TSIDE reporter Alex Larkin spent the first half of this academic year studying in America at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. Here he investigates the strange goings on of a typical Fraternity House and just exactly what it means to be a member of a frat.
Fraternities have been constantly represented in Hollywood movies such as ‘Old School.’ Photo by Richard Foreman – © 2003 – Dreamworks, LLC – All Rights Reserved
IT may seem strange for us here at Teesside University – or any other university in the UK for that matter – as we are not familiar with fraternities, nor do we fully understand what they are.
In short, a fraternity is a group of male students who call themselves ‘brothers’. The female equivalents are known as sororities.
On the surface, these students live together in a shared house and usually choose a preferred charity to support, as they organise fundraisers and other events to raise money.
However, after digging a little deeper during my time at Slippery Rock University, I heard numerous stories of both men and women taking part in breathtaking activities at fraternity-hosted parties, including organised violence and extreme alcohol abuse.
With this, it would appear that Hollywood’s depiction of fraternities in films like Old School or Animal House are not a million miles from the truth.
Throughout my time at Slippery Rock University, I was given exclusive access to one fraternity, Theta Xi, and spent some time with four members in an attempt to unearth just exactly what life is like as a fraternity brother.
Established in 1966, Theta Xi now has 19 active brothers who consistently work towards supporting the Pittsburgh Heart Walk – a charity that aims to raise funds in the fight against heart disease.
Theta is the only fraternity that currently owns a shared house at Slippery Rock University – in which, they have marked their territory with larger than life Greek alphabet letters plastered across the living room ceiling boldly spelling out: THETA XI.
Given that the young men belonging to Theta Xi live unsupervised together, their ongoing charitable efforts are usually not what attract the attention of many, but more so that their house is the number one party destination for all students on a weekend – and is often the outlet for some especially primitive behaviour.
The floors of the basement in the house are sticky underfoot from the copious amounts of spilled alcohol and various substances throughout the many parties of the autumn term.
Tattered, dirty sofas are carelessly slung into corners, with hanging photos of university Theta alumni hung around the walls of the house on proud display.
Final year student, Anthony Beitler, 21, is the current treasurer of Theta Xi, and therefore one of the more experienced brothers as he is now well into his third year of membership.
Beitler cautiously explained his belief that fraternities are wrongly discriminated against across America.
“You see in the movies what supposedly happens and society thinks that all of this goes on in fraternities and we make your life hell,” He said.
“It’s very opposite in real life to what the movies are trying to portray and Theta especially does not do that type of hazing thing.”
But is that really the case?
Fraternities are constantly plagued with rumours of bullying tactics – referred to as hazing – used on new members immersed in the initiation process. New members are known as ‘pledges and tactics include paddling – an activity in which people are savagely hit across the backside with wooden oars.
Beitler however, remained insistent that this is completely untrue at Theta Xi, and was adamant that the fraternity is intolerant of physical abuse and are keen to stamp out hazing.
“With us, you can’t lay a finger on a pledge,” he said.
“We avoid bullying behaviour of any sort because the last thing we want is to make our pledges uncomfortable.”
Theta Xi’s house sits just off of Slippery Rock University campus
Artie McDermitt, a 19-year-old first year, is now in his second term as a brother in Theta Xi, and was given two awards at Theta’s formal ceremony in autumn for what he said were ‘biggest party animal’ and ‘most likely to be drunk’.
“I just like to party, man,” He said.
“Every Thursday we have a gathering with a sorority. Friday will usually be a listed party where we provide the alcohol and Saturday we throw another party where anyone is invited. It’s a three-day weekend basically.”
Despite both Beitler and Robling claiming that Theta Xi are against bullying in any way, McDermitt explained how the fraternity has recently got into trouble for paddling, and are midway through an investigation by the National Board of Directors – a governing organisation that manages the behaviour of fraternities across America, ensuring they act accordingly.
Larry Winger, who is a member of Theta Xi, told me how he was left badly bruised by one of these so-called ‘harmless’ initiations.
“Big and little brothers will paddle each other on initiation night, that’s tradition,” he said.
“Sometimes the guys will just do it for fun though, almost like a bonding thing.
“I got my butt split open a little bit but it was all in good fun. It’s bruised pretty badly,” he said.
And in what may seem particularly shocking to our Tside readers, Winger spoke of how it is not unusual for women to also be subject to violence.
Sororities can also take part in paddling at these events if they wish.
“We tend to hit the girls hard enough that it stings. But at the end of the day, they’re women and we want to respect them,” he laughed.
“When it comes to the guys though, we act like barbarians.”
After my time with Theta Xi, it’s clear that despite Beitler and Robling’s efforts to sanitise the goings-on in a typical American fraternity house, I thank God our students here in UK have a lot more sense than our Stateside cousins.