Campus | December 1, 2016 at 9:07 pm

The Case Against Sorority Sanctions



The familiar AAU statistics indicating the prevalence of sexual assault at Harvard triggered the initial push to penalize membership in all-male final clubs. But the administration decided to expand these sanctions to all unrecognized single-gender social organizations due to the alleged harms of all gender-based membership policies. Dean Khurana and President Faust have invoked gender inequity and exclusivity to argue for sanctions, contending that these organizations thus go against the mission of the college. However, Khurana and Faust have not fully articulated how these groups actually perpetuate such harmful cultural norms. Their decision has also failed to consider the views of people in single-gender organizations; for many, belonging to a community of only women or only men is valuable and empowering. In order to determine whether or not these groups are compatible with the goals of Harvard College, it is important to hear the voices of students who have been affected by these groups. In this article, I offer my personal stance on the issue as a member of a sorority, the perspectives of other members of unrecognized single-gender organizations, and views of of some students who are not part of these groups.

Do Sanctions Prevent Sexual Assault?

Statistics lend only partial support for the correlation between sexual assault and unrecognized single-gender social clubs. More than 75 percent of incidents of attempted or completed penetration by both force and incapacitation take place in dormitories. Single-sex organizations that are not fraternities or sororities account for 15 percent of reported locations in comparison, sororities and fraternities even less so. Of course, reports of the places where assault takes place does not accurately account for the behaviors of individuals in the organizations. However, the lower percentages of assaults reported in single-gender organizations weaken those groups’ role as a collective entity in contributing to rape culture.

Yet even if we were to assign heavy blame for sexual assault on final clubs, the sanctions are unlikely to remedy the unhealthy environment in those spaces. Going co-ed does little when clubs would still have complete control over whom to select as their members or admit into their parties, especially without fixing the skewed gender ratio. Moreover, other criteria for selecting members will remain unchanged, which means the clubs’ allegedly elitist character would most likely stay the same.

Why do We Need Sororities?

The conversation around sororities should not neglect the positive experiences of women who are members. For instance, relationships between sorority sisters develop differently from friendships in general. For instance, one is inclined and to a certain degree obligated to feel an affinity towards a fellow member of her sorority. When I come across an individual who is or was a member of my sorority, I can usually be assured that she and I have overlapping acquaintances or similar dispositions. Some could criticize such interaction as artificial or reflective of sororities’ function as networking places; however, the fact that common affiliation alone provides a reason for caring about another person renders sororities special for women at Harvard. One anonymous sorority member told the HPR that “sororities are unique because they provide a community of people who are bound together through mutual trust and friendship, not through common interests or skills.” She also added, “they allow for friendships to be made with people who have different interests than yours.”

Harvard often feels like a “place where … all too often community is a talking point rather than a way of life.” Even Harvard’s prided houses do not serve as adequate alternatives to the community that sororities provide. Back in 2012, when chapter leaders of the three existing sororities were considering adding a fourth sorority, Alpha Phi, Cabot House Master Stephanie Khurana implicitly disapproved of the idea by stressing the importance of fostering Harvard’s ability to create a strong undergraduate community through its unique residential house system. But students tend not to interact as regularly with their fellow house residents as sorority members do; house-wide events rarely promote lasting friendships, and house culture committees consist of a small proportion of each house.  

Sororities have provided some women with a non-judgmental environment; they know they are always welcome among their sisters. In her interview with the HPR, Sonjia Eliason ’19 reiterated this sentiment: “It’s relaxed; no one expects anything of you except to be a good friend. It exists to decrease your stress and help you have fun.” Personally, I have found my sorority to be a stress-reliever as well, giving me a break from the constant pressure to prove myself. At other times, life at Harvard could feel like a constant flip-flop between studying in solitude and going to overcrowded parties. While all you need to overcome the resulting sense of loneliness is perhaps a person at your side, that company is surprisingly hard to find at a school where availability is scarce. Sororities are a reliable solution, as one woman reflected, “When my friends are all busy, I know that I can find company by simply reaching out to my sisters with a simple email: ‘study buddy tonight?’”  

For sororities, sanctions are inappropriate not because they fall short of altering those groups’ characteristics, as may be said about male final clubs. Instead, imposing the pressure to go co-ed destroys sororities’ core value as single-gender organizations. Sororities are special largely because they are only composed of women. An anonymous member of Alpha Phi corroborated this point, saying, “The kind of relationships I’ve made with my sisters don’t just happen in co-ed spaces. We acknowledge that women’s and men’s bodies are different … why is that so different from acknowledging that women and men interact different socially?”

In my sorority, I can openly discuss experiences that are unique to women. There may be other, less female-dominated forums to talk about sexism and gender discrimination. But there are the more personal experiences that I am only comfortable sharing with fellow women, like feeling free after leaving a party where a guy hit on you aggressively while fearing that he will think you are weird or prudish. Telling yourself that you had every right to leave, scolding yourself for feeling apologetic, yet doubting whether you should have stayed. Trying not to let guys define your attractiveness but at the same searching for male attention in intoxicated social settings. Generally speaking, men and women also differ in their approaches to purely physical and impersonal interactions. These are the constant predicaments that I, and I bet a lot of other women, need female solidarity to overcome, and sororities often serve that function.

Are Sororities Exclusive?

Nonetheless, some may contend that the other side of the members’ experience of inclusion is the exclusion of those who are not admitted into sororities. My response is not that sororities are less exclusive than the majority of groups at Harvard. Of the 290 women who signed up to go through recruitment in spring of 2016, 193 received bids, an increase from 150 bids two years before that. It may seem justified to criticize primarily social organizations for rejecting candidates, but non-social groups do not necessarily pick and choose with more “legitimate” criteria. Even if we were to privilege the selection standards of, say, the Consulting Club or a Peer Counseling group, rejection caused by “objective criteria” can be just as painful as rejection caused by “subjective criteria” that sororities use. Attacking sororities for not admitting some women should then put countless popular, low-acceptance organizations under similar scrutiny.

Sororities are not flawless, but sanctions fail to address their shortcomings. If the administration were to recognize Greek organizations’ role in energizing social life by providing financial support, it would reduce the cost of being in them. This would allow for more students to join sororities or fraternities. Moreover, by offering to sororities and fraternities funding or other privileges like being able to use campus space for hosting meetings, Harvard College could reduce the inequity in social capital between the two groups. A member of an unrecognized single-gender organization told the HPR, “I think what the administration can do to improve gender inequity in power dynamics would be providing funding to throw events, like a night at Felipe’s, so that women on campus can be in charge of or take ownership over the social climate and social spaces. This would be in and of itself quite empowering.” Sororities’ inability to throw parties on campus lies at the heart of a culture in which men are always the hosts, women always the guests. More financial and spatial resources would not only allow Greek organizations to include a larger portion of the student body into their events but also grant women greater opportunities to serve as hosts.

Sponsoring sororities or fraternities would help them become groups that benefit the entire Harvard College student community, or a bigger share of students than they do now. Of course, it is understandable that Harvard would prefer funding events under its control that are open to all students, such as those put on by the Undergraduate Council. Yet joining Greek organizations or attending their parties could become normalized as part of the average Harvard student’s experience, not the domain of stereotypically Greek individuals. The sanctions therefore take away opportunities for unrecognized single-sex groups to organize more inclusive parties, while sororities are already highly disincentivized from doing so due to lack of funding and space.

Other criticisms

Other opponents of sororities contend that they perpetuate other harmful norms that ultimately contribute to rape culture. Amelia Goldberg ’19 told the HPR, “the very idea that you have a woman’s space and a men’s space which are internal platonic but, when you bring them together at mixers, etc, necessarily form a space of love or sex, is in itself heteronormative.” The same student also added that “sororities circulate a particular notion of what it means to be a woman that is evident in all of their public images… this super specific, old girl’s club type of womanhood is evident in the images of women in white dresses, or smiling on lawns.” Being in a sorority does often entail posing in stereotypically girlish manners, clad in dresses and looking happy. I have also yet to come across women in my sorority who dressed in non-traditionally feminine ways to formals.

At the same time, my sorority has never been a hostile place for those who express their gender in different or more complicated ways, or shamed those who bring individuals of the same-gender to date events. While it is unfortunate that those who do not conform to the gender binary cannot identify with sororities or fraternities, countless other groups including sports teams or a cappella groups are technically divided between men and women. The same justification for these unisex groups should apply to Greek organizations as well. As previously mentioned, separate spaces for men and women recognize gender-specific needs and tendencies that are best accommodated in the absence of the opposite sex. A member of a fraternity articulated this point: “If you operate upon the premise that there is an inherent value in single-sex spaces, the answer is to create more spaces that span single genders and more genders. But it seems unfair to blame the existence of an organization for certain gender identities for the nonexistence for others.” Forcing Greek organizations to go co-ed takes away gender-based affinity groups that serve legitimate purposes for many students who identify as men or women. An analogous example would be prohibiting racial affinity groups for Asians or Blacks at a school where the two races comprise the majority, in order to prevent marginalizing individuals who identify with neither race.

Another critique worth contemplating implicates sororities in the problem of sexual assault. This argument emphasizes that sororities enable male clubs and fraternities’ dominance by providing reliable female attendance at their events and organizing mixers with them. But many women who visit those male social spaces are not affiliated with sororities. Furthermore, the mentality of idolizing getting into parties at fraternities or final clubs is not cultivated by sororities, but by the lack of fun parties that can logistically admit a lot of people. Of course, there are deeply problematic aspects of college party culture in general, which posits that intoxicated interactions between men and women that involve sexual tension or chemistry almost always lead to hookups. However, sororities are not culpable for such a culture that is inimical to Harvard’s educational philosophy.  

Reasons to oppose sanctions include insufficient evidence to attribute rape culture, exclusivity, or gender-related discrimination to unrecognized single-sex organizations. Yet the issue of complicity in those cultural malaises almost becomes irrelevant in the face of freedom of association. By promoting the sanctions, the administration is setting a dangerous precedent, threatening to penalize whichever group is deemed to erode Harvard’s values. Professor Harry Lewis and his colleagues’ question highlight the troubling slippery slope that Harvard’s motion could precipitate: “How many other associations to which students belong might be judged, with equal or greater plausibility, to be hostile to Harvard’s values of non-discrimination?

Image Credit: Flickr/Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority

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