“Bro, that little kid wrote that our tolerant views and fight for social justice is just a way for us to crush p—!” So blusters one especially indignant member of South Park’s “PC-Delta,” when an enterprising 10-year old reveals that the fraternity’s much-touted commitment to progressive values is, in fact, a scheme to sleep with beautiful women. South Park has never trafficked in subtlety, and the moral of this episode is clear: If a bunch of frat bros suddenly begin spouting platitudes about women’s empowerment, chances are they have something else on their minds.
One can’t help but recall PC-Delta’s escapades now, two weeks after Yale’s chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon opened its rush events, but not its membership, to women. The move represents a major victory for Engender, a student group formed last year to combat the “hypermasculine culture” in Yale’s fraternities. Fraternities, Engender avers, exert an ironclad “hold” on Yale’s social scene, which “calcifies traditional and binary conceptions of masculinity and femininity” and normalizes sexual harassment (“Together but different,” Jan. 25).
All of which begs the question: If fraternities are indeed the patriarchy incarnate, why think their integration process will be any less oppressive than the current status quo? Women pledges, after all, will not be able to receive bids until Sig Ep disaffiliates from the national chapter. What, exactly, is the difference between a co-ed rush party and a normal party? In both cases, membership, and the social agency it confers, are reserved for a close-knit group of male friends, who control the liquid and spatial dimensions of the event. If Engender really believes that such conditions “promote sexual entitlement and normalize sexual violence,” how can it justify subjecting even more women to them? And if it doesn’t believe Sig Ep’s little stunt will devolve into abusive self-parody, how can it be sure that fraternities promote sexual entitlement in the first place?
Engender’s answer to this dilemma, let’s call it Schrodinger’s frat, is simply to make all Greek life co-ed: “At Yale and in America, there should be no glass ceiling, no exclusionary walls and no closed doors.” This most recent victory is a stepping stone to that ideal. It’s also ridiculous.
Fraternities and sororities are not merely in the business of cultivating friendship, as some Engender officers have alleged, but in cultivating a particular kind of friendship, one necessarily premised upon distinctions between men and women. What other reason could one have for joining a frat? Certainly not charity; many other clubs already do that without wasting any money on kegs. Parties? Those are easy enough to find at Yale without venturing past Chapel Street.
No, the appeal of Greek life is unmistakably rooted in old-fashioned notions of sex and gender. You don’t join to party; you join to party with a gendered group in a gendered way. To “integrate” frats would be to destroy the very thing that makes them meaningful — a unique form of social life that is inextricable from the performance of manhood or womanhood.
But here’s the problem: that kind of life can amplify the innate differences between men and women to a fault, strengthening the worst impulses in both. For fraternities, this translates into speaking (and thinking) about women in barbaric and uncivilized ways, and to the construction of a beer-guzzling boyish braggadocio thoroughly corrosive to civic norms. For sororities, it translates into a litany of specious and superficial judgments about members’ hair-styles, sex lives and facial symmetries, all of which have little to do with empowerment and everything to do with exclusion. I suspect most of these behaviors originate in human nature, but even if they are the product of some socially constructed binary, that binary derives its force from Greek organizations.
Fraternities and sororities, then, require a traditionalist defense, one very much incompatible with progressive ideals. To say that Greek life is worth preserving is not to say that it is perfect, or that it should not be reformed. But it is to say that the distinctive value of this tradition outweighs the vices and vacuities toward which it so obviously tends. If you join an institution that reduces women to their bodies, or to their choice of lipstick, you probably are not a feminist. But you might be a conservative.
The Panhellenic Council must realize this, which is why Endgender won’t end gender. Still, the language of “co-ed fraternities” is disconcerting insofar as it threatens to bury the peculiar anomies of Greek life beneath a rosy gloss of campus liberalism. If we are going to tolerate Greek life, we should at least be honest about what it represents. And if we aren’t, we should not obfuscate calls for its abolition with the rhetoric of gradualism. Fraternities will never be engines of social progress. To pretend otherwise is the height of self-delusion.
Aaron Sibarium is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .