Sororities have come under fire recently in a serious way -- whether it's the controversy at the University of Virginia following the Rolling Stone "rape on campus" article, the rigid recruitment rules that Jezebel takes down on a regular basis, or The New York Times covering the perceived inability of sorority girls to throw their own parties. There's never a lack of commentary, and almost all of it is exceedingly negative, and most of it is entirely undeserved.
As a former writer for the site Total Sorority Move, I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the subject of Greek life. (It's unclear what, exactly, being a sorority expert entails, but I hopefully have the credentials to discuss why it’s not the absolute worst part of college life across the country.)
I was in a sorority at a Southern school that's extremely similar to UVA, from the excessive drinking, to the grueling academics, to the popularity and prevalence of Greek life.
There are people writing about Greek life who think it's vapid and shallow and useless, and that's nothing new. What's new is the discussion around the rape culture that's directly connected to it, and in some ways built into it.
It's important to acknowledge the inherent sexism that's so much a part of the Greek system. Too often it's ignored, and women are left lining up for punch full of unclear substances (literally unclear -- it could be Everclear, or it could be something else entirely), especially if there's a lack of community at their new college. Worst of all, if there's no discourse on consent, young women aren't armed with the agency they need to make their own decisions at said frat parties.
The idea that rape culture is tied to sororities' perceived inability to throw their own parties is complex. Sorority women are allowed to have their own parties, albeit in public locations, and those are far safer than fraternity parties. A “risk management” team (a committee of girls who stay sober all night and enforce a “no shot” policy) is in place at most sorority parties to make sure members don’t get too drunk, and they take home the members that are attempting to secretly puke and rally in the bathroom.
It may be a safer space, but throwing parties in sorority houses, which are mostly used for living and crafting and eating, would be a huge liability if anyone was hurt or caught drinking underage. It would be safer for the girls, but the national chapters would be assuming a huge risk that they’re probably not equipped to handle.
After writing for Total Sorority Move, I was exposed to the darker side of Greek life, from the stories about date rapes in fraternity houses that were laughed off and called “blackouts,” to the horrific personal accounts of hazing that were considered bonding experiences. I also saw the positives that came from it -- whether it was philanthropy events that raised thousands of dollars, or friendships and connections that wouldn't have existed otherwise and last long after college is over.
Freshman year, I immediately befriended the girls on my floor. They were fun, and better yet, they made for perfect drinking partners (which is really all you need the first couple of weeks, in my mind, at least).
High school for me was basically like Carrie, only if no one noticed that Carrie existed (full disclosure: I’ve never actually seen Carrie). I felt like a Daria-esque outcast, so once college came around, I was ready to find somewhere I belonged, or at least someone to sit with at the lunch table.
There’s the cliche that you find the sorority house that’s best for you, which people mostly tell you if you don’t get into the sorority of you dreams -- but it happened to me. I had my heart set on the Southern, pearl-clutching house that all of my mother’s Junior League buddies had been in, but alas, I was far too liberal and Jewish for their liking.
My recruitment process was exceedingly awkward. Not only was I constantly stressed out and over-analyzing everything, shouting over the screaming 100+ other would-be sorority girls to tell someone what your major was just felt unnatural and uncomfortable.
When I rushed what was the “popular table” of sororities, I told one of the girls that I loved alternative music. She enthusiastically responded that she “loved John Mayer, too!” While John Mayer is a lot of things, indie is not one of them.
I went with the house that could best be described as “up and coming,” but if you looked at the anonymous and malicious gossip website College ACB (Juicy Campus at the time), words like “ugly” and “fat” were more often found.
Throughout recruitment, I was more focused on forcing myself to fit into a house that was popular than finding the right fit for me. After years on the bottom rung of the high school social ladder, I was ready to be part of something that would make people look at me differently. What I didn’t realize at the time is that wasn’t what I needed -- what I needed was a home away from home, and a place where I could be as “alternative” as I wanted without someone referencing John Mayer.
Unfortunately, rush is a huge negative when it comes to sororities, and for some young women, it’s all they experience if they don’t get the house they want or don’t get a bid. It’s far too easy to get caught up in the recruitment process -- in wanting what’s perceived as the best, instead of what’s best for you. It’s wanting to be seen as untouchable on gossip blogs like Juicy Campus, instead of being seen as untouchable by the best fraternities.
Recruitment showed me how materialistic and awful it all could be — the fake conversations, the even faker smiles, the questions about what boys you hung out with and what you did on the weekends to gauge how much of a “cool girl” you were. It was like a Cosmo quiz to determine your status as an It Girl, only it lasted for days instead of minutes.
It wasn’t as horrific as it could have been — barely anyone wore pearls, and no one asked what your father did for a living. But it certainly wasn’t fun or friendly like people say it’s going to be.
I can understand why sites like Jezebel bash rush. When you think about it, it’s ridiculous for girls to have to wear the exact same color-coordinated outfits, and full-body Spanx (I still have nightmares about wearing them all day). But, at the same time, recruitment is like a job interview. No one enjoys it, but you have to make a good first impression to get to the next step, where people really get to know you.
The horrific hazing, the rape culture that makes you look suspiciously at the punch at fraternity parties, and the unrealistic expectations placed on women to look perfect, Spanx and all, make sororities seems archaic in many ways.
But at the end of the day, being in a sorority allowed to me to become friends with girls I never would have met otherwise in college, which can be scary and overwhelming. The friends on my floor from freshman year ended up fading away. It seemed inevitable, since all we had in common was proximity and a love for shots of straight vodka -- but while that fades, the bonds of sisterhood don’t, as cheesy as that might be.
Without a sorority that embraced me, warts and all (kidding, warts were a definite no-go, haven’t you read the rules for recruitment?), I would have felt homesick and out of place. While the recruitment process needs to change, and sorority parties should be looked at to help fraternity parties become safer, those four years were made better by the girls I befriended.
After years of feeling out of place, a sorority is where I finally felt like a found somewhere where people could get to know the real me, not the filtered, fake, Valencia version that I thought I would have to be to go Greek. While I’d never refer to the friends I made there as my “sisters,” that’s what they were -- throughout college, we were there for each other no matter what, and it meant there were people I could always count on for anything.
There are so many things about sorority life that will never be right, and that do need to be changed. The cruelty of recruitment when someone doesn’t get a bid to any house at all needs to stop. Hazing needs to be cracked down on, because it’s still happening on campuses everywhere. Sorority parties, and the risk management team that runs them, need to be looked at and potentially put in place elsewhere.
Girls need to be encouraged to support each other, which is what a sorority does, especially on college campuses. If you saw The Hunting Ground, you know how dangerous those campuses can be. While I don’t want to say we need to look out for each other, because the bulk of that responsibility can’t be placed on women, it does help to have a group of girls who always have your back in any situation.
Sororities are problematic, but the rejection you face during recruitment is exactly like job hunting. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, but the reward is worth it in the end. In both cases, you end up with something that’s infinitely better and more fulfilling than when you started, and the juice (okay, in this case it’s probably Jungle Juice) is definitely worth the squeeze.