Do different rules for fraternities and sororities make campus life more dangerous for women?

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Photo: Martyn Kyle Photo: Martyn Kyle

It’s just before midnight on an October Friday at UVA, and deep in the bowels of a stately brick mansion on Rugby Road, throngs of undergraduates in cutoffs and cowboy boots are packed shoulder to shoulder in a dingy room with a sticky floor, watching one drunk classmate after another mount and then be flung from the back of a mechanical bull, their screams barely audible over the deafening sound of pounding music .

Two blocks away, a long line of mostly under-21 women stretches from the porch of another house, where men grant access to a chosen few through a front door barricaded with couches and tables. Downstairs, a sprawling basement dance floor is three feet deep in packing peanuts—the absorbent, cornstarch-based kind. People drop drinks, watch them vanish, and dance on.

They’re typical UVA Greek house parties in a few ways. There’s the alcohol: cases of Keystone light stacked in the kitchen, endless cups of mystery punch. And there’s the fact that they’re hosted by men, and only men. On this Friday and all other days, the sorority houses are quiet.

It’s such an entrenched part of Greek life—here, but also at colleges across the country—that few have thought to question it over the years: Thanks to rules on alcohol in residences set by national organizations, fraternities host house parties, and sororities do not.

But some at UVA, where nearly 30 percent of undergraduates are affiliated with Greek letter organizations, are questioning it now. Colleges nationwide are being forced to examine how they push back against sexual violence on campus, a problem so widespread that the Centers for Disease Control reports that higher education actually increases women’s chances of being victims of sexual assault. UVA has been thrust into the spotlight in that debate as one of 51 colleges and universities, many of them elite institutions, under investigation by the Department of Education since 2011 for possible violations of federal laws dictating how accusations of sexual assault are handled. In the last two years, UVA has made national headlines multiple times for hazing and binge-drinking incidents at fraternities, including the very public suspension of the charter of one of UVA’s founding frats, Pi Kappa Alpha, after 2014’s spring rush. The disappearance and death of second-year student Hannah Graham after a night drinking on Grounds in September has only upped the urgency of the debate around campus safety.

Would anything change if sororities got to play host to some of the parties that are so central to the social lives of so many on Grounds? Some women—men, too—want to find out, but they face an uphill battle.

Home sweet home?

Not all UVA sorority women have a problem with the rules that guide their social lives. Isabel Concepcion, a fourth-year and the social chair for Kappa Kappa Gamma, pointed out that sororities host plenty of parties. They may be off site, and there may be more hoops to jump through and a more carefully controlled supply of alcohol, but she doesn’t see a problem with that.

“There are big differences between fraternity and sorority social functions, but I don’t think it’s at all bad,” she said. “In fact, it provides more variety.”

Then there are the effects of a kegger on your personal space. Fraternity parties might be central to Greek life, but not everybody wants one in their own living room.

Several men pointed out the contrast themselves. Sorority houses are like “nice McMansions that people might actually live in,” said one fourth-year fraternity brother, but his house has suffered the ravages of drunk party-goers. “People have broken our windows, stolen all our pool cues,” he said. “People think they’re not real places, that they’re just social areas.”

Another brother described them bluntly: “They’re awesome shitholes,” he said, “but they’re shitholes.”

Several men also said they think sororities’ philanthropic efforts far outpace fraternities’ because the women spend less time, energy, and money on partying.

Jewel Crosswell, a fourth-year in Kappa Kappa Gamma, said she doesn’t mind never playing host to the kind of raucous parties that happen at men’s houses. “I don’t want my meals in a house that looks like a fraternity, and I don’t ever want to have to work a door, or figure out how to keep enough people out.”

She also simply sees the rule disparity as the wrong battle to pick. Parties are parties. “I’m more concerned with sexual violence in the fraternities,” she said.

But others feel it’s the parties that are at the heart of a social culture that leaves women vulnerable.

‘The people who live there have the power’

Few events throw into more stark relief the roles of men and women in the Greek social scene at UVA than boys’ bid night.

Bid events close out the spring semester rush periods for men and women, marking the moment new prospective members settle on a house and become pledges. But while sororities generally fete their newcomers themselves, boys’ bid night at UVA is among the biggest party nights of the year. Online accounts floating around college blogs refer to it as “the Christmas of Greek life” and “a sorority girl’s favorite day at UVA,” and students we talked to described a night where women—specifically, the new pledge classes—are the roving entertainment for the newly crowned princes of frat row. They dress in spandex and neon, tutus and ball caps, and, in groups according to sorority, make their way to a string of fraternity houses, where they’re plied with drinks.

A lot of drinks, by guys who are drinking hard themselves. By the end of 2013’s bid night festivities, which fell during the last week of January, six UVA students had been hospitalized, with two put on life support, according to media reports.

The drink-till-you-drop mentality means it’s seen as a high-risk weekend by everybody involved (Greek leaders “warn the crap out of first-years not to die,” said one sorority member), but women were much more likely to describe it to us as a dangerous scene, a time when they have to keep their guard up and look out for each other.

“It is obviously an unsafe night,” said Kappa Delta fourth-year Olivia Bona. “It’s a really predatory environment, where if you get too drunk…who knows what will happen to you.”

Bid night may not be typical if you’re talking in terms of numbers of parties or kegs consumed, but it is standard in Greek life, on any night of the year, for women to party—and drink—on men’s terms. And that, said many, is a problem.

Crosswell said frat parties are far from the only places where women can end up feeling objectified or unsafe, and she doesn’t think there’s an easy fix for that; she and some others who spoke to us said they weren’t convinced a rule shift would change much. But she does see an issue with Greek party culture.

“I think that the general sexualization of women is further fostered by the fraternity system,” she said, especially the act of men and only men controlling the doors at big parties, letting in only the people they want. “It creates an imbalance—we get to choose you and we’re deeming you pretty. We have the authority to say you’re pretty enough to get in,” she said. By its nature, “there’s a power structure there.”

Greek life would be safer for women if they could host parties, said Kappa Alpha Theta fourth-year Charlotte Cruze, because they’d be in control.

“The second you walk into a fraternity house, even if you are friends with everyone in that house, you are automatically a guest,” she said. “And the people who live there have the power. They know where the alcohol is, they know where the rooms are, and they know the layout of the house…this is a social pressure, because it’s their house, so they can do whatever.”

Charlotte Cruze. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Charlotte Cruze. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Besides being on their own turf, women at a sorority house party would be more likely to be surrounded by people they knew well, Cruze said. At a fraternity house, “if your friends leave, you end up there [alone] and don’t know anyone,” she said.

Fraternity men who spoke to us expressed their own reasons for being uneasy with the status quo. Some simply felt that sororities’ house rules were inherently sexist and unfair, the kind of outdated artifacts they and their peers didn’t expect to encounter at college.

“I know I always have a place to go drink where I’m comfortable, where I know people,” said Ben Camber. “I don’t see why [women] shouldn’t be able to enjoy that.”

Others said limiting sororities’ involvement in parties does nothing to curb the kind of heavy drinking and risky behavior that inspires hand-wringing among adults, but it does make scapegoats of fraternities—and that skews the important conversations that need to happen about risk and rape culture.

“I think people will drink and these situations will arise independent of who’s hosting,” said Phi Gamma Delta fourth-year Brian Head, but since they’re at the center of Greek life, “fraternities are easy targets.”

But cracking down on the Greek scene isn’t the answer, said Tripp Grant, a fourth-year in Delta Kappa Epsilon.

“I think the fraternities take a lot of pressure and heat off the University’s administration, in a sense,” Grant said, because they’re highly visible and student-run. “When an intoxicated student goes to the ER and claims he or she came from a fraternity party, that fraternity takes responsibility and is sanctioned by the IFC [Inter-Fraternity Council] and University accordingly. I believe that if UVA were to permanently ban fraternities from having parties, that heat and responsibility for a student’s safety would become a greater burden to the University.”

Tripp Grant. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Tripp Grant. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Lindsey Bond, a fourth-year Tridelt, is among those who believe the environment would be safer—especially when it came to women’s chances of becoming victims of sexual assault—if they were given equal footing in the Greek social scene.

“I really strongly see it as a campus safety issue,” she said. “I think you would be less likely to be sexually assaulted in your own home that was full of your friends, and your own space that you knew.”

Risky business

So why the vastly different rules for women and men? Two truths are key to understanding the strangely complicated and highly gendered world of fraternity and sorority party policies. First is that the universities where individual chapters reside have almost nothing to do with drawing up or enforcing those policies—it all comes down from national letter organizations, who collectively hold billions of dollars of property on campuses across the country. And second is that the rules are all about risk management and liability.

Cindy Stellhorn is the executive vice president of the Sorority Division of Indianapolis-based brokerage firm MJ Insurance, which writes policies for 19 of the 26 sororities that make up the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), a women’s Greek umbrella organization. She’s also a Kappa Alpha Theta who graduated from Indiana University in 1977. If anybody knows the world of sorority risk management, it’s her.

Brokerage firms like hers don’t insure sororities and fraternities, she emphasized; they’re the go-betweens who set up therelationship between Greek organizations and insurers willing to take on their risk—and there’s a lot of risk in Greek life, so individual chapters pay premiums that can be dear. But individual national sororities started distancing themselves from the hard-partying reputation of their brother organizations well before that risk became a big business.

Most self-penned histories of Greek letter organizations focus heavily on the founding days and glide quickly over the 1960s and ’70s, if they touch on the era at all. The word “turbulent” shows up a lot. The gist: During the anti-establishment Vietnam protest years on college campuses, the Greeks fell out of favor. Enrollment plunged, particularly in men’s organizations, and then they came back a little too hard; Animal House, released in 1977, presaged a new era of partying that helped establish the public perception of fraternities as temples of drunken debauchery.

In its own chronicle, a 12-page history titled “Adventure in Friendship,” the NPC writes that “the 1960s and early ’70s took a toll on every fraternal group,” but that the umbrella organization “viewed the scrutiny to which it was subjected as an opportunity to restate its adamant opposition to hazing and to frivolity and excess in activities like Greek Week.”

It was then, said Stellhorn, that the NPC’s member sororities wrote no-alcohol policies into their housing rules.

Then came something of a nationwide reckoning, as Greek organizations’ liability insurance premiums exploded in the 1980s, a turn of events that Caitlin Flanagan details vividly in her epic March 2014 piece for The Atlantic titled “The Dark Power of Fraternities.” Dozens of national fraternities started battening down the hatches against lawsuits from people injured during parties by inserting strict rules on drinking into their organization-wide insurance policies that persist today, and, thanks to the involvement of an advisory organization called the Fraternal Information and Programming Group, are pretty much the same for every fraternity: No more open parties, only six beers per person at bring-your-own events, absolutely no underage drinking.

But the ostensibly dry sororities still felt they were being punished by insurance companies who lumped them in with fraternities when it came to assessing risk.

“The men’s insurance was being underwritten by the same groups as the women, and the women were guilty by association,” said Stellhorn. “It was like putting a rotten apple in with the good apples.”

Fed up, a national sorority leader forged a broker relationship with MJ insurance, and a slew of other women’s organizations followed suit; many more forged relationships with other brokers. The risk management rules that were then drawn up and were ultimately adopted by nearly every NPC sorority went much further than those of men’s organizations, codifying in insurance policies what had already been stated practice for almost 20 years: No alcohol in the houses, and any off site parties where there’s drinking have to be handled by a third-party vendor that agrees to check IDs.

Two sets of organizations with two sets of standards in chapters on campuses across the country. But the degree to which the members of Greek organizations follow those standards cleaves precisely along gender lines. Ask any fraternity or sorority member—and we did ask many—and they’ll tell you: No big party frats follow those risk management rules about guest lists, ID checks, and six beers per comer.

“It’s impossible to follow the rules, because the rules are so misaligned with the culture,” said one fraternity brother. “It’s hilarious, almost.”

So why do sorority chapters here and elsewhere generally stick to their own far stricter house rules on parties and alcohol, while fraternities flout their less draconian ones on a weekly basis? Why does student behavior take a double standard and run with it?

“You’re getting into a pretty psychological debate here,” said Stellhorn. But she sees a couple of reasons. Most sorority chapters have closer relationships with adults—house moms or house directors, usually alumna who live nearby. That kind of supervision generally doesn’t exist in the fraternity world.

That, and “women tend to be better rule followers,” she said.

Julie Johnson, chair of the NPC’s College Panhellenics Committee, agreed. In fact, she offered the exact same answer.

“We tend to follow the rules more than men do,” Johnson said. “I think we’re just wired differently.”

‘A Venus and Mars thing’

All but one of the national sororities we contacted for comment on this story didn’t reply or declined to comment. Only Kappa Alpha Theta had something to say about the issue of alcohol bans.

“As the first Greek-letter fraternity for women, Kappa Alpha Theta was founded on the principles of attaining the highest scholarship and influencing the campus, community, and world for good,” wrote spokeswoman Liz Rinck. “The ability to drink alcoholic beverages in a chapter facility is irrelevant to those aims.”

Rinck said the focus should be on tightening rules across the board, not loosening the rules sororities already have in place.

“If reinforcing a ‘healthier gender dynamic’ means reducing sexual assaults due to overconsumption of alcohol, it seems unfair to place the burden of staffing and policing parties with alcohol on female students—the most frequent victims, not the perpetrators, of sexual assaults,” she said. “Kappa Alpha Theta supports moving all parties at which alcohol is served out of student residences, including men’s fraternities, and holding them at venues licensed to sell and serve alcoholic beverages.”

University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn underscored that the Greek houses on Grounds are owned by national organizations, which set the policies members must follow. Chapters do have to adhere to a Fraternal Organization Agreement with the University, which grants fraternities and sororities access to certain UVA facilities; to honor that agreement, they have to meet certain safety standards and incorporate University-mandated educational programming.

Beyond that, UVA has launched coordinated efforts to tackle campus safety issues, both in and out of Greek life, he said, including meetings of President Teresa Sullivan and other administrators with chapter leaders, a bystander awareness campaign to prevent sexual assault, and task forces on alcohol abuse and hazing.

“The safety of our students, faculty and staff is of the utmost importance to the University,” de Bruyn said in an e-mail. “We expect the sororities and fraternities to promote a safe living environment for their members, and to abide by the standards and policies maintained by the University for all students and student organizations.”

No administrators from UVA would speak to us for this article, however.

Stellhorn said if sororities really do want to pursue rule changes that would allow their houses to be more like men’s, it will cost them.

Insurance providers who cover sororities are accepting the risk on condition of the current rules, she said. If they should change, “women would see their liability rates morph into what the fraternity rates are.”

It’s a big difference. Women usually pay on average $19 to $26 per member per year in insurance premiums, she said. From what she’s heard, men’s premiums come in at about $200—a number that was echoed by a fraternity member here at UVA.

And with good reason, said Stellhorn: “I could probably write oil refineries easier than writing men’s fraternities.”

In the eyes of the NPC’s Johnson, opening up sorority houses to parties is on no organization’s priority list.

“Why would we want to do that?” she asked. “Why would we open ourselves up to that liability and risk?” Fraternities’ rules on alcohol are far more permissive, it’s true, but she can’t speak to that, she said. “I think it comes down to a Venus and Mars thing. They have traditionally allowed it, and we have not. They continue to allow it, and we do not.”

That reasoning doesn’t satisfy the undergrads who told us that the national organizations’ attitude toward risk and safety ought to acknowledge that the social scene—parties and all—is a big part of why both women and men participate in Greek life.

Fourth-year Cruze said it feels like Greek men’s desire to drink and party is tolerated, even celebrated, and women’s desire to do the same on their own terms is squashed and marginalized. It’s seen as pathetic, risqué, unwomanly. There’s room for equal footing and safety, she thinks, but the way the rules are now, “it’s a complete double standard,” she said.—Graelyn Brashear and Nicolette Gendron

Nicolette Gendron is a C-VILLE intern and a member of Kappa Alpha Theta at UVA.