A troubling irony

THIS WEEK is Take Back the Night at the University. Survivors of sexual assault and their advocates have been working to raise awareness of resources for survivors and ultimately prevent sexual violence against men and women. Ironically, this week-long focus on sexual assault issues coincides with Sigma Chi's Derby Days. Derby Days raises money for the Children's Miracle Network while also encouraging sorority women to dance around on a stage scantily clothed to be judged by fraternity men.

Derby Days is not quite that simple. It works by pitting sororities against each other in competitions such as penny wars (change in your bucket equals points, change in other groups' buckets equals deductions), a blood drive (two points for every sister who attempts to give blood) and a house decorating contest, according to a schedule released by the fraternity. Despite the fact that Sigma Chi is essentially getting sorority members to raise money and awareness for them, these events are innocuous enough. But the culmination of the entire week is a dance competition held at Sigma Chi's house. Each new member class of participating sororities comes up with a song and dance routine based on a theme the fraternity provides and fraternity members, with help from faculty judges, decide the winner. That house then receives points to add to those they have been accumulating throughout the week. Derby Days organizer Ryan Charles did not return multiple phone calls and e-mails for this column.

It may seem like a long jump from dancing to sexual violence, but a culture of sexual violence against women depends on objectifying them. Encouraging pledge classes of mostly first-year girls to dance around to be judged by mostly older men does just that by setting up a relationship that puts men in a position of judgement over women. Derby Days also creates a norm where young women at the University see that sort of behavior as acceptable or at least see that others don't have any problem with it. Dancing to be judged by men becomes the norm, and girls don't feel that they can speak out against the culture of objectification.

Then there is also the problem that the entire week's activities center around sorority women raising money for a fraternity's philanthropy and essentially doing the boys' work for them. Sigma Chi ought to take ownership of their philanthropy project. Including other members of the University community is a great way to raise money for charities. Derby Days, however, is currently a set-up that passes off much of the actual fundraising work to sorority women and takes much of the pressure off of Sigma Chi while giving them the credit for raising money for sick kids. Instead of targeting a specific, gendered part of the University community, why not include other organizations? CIOs could also participate in the Derby Days activities such as trivia night, penny wars and t-shirt sales to contribute to fundraising efforts and gain publicity for their own causes. Sigma Chi could also use this philanthropy to foster dialogue between different parts of the University community.

Sigma Chi is not the only party to blame here. Women encourage each other to participate and women buy into the competition, so men and women must work together to first understand the problematic nature of having girls as young as 17 scantily clad and dancing for men's approval. Sororities and the men of Sigma Chi must move away from that culture altogether. No new member or pledge should be forced or coerced into participating in Derby Days activities, especially dancing. Sororities should support members who choose not to participate and give them a frank and open forum to air their reasons for doing so. Many participants bond with their pledge classes through Derby Days but why do organizations which focus completely on bonds between women need a group of men to do so?

Derby Days is Sigma Chi's national philanthropy and they are just doing what they are told. At other schools, the week-long events are much worse, but that does not excuse our chapter at the University for disrespecting and judging women. Any group that seeks to raise money for ill children ought to be praised. What house-decorating and dancing women have to do with that worthy goal, however, isn't quite clear.

Maggie Thornton's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at mthornton@cavalierdaily.com.

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