Their very existence is in conflict with the progressive ideals of American universitiesby Charlotte Tuxworth-Holden / November 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
In mid-October, sororities and fraternities at UC Berkeley voluntarily banned all parties. This decision came after reports of two sexual assaults at off-campus fraternity functions in a single week. Later that month, social events recommenced—but now all partygoers will be given a short talk on consent and a test which they have to pass before they can attend.
As this shows, increasing attention is being paid to the issue of sexual assault at college campuses in the United States. But more is needed than a change to party rules—these problems are rooted deep in the culture of institutions that are fostered and supported by universities. This is true even of UC Berkeley, one of the most prestigious universities in the country and a place synonymous with progressive ideals such as free speech and diversity.
I studied at Berkeley last year, having been granted a place on the University of California’s Year Abroad programme. During this year I came to discover the many differences in US university life compared to that of the UK. Clubs and student groups are central to college experience from the get-go, and members often live, work and socialise together.
Sororities and fraternities, collectively referred to as Greek life, do not exist in the UK, but are a huge part of college culture in the US. For those who are unfamiliar with them, they are—put simply—gender-specific social organisations: fraternities are for men and sororities for women. They are Greek only in that they have Greek names, such as Delta Delta Delta, Sigma Nu and Alpha Chi Omega. Colleges across the US host sorority and fraternity chapters that are usually associated with national organisations of the same name.
Many of these organisations have existed since the mid-1800s, founded by those members of the elite who were privileged and wealthy enough to receive a university education at the time. The college chapters of each sorority or fraternity own houses that are grand and beautiful, a far cry from the dwellings of the average UK student. The buildings boast enough space for most members to sleep, eat and study. For many, it seems like the perfect college experience. But sororities and fraternities, their rules and their cultures, are deeply flawed.
Students apply to Greek organisations during Rush Week, usually held in the autumn, and then attend a number of social events hosted by the prospective fraternities and sororities. This process is very formal, with dress codes and countless rules. Existing members select the students who they think would be suitable for their organisations, and invite them to join.
Historically, most members of prominent sororities and fraternities have been white and wealthy—and these classifications are echoed today. (There are also African-American Greek organisations). A few years ago, the University of Alabama came under scrutiny when it emerged that only one identifiably black student had been admitted to its sororities in their entire existence. Despite official policies against discrimination, former sorority members revealed that African-American women were dropped after the first stage of recruitment on pretexts such as the way they were dressed.
Recruitment policies, as well as being potentially racist, can also be extremely shallow—I heard one sorority described as “the one for the prettiest girls at Berkeley.” I also attended an event at a friend’s sorority and discussed the selection process with another member: “Everyone is white, blonde and American, and the girls want to keep it that way. We’ll occasionally let someone in who doesn’t fit that criteria, but only one or two a year.” Wealth and status are also important factors, with students from old money families often gaining places at the most prestigious Greek organisations.
Once a student has been selected, they pay a membership fee which can run to hundreds of dollars. Then they move on to the next stage of the process: pledging. As a pledge, you have to prove your commitment to your fraternity or sorority through various initiations. Pledges in fraternities are often given offensive nicknames, such as “Person of No Interest,” “Living Diarrhoea” or worse. Pledges are the bottom of the pile, and they are constantly reminded of this.
The worst of the initiation rituals involve hazing. During my time at Berkeley, I heard many awful stories, including numerous ones of being violent against pledges and coercing them into sex acts. Across the US, students have died as a result of initiation activities. Pledges are often sworn to secrecy, so most stories are kept under wraps and the guilty organisations go unidentified.
The pledging period can last from any time between four weeks and the entire 12-week semester. Once pledges have been humiliated to the satisfaction of their peers, they take part in a ritual which makes them an official “sister” or “brother” of their organisation. These ceremonies often feature readings from the New Testament, failing to acknowledge members of alternative faiths or of no faith. New brothers and sisters pledge to follow constitutions, many of which haven’t been updated for over a century. Then sorority and fraternity members commence on their Greek lives, and some of its traditions are no less troubling than the process that got them there.
Frat parties are an American college legend. Held by fraternity brothers in their extravagant homes, they involve the usual ingredients of loud music and alcohol. Astonishingly, sorority sisters are not allowed alcohol in their houses, or to throw parties either This is according to rules set by national organisations—chapters who breach them face probation and fines. If sorority sisters want to drink and party, they go to frat parties. There are of course alternatives—halls of residence parties, local bars—but in the US the legal age for drinking alcohol is 21, and most undergraduates are not old enough.
This leaves the social element of Greek life dominated by its male members, a monopoly which is unsafe for women. Fraternities often go further than promoting male dominance and brotherhood: they can also encourage sexual aggression and rape. A fraternity at Georgia Tech was suspended in 2013 after one of its members sent an email to his brothers with the subject “Luring your rapebait.” A 2007 study found that fraternity brothers were three times more likely to commit rape than other men on college campuses. And sorority sisters aren’t the only guests at frat parties—any student who attends is at risk.
Here is the paradox of Berkeley, and other US universities: one element of their culture promotes safe space, discussions around sexual consent and measures to ensure students are not discriminated against. Another element—one which thousands of students continue to sign up for every year—encourages racism, elitism, bullying, and sexual assault.
Bewildering rituals and backward rules are fostered in the beautiful houses of fraternities and sororities across America. Universities too, should take a public stand against how Greek organisations are run. These institutions need radical reform or to be eradicated altogether.