One of my favorite family photographs — taken nearly eighty-five years ago — hangs in our living room. In it, some three dozen well-dressed young men smile at the camera from the front steps of a sprawling, Craftsman-inspired house. Some sit, others stand; some have hands in pockets, others have arms draped affectionately over the lads next to them. My maternal grandfather, Arthur Moore, sits next to his best friend Jerry Bishop. The two would eventually marry sisters, my grandmother and my great aunt. Next to Jerry sits Arthur’s cousin, Allan Starr. Behind them, standing on the porch, stands Allen Chickering, the man who — at the time this photo was taken — was engaged to the woman whom my grandfather Arthur would eventually marry. (The happy family story is that Allen broke off the engagement with my grandmother around 1929, and she married his friend Arthur instead. In 1991, both long since widowed, my grandmother and Allen Chickering married, 62 years after ending their original engagement.) Other family friends, including many who lived into my childhood and whom I knew well, are recognizable in the picture. To the best of my knowledge, every man in the photo is dead now; the youngest would be at least 102 were any still alive.
These were the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Theta Zeta chapter, at the the University of California, Berkeley. In 1926.
“Deke”, as it was called, was the “family fraternity”. Many of the older men who most deeply influenced my life were Dekes, including my uncle Stanley, Arthur’s younger brother, who became a renowned philosopher and communist. And it was thus with chagrin, but no great surprise, that I read of the vile behavior of DKE pledges at Yale University this month. As part of an ongoing initiation, the pledges marched around campus chanting “No Means Yes and Yes Means Anal” and other appalling misogynistic slogans. A video on Youtube brought the ugliness to national attention.
Michael Kimmel, the nation’s foremost historian of masculinity, has a great piece about the DKE pledge incident at Ms: The Men, And Women, Of Yale. He deftly explains the sexual anxiety that undergirds the chant the pledges repeated. The goal of the first part, “No Means Yes” (which was recited repeatedly in front of Yale’s Women’s Center, the safest place for women on campus) is clear enough. As Kimmel writes:Itâ€™s a reminder that men still rule, that broâ€™s will always come before â€œhoâ€™sâ€. Even the Womenâ€™s Center canâ€™t protect you. That is, itâ€™s a way to make even the safe unsafe. In a world where more women go to college than men, in a world where women and minorities have made tremendous strides, the chant is an ugly attempt to reassert traditional dominance: “We are Dekes, and we are older and more powerful than the rules that protect the vulnerable.”
But Kimmel notes the second part of the chant is more telling, the bit about “yes means anal.”
This chant assumes that anal sex is not pleasurable for women; that if she says yes to intercourse, you have to go further to an activity that you experience as degrading to her, dominating to her, not pleasurable to her. This second chant is a necessary corollary to the first….
Sex has become unsafe for menâ€“women are agentic and evaluate our performances. So if â€œNo Means Yesâ€ attempts to make what is safe for women unsafe, then â€œYes Means Analâ€ makes what is experienced as unsafe for men again safeâ€“back in that comfort zone of conquest and victory. Back to something that is assumed could not possibly be pleasurable for her. It makes the unsafe safeâ€“for men.
In this way, we can see the men of DKE at Yale not as a bunch of angry predators, asserting their dominance, but as a more pathetic bunch of guys who see themselves as powerless losers, trying to re-establish a sexual landscape which they feel has been thrown terribly off its axis. This is especially ironic, of course, because these straight, white, upper-class Yalie DKEs are among the most privileged 20-year-olds on the planet. And yet now they feel one-down, defensive, reduced to impotent screamingâ€“and all because of womenâ€™s equality.
When I came to Cal as a frosh in 1985, many of my relatives urged me to “rush Deke”. I was a “legacy” who would have been the fourth generation on my mother’s side to belong to that storied, but often troubled, house. (It’s widely known that Dan Quayle and Bushes pÃ¨re et fils were Dekes; many assume that shared bond had a lot to do with the elder Bush’s selection of Quayle as VP in 1988). My Uncle Stanley, the Marxist philosopher, even made a phone call on my behalf. But I was ambivalent about rushing a fraternity for both political and personal reasons. By the 1980s, Berkeley’s fraternities had a reputation for reactionary politics (a way of rebelling against the more dominant progressive ethos of the campus and the wider community), and I was already quite far to the left. And as I discovered on a visit there, DKE in particular was filled with handsome and athletic young men who looked as if they’d stepped out of the pages of a magazine. (In that era, as I recall, DKE had a high percentage of water polo players — and Cal had the national championship team.) I felt unattractive and ungainly by comparison. The brothers of DKE were polite to me, and during the pledge process, asked me lots of questions about my family background. I got the feeling that they were weighing the costs of accepting or rejecting me. I clearly didn’t fit — and yet they were getting outside pressure to offer me a place in their pledge class (I learned later that my Uncle Stanley was not the only one calling on my behalf.) I made a decision that relieved both the Dekes and me, but disappointed my family: I dropped out of the process and saved everyone (save a handful of mildly miffed relatives) from embarrassment. I became the first American-born male member of my family in the 20th century not to pledge a fraternity, and went through the rest of my college experience as a proud “GDI”: God-damned Independent.
I have always wanted to believe that the wise, gentle and kind old men I knew as a child could never have been like the “brothers” I knew in the 1980s or the pledges who behaved so repulsively on the Yale campus last week. I’ve often studied that family photo, looking for reassurance of the absence of cruelty or calculation, looking for confirmation that even in their late adolescence, these towering figures of my life were “true gentlemen” with kindness towards all and malice towards none. But I can’t know what they were like. While I’m confident that the pledge classes of the 1920s did not chant about anal rape, I fear that reticence was more about propriety than about a genuinely egalitarian view of sexuality.
I have no loyalty to the Dekes. For the sake of those men in that photo, so many of whom I knew and loved and who are now all gone, part of me is just a little bit sorry that it wasn’t another fraternity instead of DKE that behaved so indefensibly at Yale. But my head tells me that DKE is no better than any other “Greek house” when it comes to its views on gender, justice, and inclusion. And both my head and my heart tell me that Michael Kimmel is all too right: what we saw in New Haven happens on many campuses, and the meaning of the chant reflects more than the desire of some young men to be publicly offensive. This is about power, and the mixture of indignation and anxiety that flows through privileged young men when they encounter threats to what they were wrongly raised to believe was their birthright.
Kimmel writes that the Yale pledges railed impotently (his word, and the right one) against a sexual world “thrown off its axis.” I love and honor my ancestors, including the many Dekes among them — and am so grateful that the privileged world in which they moved has indeed been turned upside down.