A butterfly flaps its wings in China, a teenager puts a firecracker up his ass in West Virginia and the American media condemns Greek life.
I covered fraternity and sorority life for The Daily Pennsylvanian last semester. As an exchange student from the United Kingdom, where fraternities are nothing more than the myths of “Animal House,” I was struck most by one thing: the wariness Penn Greeks have of the press.
Covering sorority bid night, I was chatting to a freshman over the phone. I asked how she felt being welcomed to her new sorority. There was a muffled exclamation in the background as someone realized she was talking to the DP. I was given a “I’m sorry, I don’t feel comfortable answering your question” and then a dial tone. Writing about philanthropy efforts, a president needed to ask an advisor before she could tell me how much money her sorority raised for charity last semester. Whisper the words “Skulls” or “hazing” in an interview, and a source would curl up like a woodlouse.
What I did get were numerous spiels on “the pillars of Greek life.” “Philanthropy,” “friendship for life” and “gentlemen” were spoken eagerly and everywhere, chanted emphatically: “We don’t haze.”
British perspective meant I had a bemused but by no means hostile approach — I was rather taken aback.
Then I began to learn the Greek attitude to press attention is, well, fair enough. They’re up against a lot.
The system is associated with sexual assault, underage drinking and death. Some schools, like Amherst College, have banned students from joining off campus organizations , stories are published about “ The Dark Power of Fraternities ” and Bloomberg has announced that 60 deaths since 2005 have been associated with the Greek system .
Bad things happen outside Greek life, but other student groups don’t seem to inspire the same level of intrigue. There’s something about frats that really attracts the national press. I was once contacted by a journalist from The New York Times who wanted help sourcing a story on students joining sororities and “what they are signing on for.” People seem to feel that the system is secretive and uniquely subversive.
The problems associated with the Greek system are chilling and undeniable. I have encountered nothing like it at Penn, but some fraternities do run around shouting, “ No means yes, yes means anal ,” and it’s hard not to associate that with the “one-in-five” statistic concerning the sexual assault of women.
Even at Penn, people do die. In 2010, a John Carroll University student fell to his death at an unregistered frat party on campus. Whatever the national organizations may claim, many members of fraternities and sororities undergo brutal initiation rites, too.
Ultimately, though, organizations don’t make people. People make organizations. To attribute reckless behavior and sexual assault to an organization takes the agency away from the individual. Condemning Greek life in its entirety diffuses blame and partially excuses whoever did something wrong. It also places unfair generalizations over everyone else who participates.
There are many positives that can be associated with Greek life too, and it is frequently put on a pedestal for these reasons. It’s easy to talk about the leadership skills, the alumni networks, the social life and the support systems — ones that often really do work.
But I don’t think the Greek system should be lauded as a pioneer of student integrity either. As far as I can see, Greek life is whatever the people within it make it. It’s not a framework that suddenly brings enlightenment or gives opportunities that students wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere. It’s just a formal friendship group.
Greek life is unique in the attention it receives and the polar extremes people associate it with. From my perspective as an exchange student, encountering this phenomenon for the first time, I find the approach absurd. Students should be able to identify with a community without the outside world becoming obsessed with its label and its implications. Some people need to stop presenting Greek life as a corruptive force, and some people need to stop announcing it as our saving grace.
Melissa Lawford is an exchange College junior from the University of Edinburgh studying English literature. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.