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Is it time to change our thinking on fraternities?

Updated 10:32 AM ET, Mon February 18, 2019

Editor's Note: Alexandra Robbins is a journalist and author of multiple books, including "Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities" and the new book "Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men." The views expressed here are the author's. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - "We're going to talk about this. I know you don't want to, and it sucks right now, but tell me about him."

That's what a fraternity brother said to Oliver, (a pseudonym for) a sophomore I followed for a year for my new book, after Oliver learned a close friend had died and went to his room alone. In the wake of that loss, Oliver withdrew. But his fraternity brother was worried, and he took action.

Although Oliver was initially reluctant to open up, the discussion soothed him. And when the rest of his brothers heard the news, they immediately took over his house chores so he could have more space to work through his grief. It may surprise some to learn that it was because of his fraternity that Oliver learned to be comfortable confiding emotionally to friends in a way that he told me he would not have if his group were co-ed.

Most all-male institutions don't have reputations as sites of emotional growth. As the misleading term "toxic masculinity" dominates the news, colleges are sounding a clarion call to abolish all-male groups, fraternities often the most notorious among them. But during years spent reporting for a book on fraternities, I learned that eliminating all of them could deprive good people of important social resources that many schools otherwise do not provide. Women's, multicultural and LGBTQ centers admirably facilitate valuable opportunities for many students. However, college men -- whether racial minorities, LGBTQ, or straight and white -- need supportive, inclusive communities, too.

Does that sound controversial? It shouldn't. No matter their background, college guys are mostly teenagers, often vulnerable, living away from home for the first time.

Fraternity members are not all decent guys. But most of them are. The healthiest part of good fraternities is the side the public doesn't see. I spoke with brothers -- like Oliver -- who interpreted the goal of making their brothers "better men" as helping them to become better people. They believed it was their responsibility to hold brothers to high standards of tolerance and cooperation. They were able to create a subculture in which members were rewarded for being good guys. They embraced minority, gay, bisexual and nonbinary members and didn't pressure each other to hook up. They encouraged members to open up to each other and to give unconditional support. Some students told me that their fraternity friendships and accountability saved their lives.

But the public, the media and universities seem to have a prejudice against all-male groups -- even if the groups express masculinity in non-"toxic" ways. Some of that prejudice naturally stems from highly publicized incidents of hazing, assault or alcohol abuse associated with some all-male groups, including fraternities.

Part of the problem may stem from confusion about what "masculinity" is supposed to mean. Much has been said about the American Psychological Association's recent new guidelines and the Gillette Super Bowl ad, both of which debuted in January. But a semantics problem is clouding the issues. The dominant media narrative has conflated "toxic" masculinity with "traditional" masculinity. And while the phrase "toxic masculinity" was popularized as a way to describe gender role limitations on men, today many people misconstrue it as a description of men who are violent toward women.

Both toxic masculinity and traditional masculinity are confusing -- even insulting -- terms that should be changed or abandoned. But many men don't realize this because our education system largely doesn't teach students that there are a variety of ways to be masculine. Instead, male students often feel pressured to conform to stereotypes instead of being themselves.

Certainly, the best way to teach young men about masculinities (plural) is not to abolish all-male campus groups. In December, a coalition of fraternities, sororities, and students sued Harvard because of its policy of penalizing unrecognized single-gender group members by denying them campus leadership roles and endorsements for major scholarships. Harvard announced the de facto ban after the university's Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention denounced campus finals clubs for having "deeply misogynistic attitudes," connected them to sexual assault issues and lumped fraternities in with the clubs.

Because of common expectations that men should be stoic, during adolescence, when masculine stereotypes sink in, many boys reluctantly distance themselves from intimate friendships. But close, solid friendships might be even more important for boys' psychological adjustment than for that of girls. University of Maine psychologist Cynthia Erdley found that low quality of friendships was associated with loneliness and depression only for boys. While her study focused on younger boys, she told me her findings "suggest that boys, who generally have lower quality friendships than girls, are left more vulnerable to psychological difficulties when they have less supportive, intimate friendship experiences." The biggest danger, Erdley added, "is that boys do not get the support they need from their friends, and this leaves them vulnerable to loneliness, anxiety, and depression symptoms. And males are more likely to lash outward when they are depressed."

A solution, according to several experts, is to give boys a safe space in which to form healthy and intimate friendships with other boys and to learn that there are many healthy ways to be a man. But universities largely aren't providing those spaces. Good fraternities do. At their best, fraternities help teach members how to share their thoughts and feelings and encourage them to rely on and communicate with other guys. Some brotherhood rituals even script opportunities to express emotions and to ask for help. For example, members of one national fraternity told me that because the ninth value in their Code of Conduct is "I am my brother's keeper," some chapters teach brothers to say, "I need a number-nine favor" whether they need help understanding a concept in class or a sympathetic ear to listen to their woes.

Few non-Greeks realize that many of these all-male groups are encouraging boys to participate in activities -- such as confiding in and comforting peers -- that some people would consider un-masculine but that everyone should consider human. And the guys are healthier for it. As colleges weigh whether to eliminate all-male groups, they should also assess whether their schools provide other safe spaces in which guys can comfortably open up to other guys. If they don't, they should take steps to address this gap.

Meanwhile, it's time to advocate for the boys who aren't causing trouble. Rather than destroying all-male groups, Harvard and other schools instead could remove egregious offenders and require reforms that would reward and maintain the healthy organizations. More of them exist than you'd think, given the headlines. It's imperative that we attempt to comprehend and alleviate the pressures faced by teenage boys in twenty-first-century America -- and acknowledge that even fraternity brothers struggle with them, too.


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