The Greeks, Co-ops and Gender

Opinion by Madeline Sides
Oct. 25, 2013, 2:00 a.m.

When people ask what I think of my new living situation on campus, words like “incredible,” “lovely,” and “surreal” quickly fly out of my mouth. For the co-op curious, I often elaborate on how cooking in our kitchen works, why we have a jobs system and how enjoyable it is to have five roommates.

Friends from earlier years at Stanford are quick to point out that my housing choice must be “pretty different” from places I have lived before. Indeed, moving into a co-op and out of my sorority house has marked a meaningful transition in my experience at Stanford and has changed the way I look at other aspects of my life.

The visible differences between the Greek and co-op communities at Stanford range from house food options and the physical layout of the house to resident’s lifestyle choices and the type of social events that draw the communities together.

Yet, I have found that the most meaningful distinctions between these communities are the ones you can’t see. In making my transition from a Greek house to a co-op, I have been particularly struck by the difference in how these two communities influence their members’ perception of gender roles.

Unspoken rules dictate the interactions between men and women in Greek social settings on campus. There is a preprogrammed set of behaviors and practices based on a person’s gender that Greek organizations have slowly adopted over time. These social norms about gender weaken our Greek community and hinder the formation of healthy friendships and romantic relationships.

I found the topic of sex to be rarely discussed in an open, healthy way in Greek communities, even though it is a strong social undercurrent. Greek men and women often appear in social settings primarily as representatives of their gender and gendered house rather than unique individuals.

Not only is this trend stiflingly heteronormative, but it also cements into place somewhat traditional roles for men and women in social contexts. Greek men live in a certain region of campus and Greek women in another. These groups are mixed in large numbers only when women are invited over to fraternities to party.

This practice in itself is not concerning, but the antiquated gender roles sustained by some pockets of the Greek system make it seemingly okay to have parties titled “CEOs and Office Hoes.” This type of event is surprising to find at a forward-thinking university like Stanford and is incredibly disrespectful to its female students.

On the other end of the social spectrum, Co-ops facilitate a gender neutral space that I have found cultivates healthy friendships and relationships between its community members of all genders. The house environment feels safe and open to individuals of any gender identity or sexual orientation.

Gender feels somewhat irrelevant in a co-op — as residents, we all do the same house jobs, live in the same rooms and have the same responsibilities to the community. A co-op house can host an event like body painting for Full Moon, which invites a spectrum of nudity, and the event vibe feels free and playful, not sexualized and uncomfortable.

This is not to say that the co-op community is perfect and the Greek system is entirely flawed. I have met remarkable young women in Greek life that have pushed me to believe more in myself and my abilities as a female student.

I appreciate the strong community of smart, successful women that my sorority has created. However, Stanford social culture, particularly in the Greek system, has a long way to go to catch up to progress that the University has made in other dimensions.

What can we, as students, do to foster healthy, gender-neutral attitudes in our communities?

I encourage you to think critically about who tells you how to view your own gender and the role they say you should play because of it. If certain communities make you feel more aware or uncomfortable about your gender identity, say something.

I encourage you to also think about your future housing options — while a co-op may not be for everyone, I believe that housing options that bring genders together in safe, open spaces cultivates a stronger community and a healthier view of self.

We are all students, we are all humans. The challenges and joys of being human that we all share transcend gender.

Contact Maddy Sides at msides ‘at’

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