Letter to the Editor: Freshmen women, save yourselves, don’t go Greek

Sororities can initially seem attractive. They provide underclass women the opportunity to meet new people and socialize in traditionally collegiate ways — these spaces provide underclassmen with social experiences that cannot be replicated anywhere else on campus. Dumped into a new environment, all freshmen long to find their niche within our large student body at the beginning of college.

However, the burdens sorority life poses far outweigh its assets. As a member of a Panhellenic sorority at Northwestern, I have experienced Greek life first hand. And, even on Northwestern’s campus, Greek life provides a pocket for thinly veiled misogyny and a cesspool for toxic masculinity.

Rape culture thrives behind fraternity doors. In the Greek system, only fraternity houses are permitted to host parties. Sorority houses are well-kept, and many of them only allow men in certain areas. At first glance, it may seem beneficial for women to have their own private spaces while frat houses are reserved for rowdier events. But, especially at mixers, when frats supply alcoholic beverages, men often pour drinks for women. Mixers are events in which one frat throws a party for one sorority, which means individuals who do not belong to one of the two chapters are not permitted to attend such gatherings. Certain mixers proved especially problematic last year, when a number of women claimed to have consumed drinks containing date rape drugs at Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

But SAE hasn’t been the only fraternity to host events where women have reported ingesting date rape drugs. The University email sent to students in February said NU received reports of date rape drugs at SAE and had also “received an anonymous report alleging that another female student was sexually assaulted, potentially with the use of a date rape drug, after attending an event at a second, unnamed fraternity house.” New women come forward every year to share their sexual assault experiences at Northwestern due to the actions of boozed-out fraternity men. Just last winter, during a protest against SAE, many strong women stood on a podium to share their battles as victims of sexual assault at the hands of fraternity brothers. Studies support the concept of rape culture often centering around fraternities on college campuses. In the words of the late Cornell professor Sandra Bem, “Perhaps if the (sorority) girls got to party in their own sorority houses, whatever heterosexual sex was going to happen would be more likely to happen in the girl’s bedroom … with her so-called sisters outside the door … And perhaps, under those circumstances, we wouldn’t have as much unwanted sex, or even date rape, on (Cornell’s) campus as we do now.”

Other Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association members argue that sexual assault occurs in other domains of campus besides Greek events. While it is true that sexual assault has appeared in other places than frat houses, this brand of violence disproportionately transpires during sticky-floored frat parties. As former SAE member Jimmy Wester bravely admitted in a letter to the editor published in The Daily earlier this month, “SAE fosters an environment where members openly talk about past hookups in degrading ways at Sunday brunch, where first-years have to invite a certain number of freshmen women to increase the female-to-male ratio at parties.”

But it isn’t only through its connections to fraternity life that sorority life curtails women’s experiences at Northwestern. PHA promotes its image as “empowering for women.” However, my experience in a sorority has been just the opposite. While I applaud my own sorority for responding to rape allegations by cutting off ties with particular fraternities, additional issues still exist outside of the recreational sphere of Greek life in every sorority. Between conducting research at multiple labs in Kellogg, serving as president of a human rights organization, serving as a member of a Chicago activist group, and completing schoolwork, I can barely make time to attend drawn-out sorority meetings that usually consist of practicing chants, lining up at a door, or archaic traditions in a dimly-lit basement.

Prior to joining my chapter, I had no idea the time commitment that Greek life required. For events such as initiation, I’m trapped in the house all weekend, repeatedly chanting the same rituals on a loop every 20 minutes. There are also multiple meetings every week, ranging from an hour to three hours, that I realistically don’t have time to attend if I want to make meaningful progress toward my human rights, academic and career goals. And I have been paying the price for missing these meetings. And I mean literally paying. Sororities police members’ schedules by only permitting certain absences to be excused. Only certain meetings even allow members to request excusal for commitments other than class. You may receive excuses for particular sorority meetings and go to your part-time job or executive board meetings after showing proof that you’ve tried to change your schedule around. So, research, work and high-priority commitments to other organizations are not excused unless you go through the hassle of trying to reschedule, which is ultimately unrealistic and tedious for members with multiple roles in the NU community. This means that the sorority charges its members for missing any meetings that are not at the same time as class. If anything, penalizing a young woman for following her aspirations is disempowering. On an individual level, this has been what irks me about sorority life the most — having to be punished for following my dreams.

Maybe I simply wasn’t the right fit for Greek life in the first place, but at a school like Northwestern, there are many women capable of success and such women should be rewarded for having aspirations outside of a sorority and not forced to, literally, pay for having an abundance of academic extracurriculars.

Some sororities attempt to justify fine punishments by saying that the money raised from fines allows lower-income members to participate in the Greek life community. However, fining individuals who cannot participate in certain events only furthers the gap between high- and low-socioeconomic members. Members from wealthier families are given the privilege to take part in Greek life and have a life outside of it. Therefore, if members come from less fortunate backgrounds, they cannot attain equal treatment in the sorority system.

Greek members on campus often depict our PHA and IFC communities as existing in a completely different universe from the organizations on state schools and southern campuses. But, the root issues in Greek life still persist at Northwestern. Many students retort that the degree to which sororities fail to support our academic commitments are less prevalent compared to other schools. However, just because another school’s Greek system has done more to disempower women through pedantic rules and lack of action toward fraternities’ sexual harassment than our school doesn’t mean that NU’s Greek system is optimal. It is not. I’ve experienced it first-hand.

In a Daily column published last year, Aaron Boxerman said “taking a ‘self-critical’ stance within these institutions isn’t pragmatic — it’s an excuse for inaction.” Too often, when I bring up my concerns to fellow members of PHA, it is fruitless. Individuals excuse institutional misogyny by saying there are many ways the system should be improved, and members should strive to make those improvements from within Greek life.

However, my experience within the PHA bureaucracy has only further confirmed my suspicion that the system cannot be changed from within. Only after joining Greek life as an underclassman did I truly understand the ugly problems PHA and IFC present.

It has been my greatest regret that I have been complicit in a misogynist system during some of my time at Northwestern. I currently live in my sorority house, trapped by an empty bed fee contract I signed when I first enthusiastically initiated. However, once the year is over, I plan to deactivate as soon as possible. But for now, all I can do is urge other Northwestern women not to make the same mistake I did.

Note: Additional issues prevail in sorority life that I failed to cover in this piece. Sororities’ lack of diversity, financial barriers and enforcement of the gender binary also present problems for many students. I believe these to be equally problematic.

Kristen VanTine, Weinberg junior

This letter was updated to explain how the writer’s sorority handles excuses from chapter events.