At Stanford and many colleges across the U.S., Greek life is considered to be a major avenue for social life, if not one of the only avenues we associate with the classic college party. Many Greek organizations purport to be service-minded, social support networks that bring net positive influence to campus. However, before we accept that statement, it is important to question how the very structure of Greek life itself can perpetuate negative stereotypes and behavior surrounding gender. In particular, gender segregation in the rush process and daily activities of Greek life often make fraternities and sororities enclaves that reinforce harmful power structures in society.
The separation of men and women into separate domains of accepted behavior begins during the rush process. The sorority rush consists of a series of evenings wherein potential new members (PNMs), wearing formal dresses, heels and makeup, are whisked from chapter to chapter for five-minute conversations. Since this is often not enough time for genuine interaction between new recruits, PNMs often feel judged superficially on their appearance or ability to make small talk. Indeed, some PNMs have observed that recruits use code referring to extremely attractive candidates as “polished.”
While the sorority rush process often feels hurried and values appearances highly, the fraternity process is slower-paced and reflects “male” values. PNMs can pick and choose which events to attend, which usually consist of barbecues or sport events. Fraternities value new recruits for their ability to be “bros” and display confidence and bravado, but expressing emotional vulnerability is not traditionally accepted. Indeed, LGBT students have criticized fraternity settings as associating confidence and bravado with male sexuality, while categorizing sensitivity and sentimentality with femininity. While not universally true, it becomes evident that sorority recruits are valued for their feminine charm and appearance, while fraternity recruits for traditional notions of masculinity.
Moreover, the Greek system structures interaction between fraternities and sororities in a way that sexually objectifies gender relations. A large portion of social interaction between the sexes in Greek life comes in the form of mixers and social events. Unfortunately, these events are often exercises in sexual conquest rather than genuine interaction and appreciation of the other sex. One can recall extreme incidents such as the email from University of Maryland Delta Gamma sorority policing members to stop “being f****** awkward and boring.” Meanwhile, emails written by fraternity members like Stanford alum Evan Spiegel provide specific instructions about how to get sorority sisters “f***ed up” and “get leid.” While these are extreme examples, they demonstrate an underlying sexual objectification that occurs at such encounters, wherein Greek sisters are expected to be flirtatious and brothers gain status points for sexual encounters.
Making matters worse, national Greek policy often creates a power dynamic between fraternities and sororities that render sorority sisters vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence. In particular, national Greek policy prohibits sororities from using dues to buy alcohol, so fraternities have the sole power to throw parties in Greek life. As a result, sororities often have to impress fraternities to be invited to events. In some cases, sorority members feel they have to sexualize themselves to gain “social capital” in these scenarios. Moreover, the fact that fraternities have control over party themes, drinks, dress and environment, combined with the pervasive sexual conquest mentality, results in events that become “a hostile environment for female students,” such as those hosted by Stanford’s SAE. In fact, one statistic mentioned that, at a national level, male students in fraternities are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than other male college students, while women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to be victims of sexual harassment than other female college students.
It is important to note that not all fraternities and sororities fit the description provided above. In fact, one fraternity, Sigma Nu, should be recognized for holding a speaking series on “Fraternity Engagement with Gender Issues.” However, this should not make us blind to the entrenched and harmful perpetuation of gender stereotypes and sexual objectification occurring in the Greek system today. Beginning with rush and continuing into social events and mixers, Greek sisters and brothers are divided into gendered roles that ascribe to traditional notions of femininity and masculinity. Moreover, the Greek system is set up to create a hypersexual environment where fraternity brothers hold disproportionate power.
Something needs to be done to correct the harmful gender relations ongoing in Greek organizations. For example, fraternities should create more events to encourage discussion around gender and sexuality; new recruits should be vigilant and critical of Greek policy; and university administration should be swift in acting on violations of code of conduct. While these measures will hopefully be enough, I believe that even more might be necessary. Because fraternities and sororities self-select individuals with similar viewpoints and beliefs, it is difficult to inject the necessary change in culture to correct gender relations. Furthermore, the very fact that Greek life, by definition, is based on a system of segregation of the sexes creates an us-them mentality that allows for sexual objectification, violence and acceptance of set gendered roles. As a result, a dismantling or, at least, integration of the Greek system may be necessary to overcome the problems in gender relations.
Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.