Rites of passage: On the modern male experience

No comments

Story written by Carin Altshuler and Amy Albinus

*Out of respect for confidentiality, this name has been changed.

For many college freshmen, Greek Life is often the first chapter of a four-year journey. It is the framework for lifelong relationships, and the three letters symbolize the ideals of community, scholarship and leadership, among other core American values. At a national level, the statistics touted on fraternity websites look promising. Eighty-five percent of the Fortune 500 executives belonged to a fraternity. Eighty-five percent of U.S. Supreme Court Justices since 1910 were fraternity men. And every U.S. President and Vice President, except for two in each office, were in a frat— compelling statistics for the golden boys of our generation. Except multiple studies have also found that men in fraternities are also three times more likely to commit rape compared to other men on campus. In the last year alone, Cal Poly frats have been under fire for blackface, hazing and sexual assault. These behaviors are now being written off with the banning of fraternities and the country’s newest buzzword: “toxic masculinity.” But what is the real root of these problems?     

When searching ‘masculinity’ on Google, synonyms like vigor, strength, muscularity and toughness appear. Is that the definition of masculinity? What is masculinity, and how does that play into the communal human experience? Through conducting interviews with a variety of individuals on campus, the current cultural climate and its impacts on our definitions of masculinity were discussed. Doing so created a clearer picture of the specific toxic behaviors on Cal Poly’s campus, such as the numerous sexual assaults and hazing activities that continue to be reported, despite Cal Poly’s efforts to promote awareness.

Graphic by Rory McGinty

But what does it mean to be a man? Psychology alumnus Winston Chang, who works as a student assistant at the Cal Poly Men and Masculinities program, addressed this complex question. “How do you know when you’re a man? Because there’s no nice hard answer to that, then what do you start to do? You go seeking that validation, that man card,” Chang said. “And what does American media, music, cinema, middle school locker room talk teach boys about what it means to be a man? When do you get that man card? Is it when you get laid, you make six figures or when you finally drive that car? Or [is it] when you’re in the middle of that party and everyone’s going ‘seven, seven, seven’ and you’re just there slapping the wine bag like ‘yes I finally did it’?”

It is clear that our society and educational system is failing to provide young men with clear guidance on the kind of behavior that is generally termed “masculine.” Young men have been socialized with conflicting messages since birth, so it is no surprise that they are struggling to find identity and validation in the confusing, transitional time of college. Navigating both internal and external definitions of what it means to be a man is made even more confusing when there is no real way this status can be confirmed in American society.

In an interview, Cal Poly psychology professor Dr. Elizabeth Barrett described the importance of rituals and how they can ease the transition into a new stage of life, such as becoming a “man.” Unlike other cultures, Judaism for example, in which men go through the traditional Bar Mitzvah ritual, most boys in American culture do not have a transition ritual, which can result in experiencing a lack of clarity in their life. “Rituals are important to […] ground the developmental process of the human being in moving from one stage to the other. Without it, you kind of end up with this wandering, lost, empty experience,” Barrett said. What we don’t have in this culture… [are] rituals that help young men and young women make that transition from adolescence to adulthood. And because we lack these ceremonies, we have this void and then people try to fill that void with self-created rituals. So that’s why you see binge drinking and hookup culture because of these kind of flailing attempts to act like adults. To be like an adult that they see in advertisements or in the media or celebrity culture, which is all adolescents misbehaving.”

Fraternity misconduct, seen in hazing incidents and the numerous sexual assaults that have occurred on Cal Poly’s campus are a tribute to this “void.” These occurrences have received extensive attention from news media, which has caused Cal Poly administration to scapegoat the fraternities on campus as a way to show the public that the university is taking action. However, placing full blame for these incidences on fraternity organizations ignores a much greater issue.

“Frats will show pictures, nude pictures, that they have received from girls to other frat bros without their consent.”

– Jack*

Currently, there are nine unrecognized fraternities on Cal Poly’s campus and eight sanctioned fraternity chapters. However, the behaviors the university continues to push under the rug are still occurring. Just because fraternities are put on probation, does not mean that houses of fraternity brothers stop hosting events or suddenly disengage from underage drinking. This is evidence that these behaviors are not solely caused by fraternities, otherwise they would have completely stopped with the removal and disbanding of these groups. In addition, recent suspensions for fraternities, such as Kappa Sigma, were made under the suspension term of “Violation of Hazing & Conspiracy to Haze.”

Investigations found that the hazing included forcing pledges to do push-ups for incorrectly answering quiz questions regarding fraternity history. Obviously, hazing is a serious issue when dangerous activities are made mandatory; however, the university using this push-up incident as an excuse to suspend another fraternity exposes the way the university has pigeon-holed fraternities. Instead, a larger issue is present— helping young men find identity in a positive way on campus, including in the context of a fraternity setting.

Graphic by Rory McGinty

In a New York Times article, Alexandra Robbins comments on the community-building aspects of fraternities. “Colleges’ push to eliminate all-male groups is indicative of higher education’s overall dismissal of the needs of boys and men. Universities glorify the masculinity embodied in men’s athletics, largely ignore the emotional needs of their male students and then denounce ‘toxic masculinity.’ But most aren’t providing the spaces or resources to encourage boys to learn about healthy ways to be men,” Robbins wrote.

It is also critical to distinguish the difference between toxic masculinity and masculinity. The two are not synonymous, though it sometimes feels like the former is the societal definition of the latter. “Toxic masculinity for me, just in general, is a cartoon experience of masculinity. It’s looking at a GI Joe and superhero movies and video game men and saying ‘that’s what a man does’ and somehow esteeming violence…which is also kind of masking rage and anger that young men feel because they’re disconnected from their emotions. We have a whole generation of young men who are disconnected from their emotions and are told not to cry. They’re not allowed to stay close to their feelings. They don’t know what to do with them,” Barrett said.

Image from iOS
Graphic by Madi Stepherson

In a letter to The Wire, Jack*, a member of a dissolved fraternity, noted that there is currently such a misplaced emphasis in popular media centered around “toxic masculinity.” Recent buzz around Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” ad, for example, has made this term well-known and talked about across many platforms. While starting a conversation on the issue is a step in the right direction, there has been an absence of real solutions toward addressing what masculinity looks like in a positive context.

“There is such a focus in media on toxic masculinity and I think it goes to an extreme that says masculinity is bad, but that’s not the case. Toxic masculinity is a very real and prevalent thing, but that’s just because in our society we largely do not have positive role models and examples of what healthy masculinity looks like,” Jack wrote.


As mentioned, because American culture lacks examples of healthy masculinity, young males are forced to create their own standards for what it looks like to be masculine. This manifests in the transitional time of starting at an undergraduate university when males are away from home for the first time and seeking to discover personal identity and belonging within an unfamiliar environment. The way many male individuals decide to find their place is through rushing a fraternity.

Tim*, another member of a disaffiliated fraternity, described the feeling of coming to college and wanting to “prove yourself.”

“Regardless of your fraternity, when you get to college, you want to be an alpha male, you want to be the big man. Everyone comes from a sport, gets the best grades, drinks the most. If you are coming from high school and you don’t know if you are or you aren’t [popular], rushing a fraternity is a good way to confirm your social status,” Tim said.

By joining a fraternity, you are getting that longed for validation that others like you and that you have something to bring to the table. This is valuable to many freshman students who are leaving the familiarity of long-time high school friend groups and looking to find community and belonging, something each one of us consciously or unconsciously strives to do when we finally arrive for our much-anticipated first year of college.

The unfortunate consequence to the quest for acceptance— how easy it becomes to fall into certain unhealthy behaviors within groups due to “groupthink” mentality. It is no longer important whether the behavior makes sense or is personally beneficial, because any behavior can become normalized when it occurs within the context of the group. Any individual who has been a part of a group can easily relate to this concept of “groupthink,” in which you sometimes disregard personal views in favor of identity within a group. Furthermore, when these behaviors are positively reinforced, it becomes hard to step back and question your actions, especially because college is the first time when no one is forcing you to do so.

“When do you get that man card? Is it when you get laid, you make six figures or when you finally drive that car? Or [is it] when you’re in the middle of that party and everyone’s going ‘seven, seven, seven’ and you’re just there slapping the wine bag like ‘yes I finally did it’?” 

-Winston Chang, Cal Poly Men and Masculinity

“Frats will show pictures, nude pictures, that they have received from girls to other frat bros without their consent,” Jack said. To some students this may prove shocking, while to others it’s an often unspoken but unsurprising truth of the fraternity rush process. This behavior is harmful, condemnable and results in undeniable damage on a personal and institutional level. Although it’s the easiest solution to place full blame on fraternities for these behaviors, Cal Poly can’t settle for such a lazy solution. “It is boys trying to initiate other boys into manhood when they themselves haven’t been initiated into manhood. They’re 18 to 22 years old and, quite frankly don’t know what that means or looks like, and so there’s a lot of unhealthy things that happen,” Jack said.

The university and our society as a whole must look to create better role models for the next generation of young men and stronger examples of what it looks like to portray masculinity in a healthy way. “Some [students] spend their entire college career unsure if they can claim the title of ‘man’ just yet. I do think that students tend to ‘become men’ by having experiences that provide an increased understanding and confidence in their identity, an increased sense of autonomy and an increased sense of personal […] responsibility,” Men and Masculinity coordinator Nick Billich wrote in an email.

Creating definitions of masculinity centered around experiences such as these is a much more productive route towards improving the behavior of young men than the aggressive hunt to put an end to all fraternity activity on Cal Poly’s campus. Each individual we interviewed was clear about how beneficial fraternity membership was to him in terms of friendship, connections and community. Rather than suspending or unrecognizing every fraternity for issues as seemingly harmless as push ups, Cal Poly must think about its role in shaping its male students. Instead of tearing apart a major opportunity for males to seek community on campus, it is time for the university to use these organizations as a channel to provide resources for male students to become educated about the impacts of their decisions.

We are a society that profits from certain male stereotypes that are perpetuated through media, music and popular culture. It seems we are a more progressive generation than in the past, however, we still exhibit many of the same gendered issues that have plagued our culture for decades. This includes the “ideal man” figure embodied as a “strong,” “provider” role— seen through the men who hold power and status in our country. These qualities are given higher value than those that would produce a more caring, empathic and thoughtful generation of young men.

We need to encourage the development of this more self-aware generation if we desire to combat the issues that still permeate college campuses. Issues such as the not uncommon sexual assaults and abuse of fraternity status on the Cal Poly campus, seen in the distribution of non-consensual nude photographs of female students. We can do better as a campus, community and nation to encourage men to enjoy the benefits of brotherhood while also enabling them to express vulnerability and uphold their values in influencing situations.

Change begins with encouraging male role models, specifically those in careers like early childhood education, and working as a community to stray from judgement and lean into inclusion.

“If our goal is to actually evolve as a society, we must educate all of our members. Shaming men and making them out to be these horrible people is the furthest thing from education. I know because I’ve felt shamed for being a man, for having sexual desires, for being assertive and going for what I want,” Jack said in his letter. “I speak directly to men now. Don’t feel shame for who and what you are, own yourself and own your desires. Take time to look at your actions and consider ‘am I really being respectful to this person, whether it’s a man or a woman?’ And you don’t ask these questions for anybody else, you ask these questions so that when you look in the mirror every day, you can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are proud of the man you are. This is the path of true masculinity, not the false bravado of boys surrendering their integrity to fit in.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s