Halfway through his book of photography documenting the debauched state of American fraternities, Andrew Moisey presents an unsettling pair of images. They appear similar in subject but worlds apart in tone: the first shows a woman incapacitated on a mattress in a slightly askew room, presumably within a frat house. Chin to the ceiling, she lies unconscious with legs open and arms outstretched. The second image reads almost like a parody of the former; it depicts a male college student painting a surreal picture of a bikini-clad woman lying unconscious in what appears to be a crow’s nest. A blunt allegory for the seething libidinal violence that has become synonymous with fraternities, the student paints a murder of crows circling above his sexualized subject.
Published in October 2018, Moisey’s The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual chronicles a startling pantomime of stunted, rapacious youth alongside the text of a 60-year-old “ritual book” discovered on the floor of an unnamed fraternity at University of California, Berkeley, which the artist attended for his BA and PhD degrees.
For two years before he became a photographer, Moisey hung out around the fraternity. “I thought it was mostly a benign waste of time and only occasionally truly malignant,” he explained to Hyperallergic. After seven years of observation, however, he came away from Greek life with a different view. “In no sense is joining a college fraternity about purifying the world. It’s about capitalizing on your male privilege.”
American Fraternity begins as a sympathetic ode to the idealized conception of what brotherhood could be. As Moisey observes, Greek life remains “sacred” for many men “because it’s the only modern tradition left that acknowledges the wildness of human beings.”
The hitch, however, is that fraternities often present themselves as premiere incubators of noble leadership. Accordingly, Moisey begins his book with an epigraph from a fictional character he created, William Archibald Scott, who regurgitates some extent frat philosophy from the likes of Beta Theta Pi. Scott says in the epigraph: “We shall create Men of Principle. For America’s image the fraternity man will one day be other countries’ image of the American.” The book continues with a list of 18 American presidents who once belonged to fraternities, including Thomas Jefferson and George W. Bush.
This lofty vision of genteel brotherhood is a ruse obscured by meticulous patriarchal systems, initiation rights, and prayer ceremonies. American Fraternity details these bylaws in its text while undermining their decorous façade with visual documentation of flippancy, racism, exhibitionism, and violence. Sometimes, these malevolent forces coalesce into microaggressions. One of the book’s first images, for example, is a fraternity yearbook portrait of the house secretary and “resident Asian,” Joon Kwon.
The problem with microaggressions, however, is that they never stay micro for long. One-quarter into the book, there is an image of some lewd stick-figure graffiti on a hallway door that features a sex act. Doltishly, the cartoon’s creator has made sure to clarify the genders of these silhouettes as “dude” and “chick,” lest anyone mistake their sex act as gay.
It’s ironic, then, that the dozens of pages that follow depict homoerotic parties where groups of men either gather around naked women or compare scrotum sizes. Like a sexually distorted version of Thomas Eakins’s 1875 “Gross Clinic” painting, one photograph depicts nearly 10 men in a room examining the bare rear end of a woman who spreads herself across their coffee table.
Like Moisey, Jeffrey Augustine Songco is another artist who has spent his career investigating the values of fraternity life. “While it’s easy to place judgement on the fraternity system as an outsider looking in,” he said over email, “there’s still a perpetual curiosity and attraction among American teenagers to join these social groups.”
Songco sees an indelible link between fraternities and American machismo, because both derive from the same place: the aggressive sexual impulses of male teenagers. For that same reason, the artist is not certain that abolishing campus fraternities would quash this country’s masculinity issues. “There’s that saying ‘life finds a way’ and I think it makes sense here because if fraternities were to be removed from American colleges, teenagers would continue to find a way to group together based on similarities,” he said.
Nevertheless, American Fraternity envisages Greek life as a Boschian hell of earthly delights. Take a tour of the depravity: here is a hooded frat bro vomiting while a woman rubs his back. Here is another man cradling his exposed genitalia as his “brothers” ladle beer down his gullet. And here are two others, harassing a dog as another swoops in to punch the animal in the face.
Every year, nearly 100,000 men are initiated into college fraternities. Statistics show that many of these former pledges will go on to lead America in government and business. In Alan DeSantis’s 2007 book, Inside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, he cites data from the Center for the Study of College Fraternity claiming that 85% of US Supreme Court justices since 1910 belong to frats. Additionally, 63% of all US presidential cabinet members since 1900 and 85% of Fortune 500 executives have engaged in Greek life.
The #MeToo movement may have shined a spotlight on America’s rape culture problem, but Greek life arguably propels such misbehavior into an accepted pathology. “Nearly 40% of college graduates voted for [President Donald Trump],” notes Moisey. “What part of college taught them to appreciate him?”
“The fraternity has far more influence over its members’ values than a college’s professors do. That’s certainly not what we think we’re getting when we imagine sending our kids to college. Imagine now how much influence fraternities have over the values of our society.”
The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual by Andrew Moisey is published by Daylight Books and is available on Amazon and other online retailers.