intoxicated women out of the party and put them safely in cabs. As we're constantly reminded in the context of sexual consent, a drunken woman is not a responsible adult. She needs someone to watch out for her safety, whether to guard her from accidents or from assault. Getting frat boys to act as protectors rather than predators, even out of raw self-interest, seems like a positive step.

Frezza's real target, in his ill-fated column and an earlier one, was the excessively high drinking age and the dangerous, pervasive binge-drinking culture it has encouraged:

The best way to reduce the incentive to furtively chug half a bottle of vodka before going out for a night of fun is by lowering the drinking age to 18 while encouraging the consumption of beer over distilled spirits. Alas, this is not going to happen any time soon. And so, any time a fraternity hosts an open party, wet or dry, brothers must assume that the house will be filled with ticking time bombs.

Whatever the causes, "partying" defined as dangerous levels of intoxication has become a staple of campus life. There's a reason college physicians are experts on concussions and spend their Mondays repairing bones broken over the weekend. The drunken revelers who suffer these injuries don't deserve them, but neither are they entirely without fault.

The worst you can say about Frezza is that he's naive about the competition for frat house prestige, which depends a great deal on who can promise attractive, available women. Drunken female guests aren't welcomed into parties because it's socially unacceptable or politically incorrect to keep them out. They're let in because frat boys think drunken girls make parties fun.

Nobody wants college students, male or female, to get hurt. But there's a big difference between trying to ensure foolish young women's safety and taking offense at suggestions that they present dangers to themselves and others, including men. Self-styled feminists hurt the cause of women when they identify so strongly with teenagers who won't govern their drinking behavior -- and when they treat even raising such concerns as beyond the pale.

By taking a long view of risks and rewards, Frezza's column was an attempt to change how fraternities view their self-interest. Instead, it revealed how deeply young women -- or the Internet voices who speak for them -- are invested in the right to get wasted without condemnation or consequence.

  1. The chapter's homepage now carries the note, "We do not share the sentiments expressed in the article by Bill Frezza."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net