The first fraternity I ever went to at U.Va. was Phi Kappa Psi.
Two guys from my high school were newly initiated brothers, and a phone call placed by a friend earlier that evening allowed us to circumvent the crowd swarming the doorway. Wishing to separate ourselves from the pitiable first years who lacked an “in,” we wasted no time in pushing past them.
Standing in the doorway, my group of five was an odd one. With two boys and three girls, we did not match the requisite six-to-one ratio a guy needs to gain access to a fraternity party. We shuffled uncomfortably.
In hindsight, it’s weird to think I never questioned this ratio policy. Unless a house was at capacity 10 times over, first-year girls could almost always talk their way into fraternity parties — and for some reason, this inequity, blatantly crafted to make hooking up a game of favorable odds, didn’t immediately register with my nascent feminist consciousness. Maybe I wanted to feel I had the slightest bit of knowledge about the University social scene. Maybe, having been too shy to flirt throughout most of high school, I liked that my sexuality was now a viable asset. Maybe I thought that even in my first semester, I knew what I was doing.
We went into the party. Around 1 a.m., we left.
Nothing of note happened that night.
Substitute a different fraternity every now and then, and I’ve just described my first semester of college.
Even before Rolling Stone rolled out its scathing referendum on the University’s rape culture, it has been clear to college students, administrators and parents that fraternity culture — both at the University and on campuses across the country — facilitates dangerous behavior. Men who are in a fraternity are three times as likely to commit sexual assault. While the direct causation behind this statistic is unclear — it may stem from institutional factors that promote the glorification of sex and the objectification of women (which at the very least occurs verbally among brothers), it may be linked to the entrenched marriage of fraternities and binge drinking, or maybe, horrifyingly, the system actually attracts rapists themselves. Regardless, no one would claim fraternity houses are particularly safe places for women. To be sure, they are not the only space in which women are at risk. But the probability of being sexually assaulted at a fraternity party is unreasonably high.
This does not mean every brother of a fraternity is a rapist. The overwhelming majority of fraternity men have never committed rape and never will. In fact, research done in the past decade has determined a staggering reality: nine out of 10 college rapes are committed by serial offenders. The distinction that sexual violence is perpetrated on a mass scale by a criminal few is as important as it is harrowing — though it should not and does not pardon fraternities their role. That repeat offenders are able to lurk on the fringes of this system and by and large remain undetected is both ominous and telling.
These facts are what define the situation at present, and they make clear that campuses desperately need to restructure how they frame discussions about sexual assault. Current dialogues focus largely on defining consent and improving bystander intervention, and mostly skirt any deeper analysis of the cultural and structural factors that aid the execution of sexual crime. But this information — while at times obscured by different emphases — is invariably out there.
This, then, asks a different question entirely: as a first year girl who was superficially familiar with the inherent risk of attending fraternity parties, why did I keep going back? Especially when, after a few weeks, I realized I didn’t even like them?
This question is in no way meant to imply women — and in turn, survivors — are in any way at fault — or worse, “asking for it” — when they choose to attend fraternity parties. In both its on-Grounds spaces and off-Grounds extensions, the University must be a place where women can study and socialize without fear of sexual violence. This is not up for debate.
What I do mean to discuss is why first-year women are so drawn to fraternities — and why this obfuscating magnetism is particularly problematic.
The most obvious argument — though still an important one — is that first-year women have limited options. They are banned from drinking in dorms, unable to go to bars because they are underage and generally do not know upperclassmen who live in apartments. Because sororities cannot host parties, fraternity parties become the only viable social outlet. While it is unsurprising that most sororities’ national organizations do not want to deal with issues of risk management, it is worth considering that helping to manage the risk of young, potentially vulnerable women may not be such a bad thing. Gender aside, vulnerability decreases when one has the home-court advantage — and allowing women to socialize in a familiar, comfortable environment has explicit benefits.
What this reasoning doesn’t note, however, is that for first-semester first-year women at the University, there is no such thing as a familiar Greek environment. This is not to deny or downplay the benefits of deferred recruitment; it allows first years to get a feel for the rhythm of University life before they commit to pledging, and encourages them to form friendships independent of Greek life, easing the social pressure to sign up for and move through sorority recruitment.
But deferred recruitment also contributes to two very real dangers — dangers which undoubtedly affected the social decisions I made as a first-semester first year.
First, deferred recruitment indisputably contributes to the mystification of the Greek system. Of course, the idealization of Greek life and fraternity parties is not solely the product of deferred recruitment — anyone who has seen “Animal House” or “22 Jump Street” knows this — but, when I look back on my first year, I can definitively say that it did not help.
When I first arrived on Grounds, I was in awe of the Greek system. The status represented by the columns of the massive, stately houses that line Rugby Road drew me in as much as their promise of freedom and debauchery, and any intel I gleaned about this mysterious world was raptly internalized. Though I may not have realized it at the time, I craved in my first semester the recognition and structure I had left behind in high school — a recognition and structure Greek students seemed to hold in their possession.
Because recruitment didn’t occur until January, though, my veneration was a blind one — and the fact that I didn’t know exactly how to get “in” arguably made it more potent. I was spellbound by the system largely because I lacked information, and wanted to know more.
I went to fraternity parties my first year, then, not just because I had no other options — but also because I wanted to. I was enchanted.
This, obviously, is an issue. Though they are not formal members, first-year women remain an integral part of Greek culture in an unofficial capacity. First-semester first years are not included in the calculus that the University is 30 percent Greek, but they debatably attend fraternity parties in droves that far outpace upperclassmen. Because of this, first-year women are very much part of the system, too.
But because, in our first semester, our membership is not formalized, we opt in to this system without any real information about it beyond what fills our romanticized panorama. In massive numbers, we concretely shape what fraternity parties look like — in turn choosing to be a part of an institution without truly realizing what it entails.
The restriction of information is linked to my second criticism of deferred recruitment: that it cuts first years off from effective channels of communication with older women.
Conversation about sexual assault happens within the Greek system among sorority women. But conversations about sexual assault do not happen between Greek women and first-year women.
This is, at least in part, facilitated by the Inter-Sorority Council’s no-contact policy, which prohibits sorority women from talking to first years in settings where alcohol is present in the period between summer orientation and the first day of formal recruitment in January. This policy is, as its core, a rational one — existing to ensure first years are not courted by older girls outside the formal recruitment process. Most chapters also emphasize that this policy in no way pertains to emergencies, and that if an older sister is at a party and observes a first-year woman in a dangerous situation, she should intervene without hesitation. But it can also be argued that cultivating an environment that in any way separates these two populations, promoting an “us” and “them” dichotomy, is not particularly conducive to fostering an atmosphere in which younger girls feel comfortable seeking advice and help from older women.
The vacuum of discussion about sexual assault is more seriously reinforced, however, by the fact that first-year women are not given any information about how they will be evaluated during sorority recruitment. Though they receive a litany of information about what outfits they need to wear for each round, the specific criteria by which they will be evaluated by during the recruitment process is never elucidated — meaning that many first-year women misconstrue what will be taken into consideration and what will not. Reporting an assault does not impact your chance of receiving a bid. Advocating for survivors or as a survivor of sexual assault does not impact your chance of receiving a bid. In almost every case, sororities are not even privy to this kind of information unless it is personally disclosed. But first-year women do not always know that. Again, their whole system is shrouded in a cloak of mystery.
This is why one of the scariest parts of the Rolling Stone article, to me, was when Jackie’s friends discouraged her from reporting because, “She’s gonna be the girl who cried ‘rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again.” That statement is sickening, but it is not wholly surprising. The crux of the matter is this: because the Greek system is glamorized and the recruitment process concealed, first-year women are even afraid to talk about sexual assault. This is not the only factor that precludes discussion, but it is a major one.
There is something we can do about this. The best remedy for ambiguity and false facts is the provision of real information. Greek women need to make it very clear to first-year girls that sexual assault — as it relates to discussion, activism and reporting — is not evaluated during sorority recruitment. This should be done in a clear, explicit fashion — most sensibly through official presentations given to first-year women in their dorms.
The ISC is moving toward more transparency, sponsoring a number of Go-Greek Nights in recent years — though these events are opt-in, and unsurprisingly tend more along the lines of, “What should I wear to Round Robbins?” and less along the lines of, “I was assaulted last weekend, but didn’t want to report it because I am worried about the stigma within the Greek system.” By establishing formal networks of communication between older women in the Greek system and first years predicated upon issues of sexual assault — a “some-contact policy,” if you will — we can begin to combat this.
The first six weeks of college are known as the “red-zone” for first-year women, who are more likely to be assaulted during this period than at any other point in their college careers. As a first year, I did not know this. I just wanted to get into Phi Psi.
Any opportunity to provide accurate information to this vulnerable population of women should and must be acted upon. Barriers to entry help define the Greek system, but barriers to information absolutely cannot.
Rugby Road does not maintain its air of exciting mystery for me anymore. Gazing across Mad Bowl, I feel sad, angry and a little nauseous. As I look around, I see this cocktail of emotions in my classmates and in my professors, too.
Because ultimately, I was a first-year girl who emerged from the red zone unscathed — but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that I was just lucky. I would like to believe that if I were assaulted as a first year, I would have felt comfortable reporting. But I really don’t know. I might have been afraid to be the girl who cried “rape.”
Yes, this could happen anywhere — but it’s happening here. And while proposed steps and small prescriptions are admittedly less provocative than red bricks thrown through a window, they represent a tangible way we can start to make this school a safer place.
Julia’s column runs biweekly Thursdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.