Nevo: Social relationships do not justify Greek life’s existence

Lily Nevo, Opinion Editor

Content warning: This story contains mentions of assault, drugging and disordered eating.

This is the first of a two-part series examining the harms of the supposed benefits of Greek life: social relationships and philanthropy work. 

One of the most common reasons people give for joining Greek life is to make friends. The college experience, especially during a pandemic, is largely defined by the interpersonal connections we make. So, the built-in friend group Greek life provides is admittedly appealing. 

It is hard to refute the benefit of friendships. It is hard to even say that exclusive friend groups at a school with about 8,000 undergraduates are pervasively harmful.

But friendships within Greek organizations can be toxic. For women, there is sometimes pressure to constantly look “good,” which is often defined by eurocentric beauty standards and fatphobia. Not only does this affect which potential new members are favored during sorority recruitment, but it also promotes the emphasis of superficial traits once they are a part of the organization. 

And across the country, members discuss the normalization of disordered eating in college, specifically in sororities. Though I would not be surprised to learn that there have been instances of sorority girls explicitly promoting behaviors associated with eating disorders, disordered eating in sororities is predominantly present as subconscious body image insecurities lingering from the appearance-focused recruitment process.

Much of the emphasis on sorority girls’ appearance stems from their unique relationship to fraternities. Sorority rankings are often based on perceptions of beauty from the male gaze. While the pressure to maintain a certain appearance may come from other sisters, they are ultimately doing so to ensure they get to interact with “top tier” fraternities. Thus in many ways, if sororities didn’t exist as compliments to fraternities, it is possible that much of the pressure to maintain a certain physical appearance would disappear.

For men, the social relationship within fraternities is complicated. Some have argued that a healthy fraternity environment can actually make men much more secure in their masculinity, and I do not doubt that there are fraternities that have succeeded in fostering this support. On the other hand, the all-male fraternity is undeniably a breeding ground for toxic masculinity.

The purpose of the fraternity is to be manly: successful and powerful. The extensive alumni networks of Greek organizations provide ample opportunities for career success. They grant members connections to organizations where internships are almost exclusively given to those who “know people.” Fraternity men make up only 2% of the U.S. population, but they comprise 85% of all Fortune 500 executives. In politics, fraternity men make up 85% of the U.S. Supreme Court justices and 76% of all U.S. Senators in history.

This Greek nepotism is concerning. Not only because it seems to be giving an advantage to many who are already privileged, but it also reinforces one of the most damaging traits of the idealized, masculine brother: entitlement. 

The culture of entitlement — to success, women or sex — is a product of masculine socialization. Studies have shown that while most men do not endorse traditional masculine roles, most believe that other men do. As a result, there is pressure for men to conform to such roles in order to be positively perceived by their peers. In normalizing pursuing multiple sexual partners and stigmatizing rejection, these men do not learn how to react when a woman does not want them. And it is this inability to accept rejection that directly promotes fraternity violence. 

Another study argued that a man’s willingness to intervene in a potential assault depends on how likely they believe their peers would be to respond. If a man believes his peers feel entitled to sex — even if his peers do not actually hold this belief — then he will be less likely to prevent an assault from occurring. 

Fraternity violence has everything to do with fraternity culture, and usually very little to do with individual brothers. I believe there are many good people in Greek life, but I do not believe that their mere presence in these spaces is enough to counteract the weight of institutional harm. 

In the fall, there was discussion following the alleged druggings at events held at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Alpha Epsilon Pi houses that the supposed perpetrator in each case was not a member of the fraternity itself. 

But if men won’t prevent drugging or an assault because they have been socialized to believe it is not something a man does, then why does it matter that the perpetrator was not a member of the fraternity? If the fraternity environment is conducive to this sort of harm, then members of the fraternity have a responsibility to prevent it. A brother may not be the one causing harm, but he is definitely not the one stopping it from happening. 

Just because we call someone a friend does not mean our relationship to them cannot hurt us. I am sure that Greek life has fostered many more healthy friendships than toxic ones, but when the harm of the toxic ones is so pervasive, their impact cannot be ignored. It should also be mentioned that many at NU turn to Greek life to find the social connections that are lacking in other spaces, and these students are not at fault for seeking these friendships. Instead, it is the University’s responsibility to create an environment where people are not reliant on Greek life to be social. 

It is hard to come to terms with the fact that someone may be causing harm simply through the friendships they seek. It is hard to reject the values that have come to be so ingrained in our notions of gender. But I do not see how reform can fix the relationships within Greek life when these friendships are the very justification for the institution’s existence. 

Lily Nevo is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.