Conduct a Google search for a fraternity or sorority, and some of the most popular searches will probably not be for philanthropy projects or positive news about the Greek community. Apparently, people are scouring the Internet for "Kappa Kappa Gamma secrets" and the "Sigma Chi handshake." Ritual, the basis of the fraternity and sorority system, is a secret to anyone outside the organization, and people are obviously looking to uncover these secrets.
But conduct a Google search for the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, and something a lot more menacing surfaces. The University of Vermont chapter of Sig Ep is being shut down indefinitely after several members allegedly circulated a survey asking who the members would like to rape. But not just any members were asked the question, "If I could rape someone, who would it be?" The survey was distributed among pledges: young men just joining the fraternity. Fresh blood, if you will, just beginning to understand the meaning of being a fraternity man.
Now, I'm pretty sure forcing the pledges to fill out a survey qualifies as hazing. And, unfortunately, hazing is an epidemic at schools everywhere. But so is sexual assault. I'm fairly positive that the founding fathers of Sigma Phi Epsilon would be so disappointed to see how their vision for a fraternity has fallen since it was founded in 1901.
As a sorority woman myself, a proud member of Delta Zeta, I would rather people be looking for ritual secrets than read about something like this. After all, what things are hiding in our ritual? Values? Pledges? Ways to live? It's a secret, but does that mean it's inherently bad? When our collective founders wrote our rituals, I am sure they didn't expect hazing or sexual assault to be on the minds of their future brothers and sisters. Ritual is a gift of sorts. A set of guidelines for us to follow, handed down from exemplary men and women who wanted to change this world for the better. No one started a fraternity or sorority and wanted it to be known as "The Sexual Assault Fraternity" or "The Hazing Sorority." No. Our rituals are so much more than that.
But for many collegiate members, ritual is just as secret to them as it is to someone outside of the chapter. Ritual is something necessary to induct new members, or a threat to make them do something. That's it. For some brothers of Sig Ep at the University of Vermont, what was ritual? Clearly something they did not live out. When those men were in a dark room, full of candles, making some sort of pledge on initiation day, did they understand the weight of their promise? Or were they just going through the motions so they could be official members of a drinking club?
I don't know the words of the Sigma Phi Epsilon ritual, or any ritual besides my own. I can't say for certain what Sig Eps across the world pledge to when they are being initiated. But I can get a pretty good idea myself. Not from a Google search, or from breaking into my local Sig Ep chapter's house and reading the manual. Reading the words wouldn't give me a true understanding of their values. Ritual is meant to be lived, after all, and not just meant to be words on a page. To understand Sigma Phi Epsilon's values, or any fraternal organization's values, I simply have to see what the members strive to be. Founders of organizations, whether fraternal or no, set goals for their successors and ask them to lead by example. Where do you find our rituals? You find it every day, in your interactions with Greek men and women. When you see brothers picking up trash on the side of the road, or sisters staying up all night together to write letters for St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Chapters who recruit based on integrity, academic excellence, and content of character. Not those who recruit based on looks, alcohol tolerance, or clothing. I'd bet money -- and I don't have a lot of money -- that hazing, alcohol abuse, etc. are not in any Greek organization's ritual.
This example that some brothers at the University of Vermont set forth is not values-based. It is not their ritual. My sorority was called into question in 2007 at DePauw when women were asked to leave the chapter based on their looks. That kind of attitude, I guarantee you, is nowhere in our ritual.
Unfortunately, this latest episode in our collective Greek history is another one where we all are called into question, and when our values seem to be lost in an old book somewhere. What can we do? I mention to people that I am a sorority woman, and I hear the same things. "Why would you need to pay for your friends?" "You don't seem like a drinker." "...what do you actually do in a sorority? Like, how is it different from any other club?"
For every one of us who fails to uphold our values, there are hundreds trying to fight the stereotypes and make this world a better place. It's difficult. It frustrates us, pisses us off. But I, for one, am proud to be Greek. I have faith in our rituals, and that there are men and women who want to live them out. What's more, I know there are good people in our national organizations, at the North American Interfraternity Conference, in the National Panhellenic Council, and in our chapters dedicated to rooting out what's threatening to undermine everything we hold dear.
If you're not Greek, I challenge you. Look me up. Look any one of us up. You can find our creeds and our open mottos online. If you dig enough, you may even be able to find our initiation services. God forbid that the world finds out we swear to scholarship and brotherhood and service when we are initiated!!
If you are Greek, I challenge you even more. Look up your own ritual, first. Do your brothers or sisters know it? Do you? Are you showing it in your daily actions? If no, why aren't you? Then, look to the others on your campus. Check out their national websites. Ask a few questions. We are all brothers and sisters in the community, in a way. Greeks and non-Greeks alike must be committed, together, to keeping the system accountable. If not, we'll disappear in a cloud of Animal House and hazing, of rape surveys and body image issues. It's all up to us.