Last week, the other Feminist Campus interns and I were sitting around, talking about our different college experiences and campus climates, when the subject of Greek life came up. Knowing me and my passions, Abby turned to me and asked with a degree of confusion, “Rachel, why are you in a sorority?”
The other interns, like most people who have seen a movie about college, hold some assumptions about what it means to be in Greek life. For a lot of people, the word “sorority” conjures up images of skinny blonde girls partying and blowing glitter into the camera of a recruitment video to the tune of Flo Rida’s “My House”.
I told Abby what I tell everyone who doesn’t see the immediate connection between my activism and my sorority: first and foremost, I chose to join a sorority because I wanted to be a part of a community of women who I could trust and love and spend my time with. I wanted a sisterhood. And I got it: the other day, my little slept over at my apartment and we stayed up until 1 in the morning eating raw cookie dough and talking about how toxic masculinity contributes to rape culture. We cuddled and exchanged stories as we reminded each other that we would always be here for one another.
In the end, I chose my organization because it felt consistent with my feminism. We fundraise and volunteer throughout the year with Girls on the Run, an organization that works with elementary and middle school girls to train to run a 5k, using running as a tool for empowerment. The girls participate in workshops, practicing and developing a different skill each week, like friendship, confidence, and kindness. In everything we do, our mantra is “building strong girls”—for my sisters and me, our sorority has been an avenue for activism and empowerment. Our president is a sexual violence peer educator, and strives to bring feminism into every aspect of programming. I love being part of a community of women that works so hard to support, encourage, protect, and inspire girls and women.
I love my sorority, but I would never pretend that the stereotypes are unfounded or that there are no problems. The organizations in the Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic Association, the governing bodies of what are referred to as the “social” fraternities and sororities on most campuses, are predominantly and historically white. There are also Historically Black and multicultural social fraternities and sororities, but not being a part of those communities, I don’t have authority to speak on them. IFC and PHA are not only mostly white, they are also often devastatingly homogenous in other ways—there are few disabled people, out queer and trans people, or people living without socioeconomic privilege.
These are problems that we need to address—we need to develop an adequate scholarship fund that helps people with economic barriers join, and supporting people of low socioeconomic background should become a priority for Greek organizations. We need to push back the heteronormativity that is so intensely ingrained in our traditions and practices: sororities should have more social programming with other sororities, instead of just with fraternities, and leadership should set the example in using inclusive language that does not assume heterosexuality or invalidate queer existence. Let’s spend funds on putting a wheelchair ramp at the front of every Greek house, so that people with different abilities can begin to feel more welcome.
When we look at problems within Greek life as a whole, we have to talk about the issues inherent and pervasive within fraternities. When groups of men band together under “brotherhood” and are connected by a bond of ritual and secrecy, a culture of groupthink and toxic masculinity often ensues. This might be the reason that sexual assault is so prevalent within the Greek community—in fact, studies show that women in sororities are 74% more likely to be victims of sexual assault than other college women.
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon in which the desire for harmony or conformity within a group results in irrational or problematic decision making. It occurs when people are desperately unwilling to disrupt the norms of the group, and it’s incredibly powerful. Psychologists have blamed groupthink for a number of large-scale disasters, like the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Challenger rocket explosion in 1986.
Perhaps, it would not be out of line to point to groupthink as the reason that hazing and sexual assault are ever-present in fraternities. When it’s normal for a fraternity man to escort slumped-over drunk women into their rooms at the end of the night, it isn’t easy to remind him what consent is. When the culture is for every pledge to chug vodka until he vomits, and you get verbally or physically attacked if you don’t, no one wants to be the one to say it’s not a good idea. Worse, when something bad does happen, the culture of “brotherhood” keeps people from calling 911, because everyone is afraid of brothers (or the fraternity as a whole) being punished.
Take the case of 19 year-old Timothy Piazza, who tragically died in a fraternity hazing accident earlier this year at Penn State University. On the night of his death, he drank so much he fell down the stairs of the frat house. Most of the brothers refused to call the police—they asserted that he was fine, splashed water on his face, and propped him on his side to keep him from choking on potential vomit. One student asserted that they get Tim immediate medical attention, and other brothers shoved him into a wall. No one called the police until 12 hours after he lost consciousness, at which point it was too late to help him.
While Tim’s story is more drastic than most, it is not an isolated incident, but rather the horrible result of a pervasive cultural problem in place in most fraternities across the country. And this is the crux of it: getting defensive about Greek life’s problems is the most dangerous thing we can do. After Tim’s death, when the university was considering disciplinary action against all Greek life on campus, opinion articles began popping up all over my timeline, all of which having vaguely the same message—“don’t blame all of us for a few people’s mistakes”; “it’s not a Greek life problem, alcohol abuse is just a college problem”. No one wants to feel like something they choose to be a part of is problematic, especially not when admitting so means taking responsibility for a culture that led to a 19-year old’s death.
But the truth is that the only smart, safe, realistic thing that members of the Greek community can do is take responsibility for our problems. A few weeks ago at a rally for healthcare, representatives from the ACLU handed out signs with the saying “dissent is patriotic”. This message is important to remember not only in the context of large-scale political movements, but in every single community we are a part of.
I love my sorority. I love being in Greek life. That’s why I will never stop critiquing it. I want to make that community safe, inclusive, responsible, and good. So I won’t defend it—I’ll fight for it.