The Boy Ultimatum

Discussing the pressures to “be a man” and breaking the box of patriarchy with a fraternity, and the obstacles to change.


I recently facilitated a workshop with a fraternity, discussing the pressures to “be a man” and how they could break the box of patriarchy and gender stereotypes. They shared interests and hobbies that society would call feminine. As more and more of their brothers revealed a new truth, they began to ask questions, freeing one another to open up and be themselves, releasing the pressure to perform. They also shared the bad habits that were holding them back, and we talked about how they could move forward and stand for something that fraternities are not generally known for: moral masculinity and gender equality.


After the session, I was encouraged. I followed up with the senior who asked me to speak with his brothers — let’s call him Skip — and he had an ambitious plan to occupy the quad. We ordered stickers. I sent wristbands. He had a vision of his fraternity standing on the quad, creating signs, and making positive headlines for Greek life and the direction of his chapter. We talked about how he could pitch his idea at the next meeting, and both of us were excited.


The pitch didn’t go well. Some of the brothers didn’t see how the idea would work and instead brainstormed joke signs that would reinforce stereotypes about frats. After a few jokes, the majority seemed more comfortable walking back from their courageous position and joining the banter. Though many brothers remained invested in the effort, a core group was more focused on protecting the social image of the frat — throwing the best parties, having a good time, being young, wild, and free. Contrary to the vulnerability of our closed-room discussion two weeks earlier, in public, the group felt safer disengaging from what might be an uncool stance.


Skip also discovered that there were rumors spreading with women on campus involving some of his brothers. Other leaders in the fraternity worried that a quad occupation might spark backlash and accusations. They felt that a more passive approach would be better, that time was running out on the year, that the potential backfire wasn’t worth the risk. Skip said, “It’s frustrating that we aren’t able to do this because we aren’t spotless.”


This is the boy ultimatum. Adhere to the boy code, or suffer the consequences. The fraternity decided that inaction was safer because it would not draw negative attention or dig up past transgressions. In other words, no consequences. I can understand their worry. If a group of them had occupied the quad — promoting moral masculinity, gender equality, an end to sexual violence — someone probably would have ridiculed them and called them hypocrites. My question is simple: how then do we change?


Boys are faced with a conundrum. If they want to break the box of gender stereotypes, they must reckon with their brothers. If they say they are for change, they may hear an angry gallery holding them to past mistakes. It’s easier to do nothing, but that’s why change is so slow. So what if people surface hypocritical actions? That’s an opportunity to confront your brothers and say, “That’s not OK and not what we’re about.” So what if some guys don’t take the work seriously? That’s an opportunity to tell them, “Here’s the direction we’re going. We hope you’ll join us.”


Newsflash. Most men have supported patriarchy and gender stereotypes. Disqualifying them from change won’t move us forward. Second newsflash. Boys and men who are critical of patriarchy will face backlash and ridicule. I asked Skip what he felt was the right thing to do. Of course, he wanted to follow through with his original plan and was frustrated about his surrender to the status quo––though, he was grateful to have learned this lesson about the ultimatum he and other boys face. I trust that he’s going to make a positive difference, and I’m sure that his efforts haven’t been lost on all of his brothers. He did more to break the status quo than most guys in his position.


The headline photo for this article is a young me. I thought it was appropriate. When I was a kid, I learned not to smile. I wanted to look tough, or anything but soft. Whether happy or sad, I would do my best to keep my expressions in check. Overall, I was pretty good at the boy code. I made a knot of my emotions that I’m still trying to untie — but I’m not that same boy. Fortunately, I had mentors and loved ones who gave me permission to change. They encouraged the man I wanted to become and didn’t hold me to the boy I once was. No matter the past or the future, I’m glad that a fraternity invited me to speak with them about building better culture on a Sunday night. Historically, frat boys aren’t known for that.


In Many Lives, Many Masters — a book about reincarnation and the meaning of life that I’d recommend to anyone — Brian Weiss, M.D. dreams that each person has a large diamond on the inside. “The diamond has a thousand facets, but the facets are covered with dirt and tar. It is the job of the soul to clean each facet until the surface is brilliant and can reflect a rainbow of colors.” Underneath the dirt, each person possesses the same perfect diamond. This metaphor makes sense to me. And I like to imagine a world where everyone sees that we’re all perfect, though I know that won’t be in this lifetime. Still, we have to start somewhere.