Recently the news media reported on a fraternity hazing incident at the University of Tennessee in which a student was taken to the university medical center in critical condition with a blood-alcohol level of 0.40 percent—the result of an alleged “alcohol enema.” According to a Knoxville police spokesman, “Upon extensive questioning, it is believed that members of the fraternity were using rubber tubing inserted into their rectums as a conduit for alcohol as the abundance of capillaries and blood vessels present greatly heightens the level and speed of the alcohol entering the bloodstream as it bypasses the filtering by the liver.”
Members of the Pi Kappa Alpha chapter deny that that was the case, because, well, I imagine that the fear of being charged with violating one’s brothers with rubber tubing and booze is probably more terrifying than just about anything else those guys can imagine. I mean, people might think they’re gay, never mind that people might think they’re sadists. And now the hospitalized student is denying it as well, despite physical evidence to the contrary.
Allegations of brutal behavior by fraternities are nothing new. I was not surprised by a 2005 incident in which the body of a University of Texas fraternity pledge, found dead after a night of partying, was covered in homophobic slurs. And I haven’t been surprised by the numerous incidents of fraternity parties where whites show up in blackface, or by the misogyny that is fostered by fraternities and tacitly condoned by the institutions of higher learning that perpetuate their existence.
In university-based organizations based upon a principle of exclusion, young men are allowed to indulge in behavior that is racist, sexist, and homophobic. Only when that behavior endangers the life of one of their own are penalties enforced—and those penalties, public and embarrassing as they are, are mere slaps on the wrist for men who graduate and become upstanding members of society. So what of the misogyny, homophobia, and racism of their past? Surely that’s just college behavior, right?
A caveat: I don’t think that the individual people who join Greek organizations are bad people. I know, love, am related to, care about, and educate plenty of amazing people who participate and thrive in Greek life and who exemplify all that’s good about humanity. But it’s not individual members who are the problem.
It’s the operating principle of Greek organizations that if you’re in, then you’re better than all those schmucks who weren’t given a bid; if you’re a woman in a sorority, that means that you’re prettier and more charming than all those other poor women out there. If you’re a man in a fraternity, then you are an alpha male, the epitome of all that is lionized in your culture.
OK, so before you call me out as some feminazi out to demonize the Greek system, know that I was one of its members, a sister in a sorority for one year before I de-sistered. I joined a sorority because my high-school friends, with whom I went to college, wanted me to. It was weird to feel popular and wanted, because I had never been either. But even when I was rushing, and later when I pledged, I knew that this deal was not for me. I didn’t want to exclude the friends I had made during my first year of college, and I most certainly didn’t want to have to live, as was requisite for sorority members, in Greek housing. But I thought that I would get used to things, to being a member of something that felt bigger, something that felt like, maybe, real life. I was wrong.
I de-sistered after two incidents. First, I sat on the other side of rush, in the back of a classroom doing my homework (and getting told to stop doing my homework and pay attention to the photos of the rushees being projected on the screen in front of me), and listened as these women with whom I’d linked my fate rated potential pledges based upon their appearance, their past boyfriends, and their connections with current sisters. I got yelled at for refusing to take part, and I gathered my notebooks and walked right out of the room. I got in trouble for that, too; I was reprimanded by my sorority’s president for my unsisterly behavior.
And then I was nearly raped by a frat boy, some guy whose name I don’t even remember now, but whom I took to a dance out in the middle of nowhere because my sisters let me know, unequivocally, that the guy I wanted to take—a guy who wasn’t in a frat—would not be an acceptable date. I was able to fight the frat boy off only because he was falling-down drunk and I was sober. The next day he trash-talked me; it was like something out of a movie. And I got reprimanded—I am serious about this—by my sisters for not putting out. At that point, I was done.
Joining a sorority may very well be the sole thing in my life that I unequivocally regret, the singular act that I know I should have known better than to undertake. I hate myself for not paying better attention to that consistent and resounding voice—the part of me that I now know is my self—that told me it was nonsense.
When I de-sistered (don’t you love that nonword, “de-sister”? Cease and de-sister!), I was treated like a leper by women who had once vowed undying love to me. I was suddenly like a person with a physical deformity that made me at once pitiable and grotesque. The problem, clearly, was mine, and every time I saw one of my former sisters, I received a heartfelt “How are you?” But I never once regretted leaving.
Colleges seem disinclined to ever abandon the embarrassing anachronism that is the Greek system. But the good news is that we can all be individuals and walk away.
Laura Wright is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University.