Because of its roots in single-gender institutions, the Greek system often exemplifies more subtle gender norms in our society. I recently joined a sorority at UC Berkeley, and these norms quickly became abundantly clear.
Clearest case in point: Exchanges, sometimes called mixers at other universities, are fraternity-hosted parties where the invitees are members of particular sororities. Because sororities aren’t allowed to have alcohol in their houses or spend chapter money on alcohol, the fraternities are responsible for set up, clean up, and the money for the alcohol.
Before I ever set foot in a fraternity house, I realized that this could possibly create the dangerous expectation that sorority women owe the party hosts something in return for all their time and money. Other women thought so too, evidently, as many told our social chair that they didn’t want to go to exchanges because they had a boyfriend.
After our second exchange, a pledge at the fraternity walked me back to my dorm. For some reason, I thought that asking a socially challenging question to prompt an intellectual conversation about gender would be the perfect way to pass the long walk back. When I brought up the idea that perhaps fraternities expect sex from their party-goers in exchange for hosting the party, the pledge said, “Well, we do spend a lot of money and put in a lot of effort, so I mean….”
I had always assumed that the notion that men have a right to women’s bodies was subconscious, especially in such a socially conscious community as Berkeley. That pledge’s comment disturbed me to my core. How could men consciously think they have a right to women’s bodies, and not feel guilty about it?
Parties create an obvious power dynamic between the fraternity men and sorority women that mirrors the system of male dominance we see across our society. This microcosm exemplifies the subtler societal pattern because an exchange is based on gender. Exchanges center around the meeting of men and women, as opposed to people partying with people. The labeling and grouping of males and females puts the focus on gender rather than other aspects of a person. And such a focus exacerbates existing gender norms.
Typical masculine competition appears to be rampant within fraternities, especially with regard to drinking. I overheard a friend, a Cal sophomore in a fraternity, remark toward the end of summer break that he needed to get his alcohol tolerance back up before he returned to school. Members of fraternities, it seems, compete not in terms getting the most drunk, but in drinking the most.
Hookups and sex — between males and females –are a huge part of the party culture at Berkeley. At any given point at a party, you can find at least three couples making out on the dance floor. Of all the parties I’ve been to, I’ve never encountered a same-sex make-out.
The extreme heteronormativity at fraternity parties stems from a variety of historical and systemic factors. Historically, fraternities, and to a lesser extent sororities, have consisted of mostly straight members, perhaps driven by the fear that a gay person would attempt to “make a move” on another member of the same gender, therefore threatening the “safety” of those in single-gender institutions. The nature of the exchanges perpetuates the notion that fraternity parties are designed to foster the meeting of men and women within a heteronormative space.
I’ve taken my queer friend to an exchange as well as to several other open fraternity parties. Interestingly, the only party at which she has danced with a girl was at an invite thrown by my sorority. Invites are held at a non-Greek venue, usually a nightclub in San Francisco. Each member of a sorority receives two bids, or invitations, to the party—one for herself and one for a guest. The girl my friend danced with was my friend’s guest and is not a sorority member.
I think this breach of Greek heteronormativity was possible because the party was not at a fraternity, and both girls weren’t in sororities. When parties occur at fraternities, the emphasis is on the fraternity hosts and the assumption that they are most likely romantically or sexually interested in the women there. When parties are hosted by sororities, women are not objectified in this way.
Outside of fraternity parties, I’ve experienced other male attitudes of entitlement to women. On bid day, the day that new members receive their invitation to join the sorority, part of the celebration included riding rented trolley cars around San Francisco. While passing through streets with lots of bars, men would come up to the trolley and try to board it. We were obviously part of a private event (who tries to sneak into a house party?) and when we told them they couldn’t come on the trolleys, they insisted and kept trying. Among those who didn’t try to board the bus, some lifted their shirts as a way of encouraging us to lift ours.
It felt to me that night as if men thought they had a right to us, because we were a large group of women without any men. Why else would women congregate if not to benefit men as either a spectacle or to fulfill their needs? Sorority women’s stereotype of being “easy” or “slutty” only strengthens this entitlement.
While dangerous and disgusting gender stereotypes exist in and are perpetuated by the Greek system, I don’t at all regret my decision to join. I’ve met some of the most amazing and inspiring women in my sorority, and belonging to a group of people who have my back the way my sisters do is invaluable. Furthermore, it’s impossible to fix a system from the outside. I love talking about these issues with my sisters—and the occasional pledge forced to walk me home—and exploring how these norms can change.
One in a series of personal Perspectives. We invite readers to submit their own essays—inspiration can come from CALIFORNIA magazine or CALIFORNIA Online stories, the news, issues of the day, or campus life. Read more: