FOR MANY COLLEGE STUDENTS, the first days of September usually involve hitting the books, figuring out how new professors tick, and planning how their college degrees are going to serve them when it comes time to graduate. Some students have more than O-Chem and Intro to Human Sexuality on their minds, though. For them, the fall semester also means trying to break into the hallowed halls of Greek societies. Rush Week. Sisterhood. And, yes, Jello shots. Lots of Jello shots. Regardless of the collegiate Greek system’s recent scrutiny — I’m talking about the sex scandals, hazing, and allegations of discrimination — this particular American college tradition remains pervasive on many campuses.
It’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to participate — at least, before they know any better. Going away to college can be rough. An awkward transition into a new environment, surrounded by new people you desperately want to fit in with, can be pretty daunting, so aligning oneself with a social group, right out the collegiate gate, poses as a nice buffer.
I speak from experience, since I was in a sorority… for about five minutes. My freshman year of college, I joined and deactivated from a sorority in the same day.
I received a dance scholarship to a private Lutheran college, Oklahoma City University, which was — oddly enough — revered in the dance world. Being a dance major would affiliate me with a female tribe (with the exception of the few guys sprinkled in the program), but I was enticed by the popularity of the Greek societies on campus. The 80s and 90s movies I watched while I was growing up always portrayed sorority girls as the ones who were having the good times. The cool girls, bound together with other cool girls, seemed to arm themselves with a sense of power and safety. And the college boys were always aching over those cool sorority girls. I wanted to be ached over. I wanted to be cool. Whatever preconceived notions I had flurrying around in my 17-year-old brain, I figured I should have as many regular college experiences as possible.
So when Rush Week rolled around, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I visited each house, where the same gaggle of bubbly girls would offer you punch and give you a spiel on why their house was the house to join. At first, I approached the process with honest curiosity. But as I went from house to house and talked to girl after girl about how to decide which house was better than the other, I found myself waiting. Anticipating an “a–ha!” moment for when this process would make sense. Was I missing something? Each mixer, party, or function that felt like an interview was like “Lord of the Flies” — a cut-throat parade of cat-clawing covered up with lots of painful smiling and forced conversations. And I felt weird about the whole “paying your dues” component; the structure gave off the the icky feeling of buying friends. Do these girls really like me, or do they just want more money for the dry ice machine and the DJ at Winter Formal?
Although the main reason — ostensibly — of joining a sorority is to cultivate lasting friendships, it really just seemed like joining a clique. Not to mention aligning yourself with one social group seemed so restrictive and boring. I started to realize I wanted to meet people who weren’t just like me, or each other. I wanted to make friends with an eclectic group of people who didn’t always share the same opinions or looks, and would be perfectly OK with that. And although it’s 2015, sororities seems to be back peddling to another century where the norm for college girls was to objectify themselves. Take this recent recruitment video posted from The University of Alabama’s Alpha Phi chapter. It looks like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad meets Girls Gone Wild meets Dawson’s Creek (there’s a lake scene that involves jousting Tootsie Rolls). The homogeneous display — I’m not sure there was a single person of color in the entire video — was met with a swift and widespread backlash, prompting the sorority to take down the video. And the VP of University Relations made a public statement about how the video does not reflect the school’s “expectations for student organizations.”
There’s more ugliness to Greek life than a lack of diversity. According to a study done by the National Institute of Justice which tried to identify the people most at risk for sexual assault on campus, almost a quarter of sexual assault victims that participated in the study were members of a sorority. Fraternities today are getting a bad rap for inappropriate hazing and their misogynistic treatment of women — not to mention their contributions to campus rape culture — but sororities are also cultivating negative cultures. Hazing rituals among sororities have become just as nasty as their male counterparts, filled with excessive drinking challenges and ridiculous games (i.e. throwing expensive jewelry in a river) aimed at making you prove loyalty to the chapter. While bad things can happen to college students whether or not they are members of sororities or fraternities, the exclusive, secretive nature of the entire structure coupled with its obsession with alcohol seems to create the perfect scenario for sh*t to go down. If the whole Greek system were to disappear, then all the rituals and traditions associated with them — the hazing, the elitism, the maintaining of archaic gender norms — would go away, too, at least in that context. That’s not a bad thing, in my opinion.
After the week was over, it was time for Bid Day, which felt even more Mean Girls-esque than the rest of the process. Although I still wasn’t sold on joining any one sorority yet, I still wanted them to be sold on me. What if no one picked me? I didn’t have to worry about that particular ego-bruiser, since Alpha-Phi, who I later found out was nicknamed “All For Free,” chose me, or I chose them — I’m still not sure, to this day. When one girl described it to me, she told me “you’ll just know,” like it would be an epiphany. I “know” when I’ve found the perfect pair of heels at Nordstrom’s or the perfect avocado in the produce department. With this sorority stuff, not so much.
At the orientation meeting, after the sorority president was done giving a twenty-minute sermon about things like “sisterhood” and “being a good ambassador,” she asked us to go outside and line-up in alphabetical order and march back inside in a single file line. But we were already inside, sitting comfortably, and I knew how to spell my name. These ridiculous instructions, paired with the fact we were all wearing the same oversized maroon tee-shirts and white shorts, seemed fake, like they were trying to mold us into cookie-cutter Stepford chicks. I felt trapped. I thought this was going to be fun. I couldn’t believe I had actually thought it would be fun to be told how to act and who to hang out with, or what to wear. Shouldn’t we be accepted for who we are as individuals and not all try to be carbon copies of one another? That’s not a question you can find answers to at a Spring Fling mixer, I guess.
My “a-ha!” moment had finally arrived. I didn’t need this group to help me find out who I was. Being a 17-year-old girl made figuring out myself hard enough without trying to fit everything that journey entailed into a contrived, one-size-fits-all mold.
With my orientation packet in hand — which would soon find a new home in the trash — I stood up and went outside with all the other girls. But instead of going back inside, I kept walking.