sexual objectification and degradation in campus greek organizations: memories, current events, and social change

Earlier this week, a college friend posted Soraya Chemaly’s article “Why Naked Pictures Aren’t Harmless,”  in our sorority alumnae Facebook page. Chemaly responds to the bids that one fraternity at Swarthmore has used to welcome new members. These bids (invitations to become members) featured a collage of naked women. Chemaly contextualizes the Swarthmore example among other recent new stories about fraternities around the world and their problematic treatment of women. Examples include emails asking members “who would you rape,” posters that list tips for how to get away with rape, and public slut-shaming.

My sorority sisters and I had an interesting conversation on Facebook about these issues, and I’ve been mulling the subject over for the rest of the week, thinking about my own experience as a student in a Greek organization, and my experience as a professor on campuses with and without a Greek system.

The first thing I want to say, though, is that we cannot draw broad brush strokes and label all fraternities as sexist, objectifying organizations that encourage bad boy behavior. That’s simply not true. Nor are sororities filled with conformist, silly, man-chasing women. As I moved throughout higher education, I realized the degree to which some professors and administrators simply disregarded students in Greek organizations, and that’s a real problem. Greek organizations can provide positive reinforcement of academic achievement and significant leadership opportunities and community building.

For instance, at my campus, Alma College, about 25% of students participate in Greek organizations now. I’m not sure what the percentage was in the 1990s when I was a student, but my guess is that it was similar. This is high compared to Michigan State (~7.5%) and close to Auburn (~25%), both campuses where I spent time as a graduate student and instructor.

My sorority was consistently number one academically of all Greek organizations on campus, and perhaps even of all student organizations. We were smart. We were nerds. While our sorority was incredibly white, we reflected a diversity of women of all shapes and sizes. Our campus stereotype: Alpha-Grabba-Donut. I’m proud that my group welcomed women for who they were and not what they looked like.

I served as the ritual chair, planning our initiation ceremonies and weekly meetings, and, later, as the VP of Fraternity Education: Pledge Mom. As such, I was involved throughout the process from invitation to pledge to completion of pledging and entering membership. Without divulging any secrets, I can say that our pledge process did not include any kind of obligatory sexual objectification or sexualized rituals, and I’m proud of that. If the process has involved some of the practices I heard about from other sororities, I would have de-pledged. Rumor had it that one sorority required new pledges to kiss all of the frat brothers who attended the bids morning event. I also heard that new pledges of another group always had to wear matching bras and panties, and members could check to make sure they were properly attired underneath their clothes. At the time I heard about these pledging rites of passage,  I was simply thankful that my group didn’t engage in such practices. Now, I critique these practices of sexual control, body policing,  and monitoring of women by women.

As I reflect on sorority songs and group dances, I realize the messages about alcohol consumption and sexual behavior are problematic. These bonding activities, though not part of the official membership process, still revolved around some patriarchal obsessions with male sexuality and pleasure, and a raucous and uncritical celebration of drinking. I’d love to rewrite the songs from a woman-centered perspective and to challenge the heteronormativity of said songs.

Returning to Chemaly’s article, I recall that we all knew that one fraternity house was more dangerous than others, and that members should not venture downstairs without other women present, if at all. We accepted this as a fact, avoided the house, and didn’t challenge the rape culture.

The combination of college aged students, dorm life, small town limitations on entertainment, the allure of alcohol, and a hormonal rush combined with powerful group dynamics, emphasis on tradition, and reinforcement of group social norms can be incredibly powerful and dangerous.

My experience was positive. I sang the songs and enjoyed a full social life with my friends inside and outside of the sorority. The leadership positions in the group helped me overcome my shyness, and the mass acceptance of the group allowed me to come out of my shell, so to speak, and to be confident in my individuality. As risk-averse, overly responsible, and anxious as I’ve always been, I avoided dangerous situations and resisted turning myself or others into objects.

Greek life can be positive and rewarding, or can create a culture of risk, degradation, and inequality. I hope that Chemaly’s article prompts further conversation within Greek organizations, in campus chapters, alumnae groups, and at the organization level. Can we preserve the social, philanthropic, and leadership values and transform some of the problematic objectification and degradation? Can we explore how such organizations promote inequality and transform them into inclusive organizations that work for social change, starting with building diversity and ending such sexist traditions as Pimps and Hoes parties?

(I’ve only just touched on other issues of inclusion, including some long-standing racist practices of membership at some chapters, and the culture of heteronormativity…these topics deserve much more attention here and elsewhere).