Sex and the Sorority Girl

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Note: Due to the heteronormative nature of the Greek system, this article focuses on the experiences of heterosexual women. The LGBTQ+ community faces unique struggles in their navigation of Greek sexual culture, which would merit a separate article to do those challenges justice.

At University of the Pacific in the 1980s, Thetas were the girls you slept with, Delta Gammas were the girls you dated, and Tri Deltas were the girls you married, said Christy Lyons, a Delta Gamma in the class of 1988.

According to Lyons, beneath an exterior of cheerful sisterhood lay a strong undercurrent of sex that pervaded Greek culture but was rarely discussed in the open.

“[Sex] was sort of like sneaking out at night,” Lyons said. “Everyone knew, but it was very behind the scenes. We would whisper about it, but on the face, and in front of everybody? Oh no, we were just such sweet girls.”

It’s safe to say sexual attitudes have changed a bit since Lyons’ days — during my own brief time in a UCLA sorority, I heard a number of houses’ variations on a secret chant proclaiming they give the best blow jobs on the row. In my former house, the word “hoe” was reclaimed with a distinctly positive connotation and stories about casual sex were spread out on the Monday night dinner table.

What remains stagnant since Lyons was in school, however, is the structure of a Greek system that polices women’s behavior and leaves fraternities largely unregulated. The sorority woman of 2017 is one who grasps at a new sense of sexual empowerment but finds herself largely empty handed, hindered by an institution that places the burden of managing positive sexual relationships on women’s shoulders.

Sorority women consider sex a critical component of their autonomy, explained Peyton Sherwood, a third year English and sociology major and UCLA sorority member. Coming home in the morning wearing last night’s clothes is never a source of shame.

“All the girls are pretty strong-minded, strong-willed, progressive women,” Sherwood said. “A lot of them are passionate about women’s rights, so I think sex just becomes a part of that. Your sexuality is something to embrace and to be proud of.”

Young women’s movement toward embracing sexuality as a form of female strength was apparent following an email sent by a Duke fraternity in 2010, in which the brothers issued a controversial request that their female classmates come to a party dressed as “sluts.” Barbara J. Berg, author of “Sexism in America: Alive, Well and Ruining Our Future,” was surprised by the college girls’ responses. She claimed hundreds of girls complied with the request, and when questioned, said they were exercising their free choice and felt their sexuality made them powerful.

“Back in the 1960s and 70s, women would not have said that,” Berg said. “I’ve studied that period a lot, and I don’t think I saw then that women defended their sexuality the way they do today. It wasn’t so much that this is a sign of our power.”

It should be noted that the incident with the Duke fraternity perpetuates a harmful culture of male objectification of women’s bodies, whether or not these particular women felt otherwise. But nevertheless, for them specifically, it felt like a step in the direction of their own sexual autonomy.

Jodi Sheridan, a Delta Gamma at UCLA in 1986, described the definition of a strong woman in her sorority as a career woman focused on getting an education. Sex was rarely discussed in the house, and the topic had a regressive tinge — something “good girls” didn’t talk about.

Lyons and Sheridan both said programs or discussion surrounding consent and sexual assault were completely absent as well.

“Back then, you would be frightened to come out with allegations that some guy raped you,” Lyons said. “You would’ve known you were confronting the entire fraternity. That just was never part of the discussion.”

While the stigma that prevents assault survivors from coming forward definitely still exists, as of 2014,  all members of UCLA Greek life, both fraternities and sororities, must attend mandatory annual education about consent and sexual assault.

Second year political science major Laura Shearer said her UCLA sorority does a good job of providing sexual assault education and safety resources for its members. Her chapter hosted a self-defense course, and she said sorority relations directors make sure Greek women are well aware UCLA’s counseling and psychological services (CAPS). They also ensure the women know CSO vans (UCLA’s evening van service) are available to them.

When asked about sorority policies that in some way comment on girls’ sexual behavior, though, Shearer, Sherwood, and Lyons listed the same rules: no boys allowed upstairs, no alcohol in the house, and no parties hosted by the sorority. Women’s sexuality is confined to the realm of fraternities. In other words, boys still run the show.

Lyons’ description of the discrepancy between sorority and fraternity life in her time is a mirror image of today’s dynamic: Sororities had the near-constant oversight of housemothers, maids, and chefs, whereas ten steps away, fraternities were a parallel universe of young boys on the loose.

“[It’s unbelievable] that in the primary places where [sexual assault] happens, fraternity row, they don’t do anything about it,” Shearer said. “There’s no one who even lives there who’s an adult. These 19 and 20 year olds are living in a house by themselves.”

Sororities alone bear the burden of guiding sexual behavior within Greek life, and it seems national and chapter sorority leadership responds by policing women’s sexual expression under the guise of safety. The result is a façade of restraint reminiscent of the sweet girls of Lyons’ day.

“It’s a very two-sided thing that sororities have going on,” Shearer said. “In chapter meetings, [sororities] say things like, ‘Don’t hook up with someone on the bus’ or ‘Don’t sleep with like ten guys in the same frat’ — little comments that give you the idea that we don’t want to be personified as a ‘slutty house.’”

It also speaks volumes that two UCLA sororities banned members from speaking with me regarding this article. In the sororities’ defense, Shearer said the ban’s motive was less likely to be a desire to create an appearance of chastity than a fear of being under fire by the media.

“Historically, women have always had a role in policing the standards of their own [gender],” Berg said. “Since women couldn’t really monitor male behavior or male norms, they began to monitor one another’s.”

Sherwood believes slut-shaming is indeed more likely to come from fellow women than from men. She said she thinks the persistent attribution of sexual reputations to different sorority houses is largely perpetuated by evaluations among women.

Perhaps some women engage in the hypocritical practice of slut-shaming because they are faced with divergent expectations from potential male partners, Shearer added. Most young men preach that they want a girl who is “saintly” and doesn’t have casual sex, then turn around and do the very thing they criticize women for doing.

“We still tend to split women into the [binary of the] ‘Madonna [or] the whore,’ so most would prefer to be the Madonna,” Berg said. “At least, that’s what they would say.”

It’s no surprise then that fraternity brothers like the ones at Duke seem to feel considerable license to women’s sexuality. Shearer referred to a GroupMe message sent to her sorority by a UCLA fraternity that read: “If you’re not getting laid at the raid tonight, you did something wrong.” To her, this message implied the men’s entitlement to sex and assumption that any girl in her sorority would “put out.”

Lyons traced this thread of fraternity men’s sexual prerogative to the 80s, recalling a Greek life tradition called “little sister parties” in which fraternity brothers would host a mixer with their sister sorority and attempt to take a girl up to each of their rooms. This girl would become the member’s “little sister,” essentially a euphemism for a steady hookup.

In a system where boys own sex, how much agency do heterosexual sorority women really have? Sherwood believes one reason today’s sorority women embrace sex so wholeheartedly is that they feel it’s what guys want. This, Berg said, was definitely the case in the 60s and 70s.

“In an ironic way, even though women were embracing their sexuality and their bodies, going braless, enjoying the freedom — I think, in some way, it was still pretty much run by the guys,” Berg said. “I don’t think they felt much choice.”

It is important to emphasize that women did not necessarily embrace their sexuality because it’s what men wanted. Many women might have pursued sex for their own sake, only to find that males appropriated women’s bodies for their own pleasure.

Berg also hypothesized that as women’s academic achievements surpass men’s, some women feel a looming fear that their intelligence will threaten potential partners. This threat, posed by a patriarchal disdain for women with intellect, might force them to resexualize themselves and downplay their studiousness to assert their approachability.

It is the responsibility of the Greek system to shift structural power into women’s hands, allowing their sexual freedom to be more than a hopeless flounder against a bastion of male privilege. Sororities, if they seek to serve women, must relent in their adherence to outdated standards.

Shearer and Sherwood agree the first thing to go should be the “no boys allowed upstairs” policy, a blatant double standard since women are allowed upstairs in fraternities at all hours.

“For safety reasons I understand, but it’s kind of ridiculous when they approach it from an ethical standpoint, because if you don’t value the people I bring into this home, then you don’t value me as a person,” Shearer said.

On the fraternities’ end, Sherwood would like to see better, more intensive sexual assault training for men. For example, she thinks all fraternity men should be required to screen the documentary film “The Hunting Ground.”

“[Women] can hear this stuff a million times,” she said. “But we need [men] to hear it as well.”

Shearer suggested mandatory registration of all fraternity parties, not just quarterlies (the fraternity’s biggest party of the quarter) as the current policy requires, in order to increase oversight. This could potentially make it easier for women to report cases of sexual assault committed by fraternity members.

The road to recourse will be steep. History attests to the fact that sorority policy doesn’t tend to budge. Shearer said a process exists in which members can ask their student VP of Administration to amend a bylaw, but rarely has she seen anything more significant than cancelled meetings during exam weeks. Sherwood added that appeals to national sorority leadership are highly unlikely to be approved.

“You put so much trust in your university, but you find out that a lot of the time, it just becomes a corporate powerhouse that’s really only concerned about its image,” Sherwood said.

Greek life, for all its flaws, has the potential to be a space where college students grow and solidify their identities with support from their peers. In a system that places sex in the hands of fraternities and essentially prays for the best, women can can never truly own their sexuality. It is the era of “grabbing back,” and the Greek institution has vestiges of patriarchal power waiting to be rightfully claimed.

“An ideal sorority would say we come together because of common interest, and we would work off each other to better the world,” Shearer said. “We wouldn’t necessarily continue to uphold the exact same values that have been outdated for decades. Times change, and so do the things we need to talk about.”


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