Each winter, a few weeks into the semester, the Yale community is besieged by a number of mystifying occurrences. Low-grade lip sync videos are filmed on Cross Campus, childish pranks are committed in the depths of Bass Library and social media profile pictures are adorned with banal aphorisms. These trends can mean only one thing: Greek recruitment season is upon us.
As predictable as slush on the streets of New Haven in February, Yale’s sororities and fraternities begin the complicated — and sometimes harrowing — rush process as they recruit first years searching for their “brothers” and “sisters.” I have no desire to sound like a censorious scold. It’s a free country (for now) and people can associate with any social organizations they please. Nevertheless, despite the apparently limitless fun of weekly keg parties, it is important to remember that Yale’s Greek institutions have a history that is problematic at best and dangerous at worst.
In recent months, a number of Yale’s fraternities have been the subject of scandalous stories in the national news. During Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s ’87 LAW ’90 confirmation hearings last fall, the News published a photograph of his Delta Kappa Epsilon brothers triumphantly waving a flag made of women’s underwear. This revelation followed news of more recent scandals, such as when 2010 pledges chanted, “No means yes, yes means anal” and “I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen.” After a five-year suspension, DKE returned to Yale’s campus and did what they do best; more than a dozen women told Business Insider that they have experienced or witnessed DKE brothers committing sexual assault since 2014.
The problems with Greek institutions extend beyond sexual misconduct, and indeed, beyond the fact of their gender segregation. Well-intentioned groups like Engender advocate for gender integration within fraternities. But this activism misses the point. Greek institutions — even co-ed groups like Fence Club — are exclusionary on a number of criteria, including race, class, gender expression and sexuality. I fear that gender integration would legitimize Greek organizations while doing nothing to address the other problems inherent to exclusionary social groups.
The inherent problem with fraternities and sororities is that they are defined by what they exclude rather than who they include, while adding little of value to Yale’s cultural climate. We all have the opportunity to structure our extracurricular lives around meaningful activities such as athletics, writing, activism or performance. The appeal of Greek organizations, by contrast, is not that they occasionally hold fundraisers, but that they are exclusive. Some groups might offer the chance to find “brotherhood” or “sisterhood,” but they do so by establishing themselves as spaces that exclude students who fail to meet their standards of wealth and social respectability.
A queer friend of mine told me that as a social experiment, he rushed a frat. He deepened his voice, pretended to love football and introduced his female best friend as a romantic partner to see if his ruse would convince the fraternity to offer him a bid. His conclusion? Fraternities and sororities judge potential applicants not on their moral or intellectual merits but rather on how well they perform conventional depictions of masculinity and femininity. My friend’s laughable performance was readily accepted by the fraternity. They considered him “one of the boys.”
Sororities are just as superficial and no less harmful, albeit in other ways. While sororities are often seen as less toxic spaces than fraternities, members of three out of Yale’s four sororities have recently been involved with incidents of misconduct, ranging from malicious pranks to alleged sexual assault.
I would argue that sororities are also complicit in the outsized social influence of their male counterparts. By partnering with fraternities for social activities and parties, they complement the role of all-male groups and help legitimize their role on campus.
Yale’s “less-fratty” fraternities serve a similar purpose. By presenting as respectable alternatives to more visibly dangerous groups, these organizations gain greater acceptance.
As a male student, I can never understand the value of “sisterhood” some friends have told me they find in their sororities. And because I travel in different social circles than that of many fraternity members, perhaps I cannot fully appreciate the feelings of solidarity they find in Greek life. I have no interest in demonizing anyone who finds meaning and community in their sorority or fraternity. Rather, I wish to question whether these communities must be built on the metric of “classiness” (read: class). I wish to question why these communities cost thousands of dollars to join.
As this semester’s rush process begins, I have a few words of advice for first years. Create a life at Yale filled with meaningful friendships. Find your “people” through the academic and extracurricular activities you love. Building a community of friends takes time and effort, but shouldn’t require a membership fee. Don’t rush it.
Isaiah Schrader is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .