There has been a lot of media attention in the past calendar year on the sexist initiation rituals, rape, and sexual assault incidents within college Greek life. As a result, the following question has been raised: Why do women continually and willingly take part in a system in which they abide by the opposite sex's rules?
The answer may be simple: There is not a good alternative.
At many of the 800+ American and Canadian colleges that support Greek life , fraternities control the social scene with very little competition. Non-Greek student groups attract far fewer participants, are more sparsely funded, and provide less of an all-encompassing way of life (lacking a house, a cook, constant events, etc.). They exist as small planets revolving around a powerful sun.
The compulsion to join Greek life is strong. Without it, several students feel they would be "socially irrelevant" and excluded from much of "the college experience". This widespread belief was part of what motivated me to rush a sorority. However, I soon realized that as a woman, I was not an equal player in the game.
A Power Dynamic Driven by Inequality
Even though I joined a well-respected sorority--and thoroughly enjoyed my Greek life experience--the community with which I was affiliated was incomparable to that of a fraternity. If I walked past my sorority house in the afternoon, it would be empty; sorority houses are entirely dissimilar to fraternity houses where members congregate outside on leather sofas and blast music between classes. Outside of weekly chapter meetings and the occasional mandatory philanthropy event, the sisterhood rarely comes together.
In order to attain social benefits beyond this, a Greek woman must strive to play a role in the fraternity community. She must receive invitations to exclusive fraternity events, be asked to date parties, and be viewed as sexually desirable in the eyes of a fraternity. For many, joining a sorority is less about sisterhood for the sake of sisterhood, and more about sisterhood for the sake of being with the brotherhood.
What this means is that men are really in control of the Greek social scene--and at Greek-dominated colleges, the entire social scene.
In the sexual economy of Greek Life, men demand sex and women supply it. In contrast, women demand social status and benefits, while men supply them. Fraternity men have the upper hand in this economy for the following reasons...
An Intentional Imbalance
Fraternity houses host parties and possess alcohol, while sorority houses nation-wide are forbidden and must depend on men for these resources. Fraternity brothers, as the hosts, control who is granted entry to their parties. As a result, fraternity brothers restrict a party's population to mainly themselves and women they consider popular and attractive. By intentionally creating a male-female imbalance, fraternity men present themselves with greater options, while women are forced to compete for limited male attention.
Interestingly, fraternities do not seem to feel the same need to compete with other fraternities that sororities do with other sororities. UCSB's Sean Hernandez's research found that average BMI is significantly lower for top USC sororities than bottom ones, whereas there is almost no variation between top and bottom fraternities. In Greek Life, anorexic women seem just as common as men with beer bellies. It is no coincidence that the sororities at the top of the social hierarchy--the ones that have the greatest access to fraternity company--embody society's thin ideal. The finding that Greek men feel less pressure to sculpt their bodies in order to be popular among the opposite sex makes sense considering that fraternity men hold the power in this social system.
Competition within sororities is just as rampant as it is between sororities. Unlike the brotherhood of fraternities characterized by inclusion and loyalty, sorority women report exclusive cliques and incidents of "backstabbing" by fellow sisters.
The Expectation of Sex
Such an atmosphere fosters female insecurity and pressures many Greek women to engage in sexual activity. Unsurprisingly, Hernandez's research found that at USC, a sorority's social status has a positive correlation with its members' sexual encounters.
Fraternity "rush parties," sometimes involving sorority servers dressed in lingerie and covered in whipped cream, are intended to show highly intoxicated rushes what benefits they can expect if they join the fraternity. It is considered a privilege for Greek women to be chosen as a reflection of the fraternity. The underlying message is that women--despite being academic equals--are valued largely for their sex appeal. Additionally, some colleges have "destination formals," in which fraternity men and their dates take a weekend trip. A woman is expected to be a "good date" (one who consents to sexual activity in the hotel room). After all, she had the privilege of being taken to such an event, and the fraternity brother could have easily asked someone else.
Sex within Greek life has become meaningless to so many--a drunken formality performed in exchange for the privilege of feeling included in fraternity affairs. Future social invitations are not a given, but rather contingent upon continued approval by the fraternities. A woman no longer possesses the same power to withhold sex (without being called a tease). If she denies him, a fraternity brother need not look far for a replacement.
The current reality is that Greek women must comply with a system in which their ability to drink alcohol, attend parties, and gain social status is largely dependent on fraternity acceptance.
One possible remedy is to enhance sorority community. There is no reason why brothers flock to the fraternity house in between classes for lunch, while sorority girls eat alone or in small cliques at campus cafes. There is no reason why a fraternity house on Wednesday night buzzes with beer pong, while a sorority house is as empty as it is on Monday morning. Sororities should be permitted to register parties and have alcohol in chapter houses, so that they need not depend on fraternity approval for these resources. Even more importantly, priorities need to be shifted, from competing for male attention to actual sisterhood (and not just the "sisterhood" advertised during rush week).
Another possibility is to dilute Greek influence on college campuses through enhancing non-Greek student groups. If other organizations could obtain university-sponsored residences, sizable funds for activities, and social reputations comparable with the Greek community, the compulsion to join Greek life in order to have an active social life might not be as strong.
Fraternities should not control who attends social events. Competition should not be a way of life for college women. Sex should not be an obligation. The sooner the problems of an archaic fraternity-sorority dynamic are corrected, the sooner the overall college experience can be far richer.