For the unacquainted, 'Greek Life' is the system of fraternities and sororities that dominates almost every American university. In the United States and Canada it lays claim to over nine million members, 750,000 of whom are current undergraduates. These are spread over 800 campuses where membership can reach up to 80% of all students. This system truly is an enormous presence that can be felt throughout most universities.
Consequently, when I arrived in the U.S to study abroad, I did so with an open-mind. As Greek life was evidently such a large part of college life, a life I intended to understand and experience further, I did not want to judge it simply because it was different. I asked questions and even considered 'rushing' (the initial stages of joining a fraternity) however, on discovering it took at least one semester to become a full member, I opted against it.
As time went by I soon realised that this was the right decision. The very notion of dividing students based on gender immediately struck me as odd; fraternities for males and sororities for females. A wall was placed between the sexes almost immediately after their arrival. This would be less problematic if they were then subjected to the same standards. Sadly, the reality is the total opposite.
The gulf in expected conduct is the real essence of what is wrong with this system. Girls, for example, cannot host parties or drink in their sorority houses. They cannot even be photographed drinking if they are wearing any one of the seemingly endless sorority garments that they're expected to buy. During the enrolment process, any discussion of boys, partying, or alcohol is prohibited. Beauty standards are set and they are set high. This leaked email from the University of Southern California gives an indication of the, virtually unattainable, standards that these women are expected to achieve. It all feeds into one narrative, that is, young women are both innocent and pure. The symbolism of the white-dresses that are standard attire for sorority events is testament to this archaic idea.
Guys, on the other hand, are free to drink and party to excess. There are numerous frat slogans revolving around creating 'gentlemen', and it seemed to me that they strived for this outdated ideal on the surface. For example, the image of chivalry was presented in a long process that involved fraternities 'courting' sororities in the hope that they would invite them to a special 'homecoming' event at the end of the year. They gave gifts, flowers, and generally tried to woo these young women with an entirely superficial charade that seemed incredibly regressive - if not patronising.
Beneath this, however, fraternities appeared to produce anything but gentlemen. Fraternity houses served as a sordid and exploitative domain where membership was viewed as a right of access, to put it bluntly, to the females in attendance. It became clear that a specific ratio of girls to guys had to be maintained at all times at parties. Often no guys were allowed in at all. My female friends were harassed, and on one occasion I saw two friends running across the room in a hurry. I thought nothing of it, but I later learnt that they were fleeing two guys, one of whom had bluntly declared "I'm going to f**k you". They plied these girls with alcohol, topping up their drinks all too eagerly. At another party, I was twice asked who I knew, and was treated with disdain for chatting to a female friend. "Is this guy causing you any problems?", a 'chivalrous' man enquired, as we quietly talked in the corner.
(Protesters outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, UVA. It was the site of an alleged gang rape. Source: Flickr)
The very nature of the Greek system is divisive, backwards and insular. It is a breeding ground for the kind of misogynistic thinking and behaviour exhibited above. This leaked fraternity email from the university I attended, the College of William & Mary, sheds some ugly light on the way fraternities view women. It would be naive to think that this is a one-off in terms of the individual, the University, or even the wider system.
Although this may seem like an American problem, when one considers the attention that 'Lad Culture' has received of late, it was interesting to witness its very real equivalent across the Atlantic. It's easy to view British 'lads' as a special breed but misogynistic students exist in most universities; in the US, to an extreme and ugly degree.
Moreover, fraternities have entered the U.K in places such as KCL, Imperial, and St. Andrews and are looking to expand further. I strongly believe that our Universities must resist the approaches of these organisations as they can only cause harm. As far as I am concerned, they are sexist, elitist, and not welcome.