Letter to the Editor: Focus on listening to survivors, not saving Northwestern Greek life’s face

For background, I identify as a cisgender Asian American woman and am not a member of any sorority. I am also currently studying abroad and have been following campus conversations about sexual assault related to Greek life through friends and online media.

I am writing in response to the letter, “Far more heroes than villains in Northwestern’s Greek life,” published Dec. 2, in which Panhellenic sorority member Marianna Kammo argues that the recent spotlight on Greek life’s dangerous aspects “neglects how Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council members actually spend most of their time.”

Criticisms about an institution’s structural problems are not meant to, and do not, invalidate formative individual narratives. To recount positive interpersonal experiences to counter Greek life’s (understandably) bad rap at NU surrounding sexual assault — especially after prefacing the piece with a validation of survivors — is not only hypocritical, but more importantly, tone-deaf and harmful. The letter prioritizes personal ease over communal healing.

I don’t care how people in Greek life spend most of their time. Media doesn’t highlight positive daily interactions between Greek life members, not because there are too many or people don’t speak out as the author suggests, but because complimenting a friend and looking out for others at a party doesn’t make someone a hero. It makes them a person who cares about others’ well-being. Compassion should be celebrated and normalized, not glorified.

And while I don’t know how PHA and IFC members spend most of their time, many NU students spend their time trying to succeed under the system academically, socially and professionally — not working to dismantle systemic sexual assault. If they as a whole dedicated time and effort to enact change from within, I believe Greek life at our school would look quite different.

Additionally, positive student narratives actually do receive significant coverage. NU already spends lots of money advertising our undergraduate community as idyllic and unified. A culture of sexual assault, on the other hand, is of course not an aspect of student life our school boasts about. Therefore, recent media coverage about the problems in Greek life reveals untold, important stories.

The letter came two days after a piece about fraternity cultures published in another student publication, North by Northwestern. Written by a member of IFC, it discussed current issues of sexual assault and is centered on a survivor — a Panhellenic woman — and others working to reform toxic sexual culture and school policy about fraternities. The story illuminated the differing stakes surrounding the issue, and how members of the Northwestern community are attempting to enact change from multiple perspectives.

Kammo’s experiences don’t exist in a silo, as pieces like the above show clearly. Yet she makes the sweeping claim that “in reality, the vast majority of interactions that occur in Greek settings are not of malice or danger.” Including National Pan-Hellenic Council and Multicultural Greek Council chapters, over 2,500 undergraduates are Greek life members. There is simply no way an individual knows the circumstances of all Greek life-related interactions.

Sororities and fraternities reinforce one another. Participating in events held by, and defending, communities that foster toxic masculinity perpetuates toxic masculinity. Framing “negative instances” like sexual assault, harassment, hazing and alcohol abuse as exceptions in all interactions related to Greek life downplays the significant material harms they cause survivors.

Grappling with the harmful culture of a community you love is difficult. I believe the author cares about the women who she’s become friends with through PHA, albeit by participating in the same problematic structure. And I believe her sorority sisters and experiences have empowered her. But Greek life also imposes personal, material harms on many. The author’s financial and social abilities to participate in this exclusive system have allowed her to reap material benefits and perpetuate the system’s survival. So her participation and experiences come with the externalities of sexual assault and marginalization of community members, among other impacts. The system has its flaws, period.

I have met people I love deeply and found immensely supportive communities during my time at NU. But the positive aspects of my personal experience in no way alleviate the University’s deep-rooted structural problems and exploitative history.

It pains me that the author chose solidarity with the Greek system that actively harms Northwestern culture and individuals, especially women and non-binary folks. She exists independently of this institutional structure, and wrote to survivors that their stories matter. To truly empower women like the author wrote others have for her, one should listen to their stories, sit with the fact that Greek life has fostered an environment in which sexual assault is a regular reality, and prioritize communal well-being over personal ease.

Sexual assault is not a Greek vs. non-Greek issue. Neglecting to address sexual assault has lasting, high stakes and perpetuates trauma. Especially as PHA recruitment nears, conversations should continue to center told and untold stories of violence and trauma, often in Greek life settings, over personal testimonies of Greek life members’ good deeds. Let’s listen to the lived experiences of others to legitimate rather than to respond.

Woojae Julia Song
Medill junior