The Sinister Side of America's Sorority System

If you've grown up watching American Pie you probably think that sororities are all about sex, booze, and endless partying. Behind all the bravado, however, there's something very troubling going on...
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If you've grown up watching American Pie you probably think that sororities are all about sex, booze, and endless partying. Behind all the bravado, however, there's something very troubling going on...

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I studied abroad in Santa Barbara, California, from January to July of this year. And I found out about something over there that I didn’t like. Not one bit.

See, there is this thing over there that they do. The whole fraternity and sorority thing. It’s weird. It’s really weird.

The system has been in place for a long, long time and it goes much deeper than the drunken college students holding the red party cups and running manically around outside the Pi Sigma Alpha Beta Gamma, or whatever house that you see in all the movies. No matter how much people sugar-coat it and no matter how much people defend it, it is, ultimately, a system whereby you pay both for ‘friends’ and the kind of social networking that will last a lifetime. I’m not being cynical – that is literally what it is. You want to find friends? Go to the park. Go to the park and frolic in the grass with a fellow park goer. Or perhaps with a random on the street. Yes. Dance with a stranger outside Tesco. People are everywhere. And most of them, unless they are quite odd, will talk to you for free.

Both Clinton and Bush were in a fraternity. Bush was even a president of one. Started out early then. It doesn’t stop there, though – even celebrity culture is filled with past Frat boys; Will Ferrell, Drew Carey, Neil Armstrong, Jon Stewart and Jeremy Piven, to name a few.

There is that phrase: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It’s depressing but its sort of true for many industries. And with the economy being the way that it is, many college students would jump at the chance to ease their way into the job market. They clearly have.

I was speaking to a sorority girl. She was very nice. Not like the stereotypical sorority mean girl that Hollywood has previously portrayed at all. But she put it very simply for me. If you are in a sorority and you apply for a job and somebody in that company was in your sorority, then you are “in.” I remember “in” was the word that she used.

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I met this girl around about the second month that I was there and I remember I was interrogating her quite a bit. I was just so confused as to how these ‘societies’ were being run and what was actually going on inside them. It has all been explained to me fully by various people over the six months, both frat members and outsiders. I may know all the logistics of it but I still don’t fully understand the point of it.

I have looked at it from both sides. The California girls that one of my study abroad friends lived with were not and had never been a part of any sorority. ‘Stupid’ was a word they used a lot to describe them. They may have shunned the sorority girls, but they saw the frat boys next door differently. They called them ‘the guys’ and any excuse to be ‘laying out’ on their ‘deck,’ they took.

Status is, evidently, a big thing with the Greek system. It can be seen as a good thing. One of my friends who came to King’s for a semester on exchange was the president of a fraternity at his college in America.  And he wasn’t a power hungry idiot who treated the eager freshman like his slaves as I had heard so often before, far from it. He was a medical student at an Ivy League school with hopes of becoming a surgeon. It is not black and white. There are perfectly lovely, decent people who go into the fraternity system simply wanting to be a part of something, to be a part of the brotherhood, the sisterhood, to make lifelong friendships or simply just to have a really great, drunken, American college experience.

We cannot generalise it. But I did hear some stories when I was over there. The worst was about a sorority on my campus that was put on ‘social probation.’ The reason? Allegedly, the head sorority girls made the pledgers (the new girls desperately trying to get into the sorority) sit naked on tumble dryers and then several frat boys were assigned to circle the bits on the girls’ bodies that they didn’t like. Over the next few weeks the girls then had to work their hardest to change those areas. I also heard tales of girls pledging for weeks with the impression that they were pretty much ‘in’ – there’s that word again – only to be told at the last minute that it didn’t work out due to a ‘technicality.’ Girls collapsing at frat parties due to a male pledger spiking their drink on a superior frat brothers’ orders, pledgers having to be at frat members beck and call at any time of day, even just to go and pick up ice cream at 3 a.m. because those in charge were ‘hungry,’ these were all whisperings that I heard. It may have been slightly exaggerated through hearsay or it may just all be completely false. But there’s another saying: ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Be it frivolous rumours or absolute truth, you can’t really deny the impact hazing has had on the U.S. college lifestyle.

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There have been several deaths associated with hazing. One of the most recent was that of Robert Champion, a student of Florida A&M University who died in November 2011 after being hit on a bus after the school’s football game during an initiation ritual. According to reports, the University later claimed that it was not their fault that Champion had died, as it was he who was responsible for agreeing to take part in the hazing. His parents reportedly felt that the University had not done enough to protect their son.

As far as I know, hazing, such as the above, is not permitted at College’s anymore. Yet it still goes on I’m sure. I recall my friend asking a new Frat member if he had been hazed into the group. He denied it. Of course. But the pause as he blinked at her question was just a bit too long and his eyes flickered just a bit too much. As soon as he looked away she nodded at me triumphantly. From what I heard, divulging certain things about the frat or sorority was a no-no.

What I’m basically saying is this; if something’s being kept a secret then chances are there’s something wrong with it. Is there something wrong with an exclusive society at a University? Not really, no. Is there something wrong with initiating people to the point of, well, no return? Maybe. Probably. Yes. Yes, there is something wrong with it.

So, just a word of advice for any new society members. Stay away from the tumble dryers and you’ll be fine.