Content note: this piece contains quotes which are graphically sexual, sexist, and racist, as well as quotes which endorse rape.
There are numerous allegations of sexism against fraternities; men who join are three times more likely to commit rape, even though they are no more likely to commit rape before joining. This makes you wonder just what these men are saying behind closed doors, a question that becomes particularly pressing when you consider that fraternity culture doesn’t magically dissolve upon graduation: it becomes incorporated into bastions of power that include Wall Street firms and billion-dollar companies as fraternity members disproportionately assume leadership roles in society.
It’s of course difficult for a woman to know how fraternity men talk when they’re alone. (My friends vetoed my plans to subpoena a fraternity’s emails or “fall asleep” at a fraternity party and listen to what happened.) But there is a public data source that claims to capture fraternity culture: the website Total Frat Move (TFM), which receives more than 1.2 million monthly visitors. The site covers all aspects of fraternity life, but its “Girls” section posts pictures of women for site users to comment on. I statistically analyzed the more than sixteen thousand comments on the Girls section. Most posts fell into one of three categories. 56% were “Instagram Babes of the Day”, containing Instagram photos of a single woman; 14% were collections of topless photos (careful where you open that); 17% were collections of photos from a particular sorority. To provide context for my analysis of the comments, I also contacted fraternity men who posted on the site and fraternity men I knew socially.
While TFM does not provide a perfectly representative sample of fraternity members (and non-fraternity members can comment on the site), it does provide a far larger sample than, for example, a story about a sexual assault at a single fraternity. It represents a substantial slice of fraternity culture. To give you a taste of what wins you approval on this site, here are some of the comments about women which got the most upvotes.
“There’s just something about those knee-high socks that screams ‘I do anal’.”
“10/10 would do… 0/10 would take home to mom.”
“When I think of all the money I could save by marrying that ass and not having to buy tits or a brazzers membership, it’s really just prudent investing.”
“I bet her butthole tastes like fruit loops.”
“She looks like her life will consist of manicures, attending her children’s equestrian events, and country club fundraiser dinner parties.”
“9/10 would follow from a safe distance.”
“Dear Santa, I can explain… My dad wasn’t around much.”
“I’ll say it, she’s getting fat. Those Hindenburg’s are great, but the tit-to-waist ratio is way off.”
“She really needs to stop fucking around and just get fully nude.”
“Someone tell Kelly that I’ve seen her butt, and I’ll pee there as soon as I can…”
“Look, it’s not like this site could piss feminists off anymore than it already does. Can you just get rid of the fucking sailboats and let us see some nipple?”
“Am I the only one who thinks an American flag somewhere on a women automatically makes her 10 times hotter?”
“Why do some of these girls think it’s ok to take pictures with zits on their boobs and asses? I can’t unsee that shit.”
The most frequently mentioned body part is “ass” (outnumbering “smile” 25 to 1, and “eyes” by 10 to 1), followed by “tits”; “face” comes in third, followed by “butt” and “boobs”. After reading these comments, I had two questions:
2. Why do women submit their pictures to this site?
As you can perhaps guess, I went into this project with a strong distrust of both TFM and fraternities in general. I came out, however, both enjoying my conversations with every fraternity man I spoke to and fascinated by the complex and contradictory world they inhabited. Some of the men I talked to were more fluent in feminist tropes than I was. When I asked one if men ever tried to “steal” girls from each other at parties, he gently chided me, “The very language of your question reveals the problematic views on women that lead to sexual assault."
Most fraternity men I spoke to agreed that while men were much cruder when they were talking only to other men, they were not as crude in person as TFM implied. One said that fraternity men were more willing to push boundaries online, on the fraternity email lists, even though it created a permanent record and some of them planned to run for political office.
I got a contrary perspective from one of the widest-read authorities on fraternity culture: Tucker Max, who achieved notoriety by writing New York Times bestsellers chronicling his drunken hookups.
“Of course frat guys talk like that. I would say the overwhelming amount of men AND women talk to their friends in ways that would shock people if they were displayed to the world...” Tucker told me. “You have to remember that young guys are basically animals that can talk. I don't mean that literally of course, but the developmental psych evidence is very clear; most young men have vastly underdeveloped empathy, compassion, and other higher order thinking capabilities as compared to women their age. If you make it a rule to assume that a guy under about 25 probably thinks like a sociopath, then you're going to be more right than wrong.”
Okay then. Of course, Tucker’s perspective is also influenced by his own debaucherous experience. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between: as one TFM commenter told me, “I do think the vibe and attitude is not far off from how fraternity guys actually talk, but it's much less exaggerated and embellished in real life.”
Why do they talk this way? Several fraternity members emphasized the strong role of social norms within fraternities. One explained that fraternities seemed to create feedback loops that produced more extreme behavior (both positive and negative) because people did not want to disappoint their friends. Another explained that members would deliberately say edgy things in order to win approval, and that younger members might try to win status by pushing boundaries.
One man told me that sexually explicit commentary was encouraged within fraternities because social standing was tied to sexual prowess; men who could not get women, or who hooked up with women deemed unattractive, were mocked. He described how members of his fraternity would congregate for hungover Sunday sessions where they detailed their sexual exploits from the night before. (These stories sometimes clashed with reality: a guy would claim he had had “amazing” sex with a girl and spent the night with her, when other members knew he had never gone home with her at all because they had seen her at another party entirely.) One TFM commenter described how these discussions served as bonding rituals, “one of the things guys can do that separates them from the girls. I think we feel like in a society that is currently trying to knock males, especially white males down a peg, this is a way we can all go to try to maintain our masculinity that in the 70s and 80s was so prevalent but now we're being told is wrong to have. I think we feel it's natural, biologically, to ogle girls and think things about them, and this is a place where we can let that out.”
Many men emphasized that comments on TFM were jokes or satire, although it was possible to go too far: for example, a commenter who made light of driving drunk was brutally criticized. The line often seemed arbitrary to me: sexism was obviously acceptable, as was racism (“She definitely has sex with multiple black guys at the same time” one commenter wrote about a woman; someone responded, “Once you go black, we don’t want you back”, and another, “Once you go black… You’re a single mom”). Rape comments were sometimes but not always okay: “No shame in how rapey I just felt…” one commenter wrote about a woman, to which someone responded, “Well there should be”; on the other hand, “Ramming is [sic] in her ass while she’s sleeping and bragging to your frat bros you get her to do anal,” received a dozen upvotes.
I am skeptical of the “just a joke” defense when it comes to problems as pervasive as rape, sexism, and racism. The difference between a rape joke and a dead baby joke is that while very few people kill babies, 5 - 10% of college men admit to committing rape. If a rape joke on TFM is read by 50 average college men and 50 average college women, there’s a 99% chance one of the men will have raped someone and an even higher chance one of the women will have been raped . This makes the joke slightly less funny. More importantly, jokes are not necessarily harmless one-liners that leave the listener unchanged: studies provide some evidence that hearing sexist jokes does make men more tolerant of rape.
I found the women of TFM even more interesting than the men: why would they submit their photos to the site? A TFM site administrator initially told me that the women volunteered, and several commenters told me that this made them more comfortable making crude comments -- perhaps the online equivalent of “she was asking for it”.
But not all the women volunteer. One of the women featured on the site told me that she had never heard of TFM before the site posted her pictures; possibly someone else had sent them in without telling her. While she was not upset by this, I found multiple cases in which the featured woman had subsequently made her profile private. (I took a random sample of women’s pages and found that roughly one in five had been taken down.) So TFM appears, in at least some cases, to be making money off the pictures of college women without their consent by posting them for thousands of anonymous viewers to ogle and abuse. At least some of the women are taking measures to protect their privacy after their pictures are posted on the site.
This is legal: if a woman doesn’t like having her Instagram photos on TFM, she can request that they be removed (a TFM administrator said that the site honored these requests) although it’s unclear how many of the women are actually aware of this option, or that their pictures have been used at all. The pictures could also propagate further: for example, the line between appearing on TFM and appearing on pornographic sites can be blurry. Many comments on TFM encourage the women to become porn stars, and several women who appeared on TFM also had their images appear on pornographic sites.
But while some women on TFM may have had their pictures used without consent, it seems unlikely that all of them have. There are good reasons to pursue such attention: it could increase a woman’s online presence or aid careers, like acting or modeling, that privilege physical beauty; separate from such rational calculations, not all women dislike crude sexual attention. (This is not to say catcalling women is ever acceptable, because many women do hate and feel threatened by it.)
So let’s dig a little deeper. Individual women can apply to be featured on the site in two places: as “Instagram Babes of the Day” or “TFM Sweethearts”. There are important differences between the two. First, TFM users can comment on the photos of Instagram Babes, but not on the photos of Sweethearts. Second, Sweethearts have profiles, and Instagram Babes do not. I analyzed the profiles of 181 Sweethearts in an effort to understand them. Two thirds were single; they overwhelmingly appeared to be white; they were most disproportionately likely to come from Nevada, Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, and South Carolina, and most frequently majored in Marketing, Psychology, Nursing, Communications, and Journalism. Most said they were planning to have careers: 30% mentioned further schooling in their post-graduation plans, and 40% mentioned work (only 9% mentioned marriage, children, or family). They were impressed by men with manners, which were more frequently mentioned than other popular answers like good conversation skills or a sense of humor (more than two dozen mentioned liking it when men opened doors).
So why were career-oriented women who valued manners above all volunteering as sweethearts for commenters who talked about peeing in women’s butts?
The women on the site were not eager to answer this question; though I contacted dozens, very few were willing to talk to me. One Sweetheart explained that Sweethearts were not a TFM invention; some real fraternities have had Sweethearts for over a century. A Sweetheart was “viewed like a member of the fraternity, privileged to wear their letters and learn some of their secrets...It’s a loftier position than dating the President or similar, and she's highly respected”. Perhaps it is this respect that makes TFM ban comments on the Sweethearts pages, even though it allows comments on the other women on the site: an administrator told me this kept the pages “clean”, which I guess is one way to put it.
I was struck by the many contradictions in fraternity culture: by the respectful lack of commentary on the Sweethearts, contrasting with the comments directed at the other women on the site; by the fraternity members who aspired to be gentlemen but spewed sexist vitriol; by the Sweethearts who admired chivalry, but nonetheless associated with such men; by the need to push boundaries to win social approval, but not to go too far; by the men who told me they loved their own fraternity, but thought fraternities in general were harmful; by the man who joked on TFM about girls’ daddy issues but addressed me via email as “ma’am”, and defended the site by saying:
“We do not have prejudices, regardless of what the satirical comments may lead others to believe...We address social and political issues, we help people who need help, we offer prayers for those who need them and we love our girls and will defend them to our dying day.”
The fact that fraternity men are often civil and thoughtful in isolation makes articles that dehumanize them simplistic. But the individual civility of fraternity men is if anything a criticism, not a defense, of fraternities. It’s a little like saying, of the characters in Lord of the Flies, “But they’re such nice boys individually!” If that’s true, then take them off the island.
My journalist friends tell me that this piece does not adhere to journalistic conventions -- for example, it includes anonymous quotes. So please take it as creative non-fiction, not as journalism.
 I am aware that surveys of sexual assault often have low response rates. But even surveys with high response rates imply that the frequency of rape on college campuses is high, as Shengwu Li and I discuss here.