On my third night at U of T, I was teased for turning down a frat party.
Though I initially felt a pang of regret, it evaporated as soon as my friends returned and shared the story of their night. They revealed that they’d been stuck in line for two hours, freezing to death. After seeing some girls skip to the front, they asked a wandering frat boy if they could too, but they were given an up-down and a snarky, “Sorry, hot girls only.”
“Today is a bad day for feminism,” one of my friends exclaimed. Almost a year later, she still doesn’t know what the inside of a frat house looks like, and few of us have expressed much interest in giving it a second shot this year.
But the bad day for feminism soon became a distant memory, and I started to feel guilty about my antagonism toward Greek life. It seemed that, at the very least, U of T’s Greek community was much more tame than its counterparts in America or at other Canadian universities.
But this doesn’t mean that they are entirely innocent. Rumours fly of frat parties tearing up the Annex with their crazy weekends, but rumours also fly of sexual assault and misconduct in frat houses. In North America, stories of rampant misogyny and violence in frats are so common that they’ve turned into a cultural trope.
But when analyzed through a socioeconomic lens, these organizations start to look like pipelines of privilege. Through alumni networks and social support, fraternity members are often given special access to halls of power. But their path isn’t public.
A microcosm of the Big City
Undergrad at U of T is a four-year-long experience of being thrown into the deep end, academically and socially. At the beginning of this journey, every first year scrambles to reassemble peer circles and feel connected to their physical environment again. Greek life communities often offer a valve for this social anxiety, and their iconic status in the mythology of university life draws in many students, eager for that classic college night.
Partying is the main way that fraternities establish themselves at the top of the social hierarchy. They value legacy and tradition, which often rely on outdated gender norms and modes of behaviour. This legacy is still very active, and it manifests in institutionalized sexism and misogyny.
One significant issue with Greek parties is that they’re exclusively frat-organized. When asked about how sororities and fraternities may differ in campus activities, Cherry Tang, a current member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority, explained, “All sororities have dry houses — sororities that are affiliated with the school are dry houses.”
The National Panhellenic Conference bans sororities from having alcohol in their houses, therefore, sorority events involving alcohol have to be a joint effort with a fraternity. This dependence on frats gives the frats more authority. They have the real estate for social gatherings, and therefore the final say in who gets entry into parties, as well as the overall tone.
Regardless of whether the intent is gendered or not, the results are. It allows more male-dominated spaces to flourish, creating what is statistically going to be more dangerous for women than men — partying in a fraternity. Campus demographics have changed significantly over the past few decades, yet little has been done to remake the Greek system to accommodate this progress.
Gendered at the doorway
In many ways, fraternities are some of the last existing organizations that are explicitly all-men, and their placement in societal hierarchies on campus remains, in part, due to their near-monopoly on public campus parties.
Gender roles are ingrained in our dynamics as a student body; to varying degrees, we all follow or are influenced by gendered scripts in the performance that is our social lives. This is especially clear in fraternities. When it becomes a choice between social isolation or acceptance, many subscribe to traditional gender roles.
But this discourse is also toxic for men. There’s a pressure to participate and to assert masculinity in these environments. Hookup culture is very intimately woven into the party scene, which usually relies on heteronormative behavioural expectations. Simultaneously, some behaviours ensure hegemonic masculinity over others, while marginalizing other men who are unable to participate in fraternities due to economic considerations or otherwise.
Another feature of frats that has garnered mass criticism is the infamous ‘girls get in free’ line. Alexander Bremer, member of the fraternity Alpha Sigma Phi, explained, “It’s a strategy employed by basically every successful nightclub in most parts of the world.” He continued, “I know that it has been proven to attract the most amount of people and make the most amount of revenue.” Bremer explained that most chapters have to pay annual dues to headquarters, making revenue from events critical to staying afloat.
“Some fraternities are actually moving away from this concept,” he said. But he draws a parallel between Greek organizations and businesses, saying that “it almost seems like a competitive market with the university students being the ‘customer base.’” Even with only one or two frats sticking to free entry for girls, it immediately draws the crowd away from others, incentivizing the use of the rule.
Networking to success
The intersection of social class, race, and gender shapes each student’s opportunity to participate in collegiate social activities, engage in college culture, and interpret their experience.
Class privileges make most opportunities more accessible, and race privilege can offer certain individuals more leeway for delinquency. Less privileged youth recognize that they’re under greater scrutiny and will be offered less forgiveness for their behaviours, which might decrease their likelihood of seeking out events that could compromise them.
Many point to networking opportunities when asked about their interest in joining a sorority or fraternity. Whether it’s social relations or career prospects, Greek life membership offers immediate access to campus-wide connections, and even nationwide connections, post-graduation.
Throughout undergrad, fraternities and sororities themselves are social support networks and often provide academic support and scholarships for members. This is why GPAs for members are often higher than the average GPA across campuses. For upper-year students, these connections can turn into professional advantages or a springboard into the workforce.
Brothers and sisters can become an employer, a mentor, a part of the labour force, or the customer base. This is such a phenomenon that a Bloomberg Businessweek piece referred to the direct entry to Wall Street jobs through Greek connections as the “fraternity pipeline.” As men occupy significantly more leadership roles in business and finance, frat boys have a leg up on even their Greek sisters. Internationally, women occupy a mere 24 per cent of senior corporate roles.
Some students are also unaware of the price tag of joining a fraternity or sorority. Though it varies depending on school and chapter, these fees can be anywhere from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars per semester, which poses a great challenge to accessing Greek life benefits. Both Tang and Bremer agree that this remains one of the larger barriers to joining a chapter.
Studies have shown that financially challenged students often don’t participate due to the cost of either being a member or attending a social event. Studies report that students who are white and from high-income families have greater tendencies to go Greek. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as Greek organizations were originally highly segregated across race and ethnic lines. Fraternities started as all-white societies and remained so until the mid-twentieth century, when the first African-American member was accepted.
On nearly every fraternity info page, you’ll read that they “breed leaders.” Since Greek life came to the United States in the late 1700s, their graduates have taken an oversize role in positions of power ever since. Ex-fraternity boys have accounted for 69 per cent of the presidents since 1877, 85 per cent of US Supreme Court justices since 1910, and 24 per cent of Forbes CEOs on the 2003 list.
Brett Kavanaugh, a federal judge of 12 years and US Supreme Court nominee, was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) as an undergraduate student at Yale University. Under fire for sexual assault allegations when he was 17 and the victim 15, his time at DKE has come under closer scrutiny.
Sometimes described as the “white football frat,” Yale and Toronto both host chapter houses of the DKE fraternity. Toronto’s chapter is no stranger to controversy — in 2001, four women accused members of assaulting them at a frat party, and in 2008, a police raid turned up $125,000 in drugs from their building. In 2010, Yale’s DKE was banned for five years due to inappropriate initiation chants, including, “No means yes, yes means anal,” “Fucking sluts!” and “I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen.” Only a year after the ban was lifted, two female students stepped forward with sexual assault allegations. An investigation revealed eight more incidents of sexual assault or misconduct between the years 2014 and 2017, all by DKE members at Yale.
Whether by pipeline or by breeding, these routes to leadership and success are inaccessible for students without the financial means. At its best, the Greek life community acts as an amplifier of wealth. An Atlantic article argued, “Fraternities don’t breed leaders so much as leaders breed and perpetuate the fraternity system.”
Tang said that the Greek life community has demonstrated that it is open to people of different races and of the LGBTQ+ community, and it has been as inclusive as possible.
However, when it comes to financial issues, she said, “I think it’s hard to do something about it. The chapter needs to run, it needs the money, everyone has to pay the fee.”
Bremer explained that, although it would be ideal, it’s impossible for organizations to “run on a $0 budget.” He added, “All that can be done is being done to keep the fees as low as possible, to be as inclusive as possible.”
In our backyard
What does Greek life look like at U of T?
Bremer argued that “all chapters at U of T have done a great job” with inclusivity and “are continuing to strive to be the best they can.”
However, the economic hurdles are static. To ease the concern for students who may not be able to fork over the money, Tang said that some sororities offer “financial aid or something similar that [students] can apply for.”
With regards to sexual assault at frat parties, U of T is not an exception. On top of the messy and crowded environment, many cite a fear of assault or harassment as their main reason for avoiding frat parties — including Tang. “Personally, no one has ever assaulted me, but I’ve seen it happen when they’re drunk. That’s why I don’t like frat parties. I just don’t like seeing the harassment,” she said.
Bremer referred to a few ways that fraternities on campus have begun to regulate their parties. “Many fraternities have begun to have sober members around any party setting, which is usually a house,” Bremer said. Separate rooms outside the main party area are locked to make settings more open and observable, and they encourage people to speak up about feeling threatened or unsafe.
He talked about blacklisting aggressors, contacting police when necessary, and ensuring that those who are drunk are taken care of by friends. He said that fraternity members would non-violently remove aggressors if they witnessed aggressive behaviour.
Bremer continued that “it is each chapters’ responsibility to adjust or even amend traditions that could be discriminatory.” In his experience, “Fraternities kept up with the general flow of societies in this regard, evolving and rectifying things that might have been the norm in the past, but are not acceptable nowadays.”
Members refer to their chapters endearingly, and they, without a doubt, enjoy the multiple forms of support that can be reassuring on such a disaggregated campus. Tang said that she has loved meeting people from different fields thanks to Greek life, and being away from home has been easier with the friendships she has made with her sorority sisters — but there are many ways to build community on campus.
Although Greek organizations at U of T have not been officially affiliated with the university for years now, the school still has a responsibility to keep its students safe. Sexual assault reports are often mishandled, with the odds against the victim in the search for justice.
The safety tips passed around are age-old warnings of not getting too drunk or not staying out too late, and usually place the responsibility on victims to protect themselves, rather than on aggressors.
The struggle to dismantle Greek life organizations might be so Sisyphean due to the fact that fraternity and sorority alumni represent a large percentage of university donors. But affiliated or not, the Greek system still has significant impacts on campus dynamics and the social environment that all students are immersed in. This means that institutions are complicit wherever Greek life exists.
In 2016, Harvard University placed restrictions on fraternity and sorority members’ involvement in the broader campus community. They are no longer allowed to be varsity team captains, leaders of student groups, or nominees for prestigious postgraduate opportunities, including the Rhodes Scholarship. This model serves to sever some of their ties to privilege, but not all. U of T has not followed Harvard’s example.
The legacy of privilege and power carried by fraternities continues to haunt academic institutions, including Yale and U of T. Rich boys like Kavanaugh grow into men and, often, into positions of incredible influence and privilege. Fraternities help them get there.
Although each student may experience these spaces differently, we all have a responsibility to push for safety and inclusion. Systemic inequity exists whenever one student’s path to power is the site of risk and exclusion for others.
Editor’s note (Oct. 2): This article has been updated to reflect the accurate fraternity affiliation of Alexander Bremer. It is Alpha Sigma Phi, not Beta Theta Pi.