The order for sorority sisters at the University of Virginia to stay home this weekend and avoid fraternity bid night parties was a boneheaded move by national sorority officers, to say the least. “This policy promotes a culture that reduces women to objects of sexual pleasure, only useful as subjects of the male gaze and desire,” wrote one U-Va. junior. The Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak suggested that the mandate effectively blamed sorority sisters for the high number of sexual assaults on college campuses.
No, the sisters are not to blame. But the national sororities’ decision to lock them in a tower rather than empower them to face the world reveals more about sororities’ flaws than fraternities’ dangers. In truth, historically white national sorority officers, with their tendencies to hush-hush controversial incidents and to center so much of sorority social life around fraternities, may themselves be partly, indirectly at fault.
This combination leads to a culture that can have ridiculously skewed values. In 2013, Florida International University suspended the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity after brothers posted on Facebook “creep shots” of naked sorority sisters and called them names. (The Facebook page also included posts about members’ drug dealing and hazing.) When a sister suggested that her sorority sisters – some of whom were featured in the creep shots – stop associating with the fraternity, the women defended the brothers. “In spite of how they treated our sisters and seeing the screenshots, just because they wanted to make sure they were still liked by the popular frat on campus, they defended the men and harassed me for speaking up. Our chapter president said in the chapter meeting, ‘Well, who hasn’t been called a slut before?’ as if this were okay,” the sister told me. “There are too many women like me that go through so much with Greek organizations and are coerced into silence.” (Indeed, many sisters and alumnae were willing to speak to a reporter only if they were not named, because they feared repercussions from their sorority simply for voicing their concerns.)
Sexual violence, hazing, drugs, recruitment, racism, bullying: Many sisters told me that their sororities have swept these issues under the rug, insisting that the public – and, in some cases, the university – shouldn’t know about them. Sorority leaders declare they can deal with their issues internally. But they’ve had decades to try, and the same issues recur year after year, as I learned when reporting my book “Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities.” They largely refuse to have the sort of conversations that would prevent similar episodes from happening again.
The National Institute for Justice has reported that sorority membership is one of the most common factors that increase sexual assault risk. Similarly, a 2014 study at the University of Oregon found that sorority sisters there are much more likely than non-Greek women to have been raped or victims of nonconsensual sexual contact. About 40 percent of sorority sisters surveyed reported they had been subjected to rape or attempted rape and 48 percent reported that they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact, at what the study author called “an alarmingly high rate,” according to the Register-Guard newspaper. The co-chair of the UO task force evaluating sexual violence policies concluded that “fraternities are dangerous places for women.” (The school nevertheless plans to expand Greek life substantially.)
Misguided, outdated sorority policies, perpetuated by national headquarters that are resistant to change, may be contributing to the increased risk. Sisters at various schools have told me they were pressured by their sorority to attend fraternity events, which have in the past included parties with advertised themes like “Housewives and Hired Help,” “Millionaires and Trophy Wives,” “Secs and Execs,” or “Tennis Pros and Country Club Hoes.” Some women said they faced sanctions or even fines if they refused to go to fraternity events. A former Georgia State University sorority sister – who said she was fined approximately $25 for each fraternity party she missed – said that her chapter emphasized that sisters speak with a quota of fraternity members at these events.
Too much of sorority life revolves around the girls’ status among the fraternities. On many campuses, Greek systems follow longtime traditions of sororities pairing with fraternities for Homecoming, Greek Week and other activities. The escorts are determined by votes; the votes are often swayed by the groups’ social rank. “I once heard a sorority woman say that she had to vote for a particular fraternity because if she voted for the lower-ranking fraternity, ‘a good frat will never ask us to Homecoming again,’” College of William and Mary sorority sister Gina Sawaya wrote in the student newspaper in October.
On the flip side, at some campuses, fraternities place bids on the sororities. “Of course the sororities want the best frat, which means the hottest guys. So they try to make themselves look good at their parties,” a recent University of Florida sorority alum told me. And some sororities expect their chapters to socialize with only certain fraternities, and even to dress a certain way when going out with the brothers. A 2013 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate said, “We were encouraged to socialize with fraternities that we had football block with. Showing preference to another fraternity over our block match was considered an insult.”
As a result, Greek life puts a dangerous emphasis on coupling with fraternity brothers and encourages arbitrary, antiquated double standards. A young Southern sorority alum lamented an incident in which someone took a photo of a sorority sister and a fraternity brother having sex in a fraternity bathroom. When the photo spread to other students, the sister was kicked out of her sorority, while the brother was applauded at dinner. One national sorority rulebook warns, “Any promiscuous behavior on the part of a member or new member will result in National Probation or termination of her pledge” without defining what “promiscuous behavior” means.
Where are sororities’ priorities? And how does the emphasis on fraternities shape a sorority chapter’s values? When a University of Alabama sorority chapter discussed admitting a black girl in 2013, some sisters opposed admitting her because they were afraid that fraternities would no longer want to party with them, as Marie Claire reported last year.
The same national sororities whose very culture is reliant on socializing with fraternities are now saying, on one campus, for one night, the sisters aren’t allowed to socialize with them. The solution isn’t to hide the girls away. (And it’s not, as The New York Times opined last week, to move the parties to sorority houses.) The solution is to change the nature of these all-women organizations so that they are about women – and so that they don’t repeatedly send girls into the arms of fraternity brothers in the first place.