When Rolling Stone published a horrific account of gang rape at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia, the University responded by suspending all activity for all fraternities and sororities for the remainder of the year. This was a kneejerk reaction that punished many for the (alleged) actions of the few.
Greek organizations have a reputation for drunkenness and debauchery, which may in part be deserved. But sororities and fraternities have many redeeming qualities and fill a special role in university life. To blame “rape culture” on the Greek system, or to seek to shut down these groups, would be misguided and unfair. Let’s put blame where blame is due—a culture of casual sex, binge drinking, and confused notions of manhood—not on Greek organizations as a whole.
In full disclosure, I am a sorority alumna. I married a fraternity man. I’ve seen firsthand the positive role that these organizations can play in students’ lives and in the community and campus life more broadly. When I arrived on campus at my large public university, I felt lost and overwhelmed. After joining my sorority, I immediately felt the campus shrink: I could live with, dine with, and socialize with the same group of college women for the next few years. Doing so created tremendous bonds. Four of my seven bridesmaids were also in my sorority.
As a freshman, I was not considering going Greek, but I was disappointed to find that my university offered very few housing options that fit my personal preference: to live in an all-female dorm. In fact, the university seemed hostile to the idea, as if it were outdated and didn’t encourage a diverse dormitory life. There were no single-sex dorms available in the part of campus where freshmen typically lived.
The sorority house (where I lived as a junior and senior) offered what I wanted. In fact, no men were allowed on the second floor of the house unless it was move-in day or move-out day (in which case the sister accompanying the man would shout, “Man on the floor!” as a warning to any girls who might be getting dressed).
No, my sorority was not full of prudes, and I am sure these rules were occasionally broken. And girls sometimes spent the night out at a young man’s dorm or apartment, or at a fraternity house (where presumably there were no such rules), but at least at our house there were rules, rules that smiled upon the pursuit of virtue, and rules that could be hidden behind as an excuse to send your date home (rather than inviting him to your room). “I’m sorry, you can’t come up here… House rules.”
Greek organizations are one of the few last bastions of single-sex living on campus. Some students simply feel more comfortable living with members of the same sex, and Greek houses allow them to do so. In my experience, this girls-only environment accelerated the development of genuine friendships and made me feel at home.
Those truly interested in reducing sexual violence ought to consider the impact that housing policy has on the problem. Is it a coincidence that the move to sexually integrate dormitories has happened concurrent with a rise in reported sexual assaults? It could be that some 18-year-olds are simply not mature enough to live in such coed arrangements, and mixing students this way may send the message that sleeping together is no big deal. In fact, coed dorms have higher rates of binge drinking and “hooking-up” than do single-sex dorms. If colleges are truly serious about fighting sexual assault, they should offer more single-sex dorms.
Certainly society should do more to teach Greek students, and all students, that sex (yes, even consensual sex) is not just something fun to do with a stranger at a party. Much of the ambiguity and misunderstanding surrounding sexual encounters could be avoided if we took sex a little more seriously.
While my experience as a woman in a sorority was very good, some will argue that the all-male and “hyper masculine” nature of fraternities is at the root of the problem and encourages sexual assault. Yet again, this appears more a problem of culture than assignable to any one type of association. If college men egg one another on to drink more and to treat women as sexual conquests, then this is testament to our culture’s misunderstanding of masculinity. These young men are seeking to prove their “manliness” in inappropriate ways, probably because society offers little guidance on how men ought to act and earn respect. This is no excuse for assault, but might explain in part why dating and mating have become such treacherous waters for young people, Greeks and non-Greeks, students and non-students.
But if young men could see manhood in the high view—men as protectors, providers, and complements to women—they would not seek to find their masculinity in the wrong places, namely drinking too much and having shallow sex. Instead, with a higher view of masculinity, fraternities can be (and often are) as they were originally intended: a place to promote ethical conduct and a sense of “brotherhood” among men.
The majority of sexual assault cases involve alcohol, which is typically present at fraternity parties (as well as other parties on or near campus). But to acknowledge this, and to suggest that college women ought to be aware of this and take care with alcohol is lambasted as “victim blaming” rather than the common sense advice that it is. Surely, just as we take other precautions against the wrongdoing of others (e.g. locking our doors) we can encourage young people to be more cautious with alcohol. We want young people to avoid the whole host of bad outcomes associated with drinking too much including accidents, deaths, and assaults.
Being part of a sorority, or a strong group of female friends, can be a benefit in this arena. Going out to bars or parties with a group of women provided a lot of benefits, including that we would keep an eye out for one another. If someone drank too much, the other sisters would see to it that she made it back home safely. Older sorority members can be helpful guides to younger members, who may not know basic rules such as “Once you put down your drink, it’s not yours anymore” (i.e. it might have been drugged). Clearly, people can do horrific things to one another and while we can and should work to discourage that, we can also encourage women to protect themselves in these ways. Being smart isn’t supporting a “rape culture.”
Clearly, sexual assault on campus (and off, where it is actually more common for 18- to 24-year-olds) is a complex issue, and blaming the Greeks is an oversimplification. The cartoonish Animal House version of Greek organizations as purely debaucherous also overlooks all the good that Greek organizations do. Every chapter has committees on academics and philanthropy. Some even have Bible studies. Study hours are required for members in danger of falling below GPA requirements, which nearly all Greek organizations have. Greek life is also a great place to learn and improve social and networking skills, which may be part of the reason that Greek students report higher levels of success in their careers after college.
And many of the 5K races, backyard barbeques, and sports tournaments that Greek organizations sponsor aren’t just for fun: Greek organizations partner with charities and require community service and fundraising efforts of their members. The results are significant. Fraternities and sororities raise and contribute millions of dollars each year.
The principles set forth in the founding creeds of many Greek organizations include unselfishness, goodwill, honor, honesty, loyalty, scholarship, and self-control. These are high ideals to live up to, and Greek students, college students—and people in general—often do not, but in our efforts to curb sexual assault on campus, let’s not misguidedly blame institutions that have great potential for good (and indeed already do a lot of good) for students, college campuses, and their broader communities.