In 2017, former DKE president Luke Persichetti was suspended for “penetration without consent” just five months after boasting that the fraternity had undergone a substantial “cultural shift” under his leadership. In 2018, a one-time member of Leo has already been suspended for “inappropriately touching” several women on a bus to Cambridge; a veritable “Rosa Parks,” according to his lawyer. And last week, The Washington Post reported that a Cornell fraternity had engaged in something called “the pig roast,” in which brothers competed to sleep with as many overweight women as possible.
The rot in sororities is less severe but still pungent. In 2016, a couple members of Kappa Alpha Theta decided to create “before and after” photos documenting their transition from nondescript nobodies to gorgeous sorority stars. What began as a glitzy recruiting tool soon devolved into meretricious self-parody as normal-looking women were magically “upgraded” to pinup model status, a reminder to feminists everywhere that powerful men are not the only enablers of bad beauty norms.
I start with these incidents — from both spheres of Greek life — because recently our campus has been vacillating between two very different schools of Hellenism. The first sees fraternities and sororities as basically defensible institutions, in need of reform, perhaps, but not radical revision, whereas the second understands them in terms of political patriarchy — as power structures to be revolutionized and reimagined, or, failing that, abolished altogether. There’s something to be said for the former view and much to be said for the latter.
But whichever position you take, it’s worth examining an assumption common to both: The people who join Greek life — men and women — are somehow victims.
Yale’s Philhellenes and feminists seem strangely united on this point. Some fraternity brothers argue that frats constitute an important source of social attachment that is difficult to find outside of collegiate athletics. Other, more Greek-skeptical columnists agree, noting that the loneliest men at Yale are often those without a well-defined friend group. Frats create space for dangerous sexual encounters, these arguments concede, but the real problem is a neoliberal one, a lack of alternatives for big, brogiastic partying.
As for sororities, it is sometimes suggested that sisters will use their status to gentrify the moral ghetto of frat row. But, as several columnists have pointed out, sororities still base membership on sexist, sexualized metrics, and so any misbegotten cant about “changing the system from within” should be discarded as a case of Stockholm Syndrome …
Except not really, because nobody at Yale is actually coerced into joining Greek life, let alone imprisoned by it. Whereas some universities make going Greek a de facto social imperative, only around 10 percent of Yalies are involved with fraternities or sororities at all, according to a 2016 Yale College Council Report, rendering the loneliness argument somewhat specious. If you join Theta or Leo or DKE, it isn’t because you have to, it’s because you want to.
And the reason you want to — whether you admit it or not — is that you value what these institutions will give to you more than what they will take away from others. It’s because you want strobe-lit romps and beer pong-palatia more than sexual equality and epicurean restraint — because seductive portraits and Mean Girls popularity matter more to you than objectification and eating disorders.
And if you rush DKE, it’s because you’re the sort of person who’s unfazed by the fact that your former president is an accused “penetrator without consent,” who looks forward to the well-documented grotesqueries of “Hell Week” and who can’t wait for a large crop of intoxicated coeds to be shepherded into your bed, sometimes by desire, often by force.
Now obviously Greek organizations also have their own structures, their own ways of doing things, which coarsen character and worsen behavior. But these structures don’t spring forth ex nihilo. They are human inventions subject to human influence, therefore the degeneracy of Greek life says as much about the people joining as it does about the institution itself. To the extent our campus has critiqued Hellenism, it has done so in the idiom of youth corruption, blaming fraternities for producing bad men instead of bad men for producing fraternities.
The causality goes both ways, of course. But our rhetoric hasn’t, which means it’s easy to forget that the 500-something Yalies who participate in Greek life are generally not the awkward, friend-craving kids from your high school cafeteria. More often, they are the beautiful, the privileged and the powerful, the sorts of folks for whom decadence is an attraction and entitlement a way of life.
I suppose this is the part where I’m supposed to include a not-all-frats caveat, a Trumpian proviso that some, I assume, are good people. Yeah. Probably.
But plenty aren’t. And if you bristle at the vice and violences of Greek life, you should similarly bristle at the students who choose every day to let those savageries continue.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .