Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Short Unhappy Life as a Sorority Girl; or, Fraternities, Alcohol Enemas, and Dehumanization

CNN is running a story about a fraternity hazing incident at nearby University of Tennessee during which a student was taken to the university medical center in critical condition with a blood alcohol level of .40, the result of an “alcohol enema.”  According to a Knoxville Police spokesman, "Upon extensive questioning, it is believed that members of the fraternity were using rubber tubing inserted into their rectums as a conduit for alcohol as the abundance of capillaries and blood vessels present greatly heightens the level and speed of the alcohol entering the bloodstream as it bypasses the filtering by the liver.”  

The other members of the Pi Kappa Alpha frat are denying that this is the case because, well, I imagine that the fear of being charged with ass-raping one of one’s brothers with rubber tubing and booze is probably more terrifying than just about anything that these guys can imagine.  I mean, people might think they’re gay, never mind the fact that people might also think that they’re sadists.  And the student in question is denying it as well, despite the overwhelming physical evidence that supports the alcohol enema theory.


I’m not surprised by this incident, any more that I wasn’t surprised by a letter written by one Kappa Sigma frat boy to his brothers at USC in which he indicated the rules for being a “cocksman” and recording one’s female conquests in a tally that constitutes a competition between brothers.  At one point he says, “Note: I will refer to females as ‘targets.’ They aren't actual people like us men. Consequently, giving them a certain name or distinction is pointless.”  I'm not surprised that the body of a University of Texas fraternity brother, found dead after a night of partying, was covered in homophobic slurs, the word "fag" inked on his torso by his brothers.  And I haven't been surprised by the numerous incidents of fraternities hosting parties where whites show up in blackface or by “a fraternity at Johns Hopkins University invit[ing] partygoers to wear ‘bling bling’ grills, or shiny metal caps on their teeth.” 

This image is as close as I'm going to get to making some sort of vegan commentary in this post, but you've read enough at this point, I'm assuming, to make those connections, eh?

Caitlyn Flanagan notes,The Greek system is dedicated to quelling young men’s anxiety about submitting themselves to four years of sissy-pants book learning by providing them with a variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women.” And these incidents, diverse as they might seem, point to the ways that fraternities consistently dehumanize, ridicule, and brutalize (both literally and in effigy) groups of people that they feel pose some symbolic threat to their hegemonic masculinity: homosexuals, women, and people of color.  

In university sanctioned organizations based upon a principle of exclusion, young men are allowed free reign to enact behavior that is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and only when that behavior endangers the life of one of their own are sanctions enacted, and those sanctions, public and embarrassing as they are, are temporary slaps on the wrist for men who graduate and become upstanding members of society.  So what of the misogyny, homophobia, and racism of their past?  Surely that’s just college behavior, right?


A caveat:  I don’t think that the individual people who join Greek organizations are bad people, so please avoid telling me about all the good people involved in the Greek system.  I know, love, am related to, care about, and educate plenty of amazing people who participate and thrive in this system and who exemplify all that's good about humanity.  Nonetheless, I like the author of IceCreamHEADACHE, “won’t challenge the broad claim that many fraternities (particularly the ones portrayed in gross-out-comedy films) are part of an institution that supports and reinforces misogynistic beliefs and tendencies. They do, probably as much as the typical sorority reinforces markedly fatuous, intellectually-vacant Cosmo ideas about femininity that revolve around bad TV, an obsession with one’s weight, the assumption that men are simplistic and interchangeable, and mani-pedis.” But it's not the individual members that are the problem.  

It's the operating principle of Greek organizations that if you're in, then you're better than all those smucks who weren't given a bid; if you're a woman in a sorority, that means that you're prettier and more charming than all those other poor women out there.  If you're a man in a fraternity, then you are an alpha male, the epitome of all that is lionized in your culture.  You're on top, and, as Matthew B. Ruby and Steven J. Heine note, "in North America, manhood is still considered a precarious state, easily lost and requiring constant validation" (450).  To stay on top requires adherence to and enactment of the narrative that other people are beneath you -- and they need to be kept there.  It's the nature of group-think that is fostered and thrives by virtue of this exclusivity that enables behavior that, when it slips past the carefully guarded and secretive perimeter of the Greek system, makes the rest of us cry out for sanctions.  Or get up in arms about alcohol abuse on college campuses.  Or whatever other right minded but completely misguided solution we think might keep this kind of nonsense from happening again.

OK, so before you call me out as some feminazi out to demonize the Greek system, know that I was one its members, a sister in a sorority for one full year before I de-sistered. I had the highest GPA of any sister in my sorority the year that I belonged, and I have the plaque to prove it, so: Back. Right. Off.

Somewhat true.

I joined a sorority because my high school friends, with whom I went to college, wanted me to.  It was weird to feel popular and wanted, because I had never been either before.  But even when I was rushing, and later when I pledged, I knew that this deal was not for me; I didn’t want to exclude the friends that I had made during my first year of college, and I most certainly didn’t want to have to live, as was requisite for members of all sororities, in Greek housing.  But I thought that I would get used to things, to being a member of something that felt bigger, that felt like, maybe, real life.  I was wrong.  

I de-sistered after two events: first, I sat on the other side of rush, in the back of a classroom doing my homework (and getting told to stop doing my homework and pay attention to the photos of the rushees that were being projected on the screen in front of me), and listened as these women with whom I’d linked my fate rated potential pledges based upon their appearance, their past boyfriends, and their connections with current sisters.  I got yelled at for refusing to take part, and I gathered my notebooks and walked right the fuck out of the room.  I got in trouble for that, too; I was reprimanded by my sorority's president for my unsisterly behavior.


And then I was nearly raped by a frat boy, some guy whose name I don’t even remember now, but who I took to a dance out in the middle of nowhere because my sisters let me know, unequivocally, that the guy I wanted to take – a guy who wasn’t in a frat – would not be an acceptable date.  I was able to fight the frat boy off, only because he was falling down drunk and I was sober; I was, therefore, able to push him off of me, to get his fingers out of my hair, and to run away.  The next day, he trashed talked me; it was like something out of a movie.  And I got reprimanded – and I am totally serious about this – BY MY SISTERS for not putting out.  At that point, I was done.  

Joining a sorority may very well be the sole thing in my life that I unequivocally regret, the singular act that I know I should have known better than to undertake, and I hate myself for not paying better attention to that consistent and resounding voice – the part of me that I now know is my self – that told me it was bullshit, a way to buy into to my status as something less than human, a “target,” a trophy for some guy's mantle, a nameless cunt.  But I can also be thankful for the lessons that the experience taught me, particularly that I'm never going to be willing to be anybody's bitch.

When I told my sorority's president that I wanted out, she told me that I was making a mistake, but I didn't believe her, and I didn’t care at all about what any of my so-called sisters thought about me.  All I wanted was to be as far from any entity that would

1.  Expect me to have sex with a stranger and punish me when I didn’t, and
2. Judge my fellow women based on their appearances.

When I de-sistered (don’t you love that non-word, “de-sister”?  Cease and de-sister!), I was treated like a leper by women who had once vowed undying love to me; I was suddenly like a person whose physical deformity made me at once pitiable and grotesque.  The problem, clearly, was mine, and every time I saw one of my former sisters, I received a pitying glance and a heartfelt, “how are you?”  But I never once regretted leaving; I’m too smart to be treated like a piece of meat – and I’m way, way too smart to objectify other women and turn them into pieces of meat as well. 

- ER

Universities seem disinclined to ever abandon the embarrassing anachronism that is the Greek system, no matter how much evidence that system continually provides us as to why universities should stop perpetuating the kind of sexism, racism, and homophobia that underscore much of that institution.  But the good news is that we can all be individuals and walk away; we don’t have to buy in to the allure of exclusivity and denial, and we can treat each other like equals, not like subordinates.

Work Cited

Ruby, Matthew B., and Steven J. Heine.  “Meat, Morals, and Masculinity.”  Appetite 56.2 (2011): 447-450.  Print.


  1. Strong arguments you make, and supported by too many incidents to be disregarded as anecdotal.

    On a related note, I was shunned by some in my college fraternity after an incident during my senior year in which I interrupted a hazing situation (which paled in comparison to this, thank heavens). Once a Model Pledge, I had been largely inactive due to lifestyle changes (bike racers go to bed early and don't drink much) and what I like to think of as growing up. I was already turned off by homophobic razzing for shaving my legs; then, I dropped in on a meeting after which the whole pledge class was being ritually demeaned in the dark by anonymous shouters. I insisted it stop, or I would call the Dean, which I should have done anyway. Afterward, I did involve alumni advisors who held a special meeting, a too-light consequence, really. I was told by several "brothers" that I would go down in history as a "traitor."

    Later, in grad school, I held the USC chapter of my fraternity formally accountable for playing "Tank" -- riding heavily intoxicated pledges like horses and making them spit marshmallows and puke at one another, when a member assumed I was like-minded and conspiratorially described the planned festivity (not sure what he was thinking as I worked in Judicial Affairs).

    Even later, I ran my fraternity's alpha chapter through the ringer, at both IFC and student Judic, for expecting its resident of a special room in a prominent outdoor campus central area to provide whiskey at all times for visiting members or alums, some of whom were throwing empty glass bottles at women walking past.

    I've been asked to be a faculty advisor, at both FSU and at my current institution. In Tallahassee, I first stipulated that I'd insist on them following written risk management, hazing, and alcohol policies, and to consider that before I committed. They didn't call back. Here, I did serve as such with a narrow focus on academics, but when the scholarship chair missed meetings and failed to communicate, and when they showed up at the 11th hour for my signature, I formally resigned (had to contact the Greek Life office when the chapter listed me anyway to show compliance).

    I didn't attempt to organize this comment into the form of a specific argument or narrative, as you did so eloquently. But with the emergence of so many discipline-specific pre-professional associations, service clubs, and other new ways for students to become involved and connected, I wonder if it isn't time to throw out the dirty Greek bathwater, the baby having outgrown its time. The costs just aren't outweighed by the benefits, which aren't dependent on or exclusive to the Greek system anyway.

  2. Thanks for a very interesting post - coming from the UK, I find the whole fraternity/sorority system in North America very hard to understand, but your clear narrative of what it involved for you have helped show me some of the many things which are wrong with the system.

  3. I really appreciate your insight to the Greek community at your school, however, I do have a couple of problems when you denounce the entire Greek system nationwide. I understand that you have had a negative experience with a sorority, however, I have had an amazing time in mine free of hazing, judging based on sexual preferences or appearances, and the encouragement of keeping a classy, intelligent, and kind value system. Our executive board was really accepting of the value systems of the entire chapter, and hazing was out of the question (we couldn't even do scavenger hunts because it was considered hazing). If I didn't want to have sex with a complete stranger, or even go out one night, I would not be reprimanded for it, and I wouldn't even be seen as a "boring loser" for not wanting to drink. I don't think I would be the person I am today without my sisters, and if the Greek system didn't exist, I don't think I would have found a place where I could actually felt like I really belonged and wasn't judged for arbitrary things. Every school and every chapter is different, and while I understand that your experience was negative (rightfully so), I think it's unfair to dismiss the idea of Greek systems completely, because they can and do offer a genuine brother or sisterhood complete with philanthropic, academic, social, and leadership opportunities to grow as a person that can benefit people for the rest of their lives, as it has for me. Unfortunately, the media has twisted the reputation of the Greek system as one that does more harm than good, when this is definitely not the case for everyone. I guess I'm just trying to say that the Greek system can benefit a great amount of people as well as give experiences like yours, so please take that into consideration when forming an opinion about the Greek system at large.