Content warning: sexual assault, rape, abuse
One of the most daunting parts of freshman year, especially for those attending college away from home, is finding a place that provides a sense of belonging. As humans we want to make connections, and many of us do this by joining extracurriculars. Most campuses are filled with a plethora of associations that fall into a range of categories, from environmental sustainability to gaming clubs.
When I first began school at the University of South Dakota, the fear of not knowing anyone started to consume me. I was not involved in many activities in high school, and at the time I had never written professionally, so I decided to go through recruitment because I didn’t know what else to do.
I walked through the off-campus sorority houses filled with dozens of girls and watched as they so effortlessly paraded room to room in their 6-inch heels. Everything about recruitment was tactfully placed. The houses were elegantly decorated, and the women were perfectly styled in coordinating outfits. At the time, this seemed like a dream come true. My 18-year-old-self yearned for the feeling of popularity. I wanted so badly to fit in with the women I had seen in the houses.
At the end of recruitment, I found myself joining one of the organizations. A group of girls and I “ran to our new home.” We were greeted by extravagant photo booths, exciting activities and a deluge of girls. I felt so special, like these women put all of this together just for us. As the day wound down, we were told stories of girls that had joined before us, and we were taught traditions of the house. It felt as though I had found my place on campus.
The girls also gave us social advice and cautioned us about fraternity parties. I listened as they listed off details about each of the fraternities, which ones threw the best parties and which ones we should ask if we ever needed answers to a test. I was not prepared, though, to be told to avoid a certain fraternity house because all the members were “rapey.” The comment came so nonchalantly, like what she had just said was a normal part of what happens within the Greek life community.
No one else seemed to be bothered by the comment, so it was brushed under the rug as quickly as it had been said. The terrifying part was that no one seemed to be disturbed by the idea of a predatory organization on campus. It was treated by students and the university like sexual assault was just an unfortunate part of life, and that boys will be boys.
Rumors had circulated throughout campus that one of the fraternities had an X-rated Facebook page. The page was said to contain photos of girls who had slept with the members and some posts even contained photos of members actively having sex. Nude photos of girls, consensually sent to the men or taken unknowingly, were also posted without consent. This exploitation of the women was not only tolerated, but it became a sort of bragging right. I gossiped with other girls in my house about who had been on it, as if she had done something to warrant being a victim of revenge porn.
Girls were labeled with groupie-adjacent nicknames based on which frat they frequented the most. The names were always different forms of a demeaning name or word followed by the name of the fraternity. I also noticed the amount of gossip that was happening within the fraternities about girls in different sororities. They had a label for each one on campus, including the “fat house” and the “slutty house.”
When my sorority sisters and I began attending parties together I learned a few absolute rules of attending them. I had to let them know which house I was a part of the second I walked in the door, because only sorority girls could just come in, otherwise you had to make a list. It was also mandatory to look as scandalous as possible. We would spend upwards of two hours getting ready to go to these frat houses, just to spend the night in a pitch-black room with LED string lights surrounded by sweaty teenagers. It was also expected to grind on the guys and let them dance on you, but you always had to bring your own booze.
In retrospect, it baffles me that I was so ignorant to the outright abuse that so many girls, myself included, were just enduring. Greek life culture had told us that it was completely normal, and that we should be grateful we get to go to these frat parties. Being danced on by a sweaty stranger is just what happens when you’re having fun, right? And who cares who kissed you when you were black-out drunk. The community had normalized sexual assault to a point to where girls did not even feel comfortable acknowledging what had happened. So many times, it was passed off as just an awkward situation.
After two years I dropped my sorority and moved back to Omaha. It was a combination of things, the first being the reaction I received from girls when I came out. One girl said to me, “cute dyke braids!” as an attempt at a compliment, and another told other girls how the “lesbian in the house” made them uncomfortable. It felt heart-breaking at the time because I thought those girls were really my friends.
When the pandemic hit, I felt like I no longer had any reason to stay in my sorority, nor did I want to live in the house, so I made the decision to move back to Omaha. The more I thought about my experience with Greek life, the more I started to see the culture I had become so complacent with.
I have since spoken to girls that dropped their sororities from varying schools, and we all share similar experiences. I noticed we all shared once extremely specific experience, and that was the normalization of sexual assaults. Students may have gossiped when it happened, but rarely did it go reported. Girls were terrified to ruin their reputations, or worse, get blacklisted. Anytime a girl came forward with an accusation, she was immediately banned from all the fraternities, as if she were just prone to being assaulted. When girls did report it, seldom did their university, USD included, take it seriously.
Maybe it is alum donations to the schools that keep Greek life on campus, or the centuries of tradition. I know that it is not the belief that fraternity and sorority life shapes people into the best version of themselves. Despite everyone turning a blind eye to it, the corruption within the community is apparent.
Unless there is a substantial reforming of Greek life, I see no need for it to continue to be on campuses. In the last few decades, it has become a place that perpetrates rape culture and allows predators to avoid consequences.