An Exploration of Fraternity Culture: Implications for Programs to Address Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault

Article excerpt

Three focus group interviews with multiple men from every fraternity at a small to midsized public university were conducted to study the fraternal culture with regard to alcohol and consent in sexually intimate encounters. Specifically, fraternity men were asked to share their experiences with asking for consent after one or both parties have consumed alcohol. Participants described ambiguity in defining consent particularly when they were unfamiliar with their partner and alcohol was involved. They also strongly indicated an aversion toward asking for consent before proceeding with physical intimacy. Suggestions by and based on participants' comments are offered in order to assist college and university officials in developing programs to address this complex issue.


A large proportion of women who attend college have an experience with rape or other forms of sexual assault before and after their matriculation. Research has consistently shown that roughly one out of four college women have experienced rape or attempted rape since the age of 14 (Douglas et al., 1997; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987; Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Many researchers have sought to address this problem by assessing changes in men who attend rape prevention programs. Some of these programs have been shown to have desirable effects on participants' attitudes and behavioral intent to rape (Foubert, 2000, Schewe, 2002), while others have shown either fleeting or counterproductive changes in men who see them (Berg, Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1999; Davis, 2000; Earle, 1996). A review of the rape prevention literature leads to a startling conclusion: studies of programs designed to lower men's likelihood of raping show little to no evidence that authors have considered the culture of the groups they attempt to educate. While some programmatic approaches target particular populations and have elements tailored to those populations (Davis, 2000) most do not tend to ground themselves in the research literature on the cultural aspects of the groups they seek to target.

Two promising theories that have been applied to rape prevention programming are belief system theory and the elaboration likelihood model. Belief system theory suggests that lasting attitude change results from interventions designed to maintain people's existing self-conceptions (Grube, Mayton, & Ball-Rokeach, 1994). Therefore, to be effective, rape prevention programs should appeal to the way men perceive themselves. While few if any men see themselves as potential rapists (Scheel, Johnson, Schneider, & Smith, 2001), many programs approach men as such (Earle, 1996) and therefore limit their likelihood of lasting success. The elaboration likelihood model suggests that long-term attitude and behavior change occurs when participants are motivated to hear a message, are able to understand it, and perceive the message as personally relevant. Such conditions lead to a type of thinking called central route processing, whereby listeners actively process program content and are far more likely to result in long-term attitude and behavior change. Applying this model to rape prevention has shown signs of success (Foubert, 2000; Heppner, Humphrey, Hillenbrand-Gunn, & Debord, 1995). If these theories are to be most successfully applied to rape prevention programming, we must first understand how men perceive themselves, what motivates them to hear messages, how can they best understand them, and what makes a message relevant to them. To better understand these complex issues we must study the culture of groups we seek to educate.

Rape prevention program efforts often target fraternity men (Choate, 2003; Larimer, Lydum, Anderson & Turner; 1999). The emphasis on this population is warranted given that, generally speaking, fraternity men are more likely than male college students to be sexually coercive (Garrett-Gooding & Senter, 1987) and are more likely to use alcohol in an attempt to have sex with women (Boeringer, Shehan, & Akers, 1991). …


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