Why Joining a Sorority Is a Perfectly Understandable, Terrible, Terrible Idea
The moment I decided I needed to get the heck out of sorority life came as I watched a gaggle of my pretty sisters in tied-up white T-shirts wrestle in a kiddie pool filled with off-brand lube while 20 boys in patterned button-ups stood in a circle around them drinking crappy beers, passing around a plastic bottle of vodka, and laughing.
It wasn’t so much the wrestling (as doing that in a sticky substance-filled pool is pretty fun), or the drinking (I, too, like to partake!), as it was the distinct impression that these boys thought they’d just pulled one over on us. Likely because they had.
Being part of a real-life Old School knockoff didn't just compel me to leave the sisterhood, it convinced me I needed to transfer somewhere that didn't even have Greek life. I didn’t feel smug or self-righteous; I was just baffled why no one else seemed to find anything off-putting about hungry frat boys commissioning a bunch of women to wrestle for them. The girls had been flattered, honored even, that the cool guys had asked our sorority to participate in their grimy basement grapple, and not another house.
But college was turning out exactly as I’d imagined it from watching Van Wilder, Legally Blonde, Road Trip, Animal House, and that '90s movie featuring an actually-kind-of-cool Jeremy Piven. And I'd wanted it that way! I wanted toga parties, and studying in my sorority pool just like Elle Woods (all sororities have pools, right??), but none of this felt how I thought it would. I was envious of the carefree way the girls were able to jump into the situation and actually enjoy it, and I admired their ability to appeal to frat boys, as much as those chosen sons of Long Island’s upper middle class disgusted me. I didn’t need these boys’ approval, but thought it would be cool to have it all the same. And being aware of that envy made me even more unhappy. My ambivalence clarified: this wasn't where I wanted to be.
The second semester of my sophomore year was a little late to come to this realization, but the decision had been a dance.
Rush at (this pretty damn good state) school is three weeks into freshman year, which is not much time to consider how you want to shape the next four years of your life. My roommate was friends with an older sorority girl who warned us we’d ruin our social lives if we didn’t join. GDIs -- “goddamn independents” in Greek speak -- simply have lesser social lives, we were told. Confused, shy, and convinced I was supposed to find my people within the first month, I followed the larger herd as they looked for smaller herds, which is itself a two-week affair.
Prospective rushees lined up like cattle on the perfect lawns and walked into the houses -- the huge, beautiful physical living quarters with commercial kitchens and no boys allowed upstairs past 10pm. Each girl was met by a predetermined sorority sister, and led to a spot on the floor where they sat and talked about how much they loved football tailgates and how fun rush is and if they knew any boys in common. In the basement chapter room later that night, the already indoctrinated sorority girl graded the prospect on a number scale and debated her house eligibility. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of rush that I realized how manipulative and calculated the actual process is. I’m pretty sure I was cut from one house because I prodded a sister too hard for a shred of self-awareness with a joke about how ridiculous the concept of rush is. At another house, my leg fell asleep from sitting in the same position on the floor too long and I limped as I left. If my seeming infirmity wasn’t what got me cut, it was probably my super-fake smile.
I learned pretty quickly where each house fell in the caste. Older boys gave warnings: “That one’s nickname is 'Dogs, Pigs, and Elephants,'" or “The 'P' in that one stands for 'Pie,'"or “That’s Visa, Visa, Mastercard.” It’s the high school hierarchy, only institutionalized and sanctioned by the dean. I would end up in the diverse one that had blondes, brunettes, and, like, eight Jews, and also happened to be considered one of the best on campus. I’m convinced I only made it as far as I did because of an advocate on the inside; a girl I was friendly with in high school was a sophomore and a sister.
Look at what I just wrote: apparently I still feel insecure that I might not have made it into the house on the merits of my own hotness/personality. But that’s what this system does; it fortifies stereotypes, misplaces value, and sweeps kids up into a life of social politicking at a time when they’re most vulnerable and desperate to figure out how to navigate a new order.
And what a new order it was! Based on a group photo, my pledge class was ranked hottest on a Greek life-centric blog run by an anonymous troll. But that anonymous troll wielded a crazy amount of power. My pledge sisters chanted “We’re number one!” at parties and shared the post on Facebook as if this accolade was something hard earned. Some of the sophomores who vetted us took credit for curating the best-looking pledge class. It was a selling point at rush the following year: “Join our house! You can be hot too!”
It was cool to be cool; there was something perversely empowering about being associated with a bunch of hotties, and having other people think this about me was somewhat intoxicating. But it was also empty and embarrassing. At parties talking to boys, everything about me was irrelevant until he knew what house I was in. Only then would he comfortably proceed with a conversation.
Inside the Greek community this blog was a source of pride and arrogance and jealousy, and furthered feuds between houses of women. “Sisterhood” in this context only applies to girls under the same letters, and other women are always the enemy. We didn’t haze (though others did -- my freshman-year roommate was forced by older women in her sorority to get on her knees and simulate oral sex to a beer bottle a frat pledge held on his lap), partially because I think the girls in my house were genuinely nice people, but also because we feared retribution from competing sororities for stealing their prospects, or stealing their boyfriends, or any number of petty crimes amongst women. One publicized slip-up and the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) would punish us, and little birds were everywhere. This led to nasty competition and ingrained distrust of the other houses, at least at a macro level.
Meanwhile, no one outside of Greek life gave a shit about any of this. That’s how these things go, though; it’s the same principle behind why everyone in media cared about the Gawker resignations but my civil engineer roommate thought it happened at BuzzFeed. (Do you understand that reference? Exactly.) Insular communities thrive on insular gossip; no group is immune to this, and trivial things become incomprehensibly important.
Like who our pre-game partner -- the designated frat that would raid our rooms on football Saturday mornings with mimosas -- would be, or who would get invited to every top frat’s formal, or who would invite us on ski trip, the weekend in the year when a frat organized and invited a comparable sorority to spend a few days drinking and partying and maybe skiing.
The weeks leading up to the event were marked by severe anxiety that the cool frat wouldn’t invite us. A lesser frat had dreamed big and offered their ski trip first and we had to make the executive decision to hold out in the hopes that the better option would prevail, which it did. We basically ruined the weekend though by ingesting brownies of a special variety and sitting inside the girls' condo watching The Notebook and eating dry cereal for 36 hours. This is emblematic of how cool these chicks could be, but how mired in politics the situation was. Some girls pined for weeks for the right frat to ask us, but then didn’t actually give a shit once they got there.
The boys threatened to leave halfway through the night because most of us ladies ended up sleeping in our own beds rather than theirs. The following year that cool frat didn’t even consider us. We settled for a different one, like some pretty little high schooler who held out for the lacrosse captain before realizing he asked someone else, and now could only hope that one of the guys from JV swimming didn’t yet have a date.
All of these activities, absurd as they may be, were actually quite enjoyable, I’m just incapable of assigning them any kind of gravity or participating in them with any sincerity, and was distrustful of the women who did. But that’s my problem.
And anyway, the sorority was hardly the sole reason why I left. I was cripplingly depressed (which definitely explains a lot of my general disinterest), and also in the art school, which aside from being composed of a community that almost by definition sneers at Greek life, also valued high concept over craft. You’d be more likely to get an A in a class if you sewed a giant tampon costume and wore it while handing out Kotex and Dove chocolates in the center of campus for a final project (Which I did! Not by choice!) than if you just painted something pretty.
The frat and art scenes are equally confining and exploitative, though; a group of blonde girls in Uggs who like to drink buckets of Champagne on Saturday mornings is no more exclusionary than the dyed haired, Converse-wearing kids who refuse to talk to them. But while art school has ladies out there celebrating menstruation (albeit in a dumb, dumb way), the Greek system is on the other side of campus enthusiastically trying to recreate the most demeaning moments of perfectly average Will Ferrell movies. So if you must pick a side, it’s hard to go with the latter.
And yet: I don’t really regret it. I enjoyed aspects of sorority life, and genuinely liked the majority of the girls. I very willingly dressed up as all manner of ho for themed mixers -- CEOs & Office Hos, Golf Pros & Tennis Hos, GI Joes & Army Hos. People knock the phrase “everyone else was doing it” as a critique against individualism and that’s true, but when it isn’t going over the edge and everyone is having fun, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. And when you’re young and suddenly aware that figuring out who you are is on your to-do list for basically the rest of your life, the best way to give yourself an identity is to align it with others’. It’s how we feel less lost... particularly at giant Midwestern state schools. It just happened that the culture I joined to make me feel less alone also set me, and all the young women around me, up to crave validation from the wrong places and encouraged young dudes to think that’s how it works. The fun-to-demeaning ratio just ended up tipping a little too far in favor of the latter, and I wanted out.
A few years after I transferred, I dated a boy who was in the art school at the same time I was, but we never knew each other. Turns out he had rushed a frat for a project called “The Stranger,” as part of a conceptual thinking class. The goal was for him to integrate into a community that he was not a part of, and create an art piece based on that experience. We tracked the dates and realized that the year Matt rushed was the same year my sorority had made it to the finals of the annual mud football fundraiser hosted by one of the top-tier frats. Greek life spent weeks gearing up for the event; practicing and competing in a bracket to determine who would end up sparring in the giant mud pit that was made with hose water in this frat’s front yard. The main event was, of course, frat versus frat, but the halftime show was a ladies game. The girls, my "sisters," had practiced for weeks with their assigned fratboy “coach” and they took the game seriously -- they were athletes and excited that they’d made the playoffs.
As Matt watched from the sidelines, one of the brothers turned to him and motioned towards the women, "It's better than porn isn't it? If we can get them to play football, we can get them to do anything. You can have anyone you want.”
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