Searching for Manhood

by Austin Netherton

With the recent string of negative events in the fraternal community, I have become fixated on asking myself, “Why and how does this continue to happen?” Fraternities are governed by strict rules and values, right? These values have been ringing in the ears of young men for decades as a guiding light to becoming a “good man” as was defined by their founders. So, how is it that anything could ever go wrong?

The thing is, times have changed. The experience of fraternity that is being delivered to young men must change as well if we hope to see a positive evolution in the culture of fraternity. Plainly, we have got to stop harming our members and guests. We have to evaluate beyond better harm reduction education and risk policy – what we can do better.

I recently read an article claiming that the young men of today are experiencing a masculinity crisis. I don’t disagree. I believe we are at a point in history where the vast majority of young men have been left to fend for themselves as they make their way into the muddy waters of manhood. With no clear teachings of what it means to be a man in the 21st century, paired with the social pressure for affirmation of their maturity, the young men of today have been left searching for their own coming of age experience.

For many young men looking to find the answer to, “what does it mean to be a man,” this search has led them to fraternity, where one can go to find confirmation of manhood, as offered from his peers in the fraternity – regardless of if those confirmations are healthy and true or not. I believe our organizations have failed young men searching for help on their journey to maturity. We cannot expect boys to teach boys what it means to be a man.

Let me explain.

I believe that when the majority of fraternities were formed there was a clearly defined role and expectation of men within society; roles and expectations that are further delayed for young men today than in the 1800’s. When our organizations were created there was no recognizable need to include any direction or philosophy pertaining to one’s transition from boyhood to manhood because, well… It was just expected that they were already “men”.

I think we can all agree that this is not necessarily the case any longer (no offense to college men).

With so many factors of modern culture shifting the expectations of men, and opening up room for debate on what it actually means to be a man, we have extended the transitional stage where boys become men through their college years. Society has changed and the issue has become that fraternity has not realigned itself to support its members in that transition.

For example, with the continually growing feminist movement, which has helped to advance the woman’s role in America, the responsibilities and roles of modern men have inevitably changed. However, in stark contrast to the women’s side of this change, there seems to be little to no conversation happening at any level amongst male leaders on how to best support these young adults entering into a quickly changing world.

What does this mean for our community?

By overlooking this issue sitting right in front of us, we cannot expect to create any change for the young men who have found themselves in fraternity while on their journey into manhood.

If we don’t help our fraternity members figure out what it means to be a man in modern society and help them travel that journey to manhood, we are likely to experience more tragedy.  More tragedy is sure to come because without direction from our leadership through the creation of a contemporary fraternal experience, these young men will only continue to cling to the previous notions of “boys will be boys” behavior, where they experiment with rituals of hazing to mark one another’s entrance into manhood. Simultaneously, perpetuating destructive brotherhood that can often occur when men depend on experiences and interactions rooted in hyper-masculinized versions of manhood.

The writing is on the wall. We have to do more! It is not good enough anymore to simply find the “best guys” on campus to be a part of the group and expect things to get better.

I believe there needs to be a clearly defined and modernized path of membership that guides these young men to maturity and confidence in their own masculinity, regardless of what that looks like. I believe it is our duty as leaders within the fraternal community to properly support the young men that will make the choice to move beyond what history has previously defined for us as manhood.

It is our duty to provide them with teaching and examples of responsibility, love, and devotion as caring sons, brothers, fathers, and leaders, while working together to preserve the uniqueness of the male experience through fraternity. When we make the choice to do this, we will see the change we are all so desperately hoping for.  Personally, I hope you will join me in making this decision because I am not willing to sit on the sidelines and watch another young man be lost to a system that we have the power to change.