At a recent fraternity rush event, a brother and I were commiserating about the awkwardness of the rush experience. The smaller parties, like this one, were fun and sociable, but the huge events—with close to 120 rushes and members in a single room—were overwhelming. It was uncomfortable, he told me, to try to get to know people in such a loud, crowded, intense environment. His sympathy was promising: surely, he would understand how this was especially uncomfortable for me. “For sure, and I mean, it’s also a little different for me—” I began, thinking hard about how to phrase it—the difference is, I’m a woman.
“Well, of course,” he interrupted. “I mean, you have a ton of friends here, so I’m sure it’s pretty easy for you.” I found myself unable to disagree with him; the conversation dwindled and I haven’t spoken to him since. Perhaps this is a ridiculous thing to complain about—why didn’t I speak up? What did he even do wrong? He was right that I had friends in the fraternity, so why was all this so uncomfortable anyway? Although he displayed ignorance about the difficulties of being one of ten women in a room with 120 men, he didn’t do anything wrong. But this is one example of the dynamics enforced and perpetuated by male-dominated, male-controlled spaces.
Over the past two weeks, fraternities and sororities on campus have opened their doors to eager first-years and sophomores looking to join their social communities. In previous years, these spaces have always defined themselves by being single-gender. Sororities don’t host parties and bill themselves as sisterhoods in a male-dominated world; some have even begun to reject the gender binary in favor of increased inclusivity. Fraternities favor sex-based male membership, and they wield a significant amount of social power because they host most of the large, open parties on campus. But this year, things are starting to change. Non-male students are rushing one of Yale’s fraternities, even though we’ve been told that we won’t receive bids.
The effort to co-educate Greek life at Yale has been spurred in part thanks to the on-campus organization engender. Their mission is to shift the gendered power dynamics of party spaces and social institutions. According to co-founder and co-director Genevieve Esse, CC ’19, the group came into being last year “as an informal GroupMe of friends” interested in the question of binary-based gender segregation on campus, motivated for the most part by their own negative experiences or opinions of fraternities. I became involved this past fall, and am now a co-director. The problematic cultural norms and practices enforced by fraternities are well-documented—for example, the statistic that one in five college women will be sexually assaulted is probably floating around in your head (perhaps in the voice of Barack Obama in a 2015 video segment for the “It’s On Us” campaign).
As Esse and other early members of engender began reading in-depth social science research on the link between those numbers and fraternities, they found confirmation that when men host parties and provide alcohol, “it inherently creates a type of ‘sexual economy’ in which women feel pressure and are sometimes expected to hook up with brothers as a form of payment.” The men at the door of a frat house decide who gets to cross the threshold, admitting students with an eye towards the gender ratio of the party; the bar inside is also operated by men. All this fosters exaggerated sexual dynamics—rather like a real-life Tinder, where people are reduced to potential sexual partners, and men are in charge.
Although engender contacted every all-male fraternity on campus asking if they would allow women and non-binary students to rush, Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp) was the only one to say yes and follow through on the offer. The majority of the fraternities either waited until after their rush process was over to respond, or simply refused. Such minimal response might not seem surprising—what’s the problem with exclusive all-male spaces? Fraternities are, after all, institutions built and defined by cisgender men. But as Anna McNeil, BR ’20, a co-director of engender, points out, people often use the rhetoric of tradition to justify sexism, “when what they actually mean is oppression.”
Yale’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions likes to reassure prospective students that the school’s Greek life thrives for those who want it, but is easily avoidable, socially speaking, for those who would rather steer clear. And yet, every weekend, High Street floods with drunken undergrads attending this or that packed fraternity party. “In some ways,” McNeil points out, “fraternity culture seems the most accessible to everyone.” The six other first-years I interviewed all echoed this impression, though they expressed varying degrees of skepticism about frats. The only criteria for being able to go to a fraternity party is that you show up at the door—you don’t need to be part of a certain organization, or have friends in one. Unlike suite or apartment parties, people don’t get invited in close conversation or by way of a Facebook event. Students just show up.
However, the events at Leo (formerly Sigma Alpha Epsilon) last year contested this illusion of accessibility. The fraternity garnered national attention for allegedly refusing entrance to women of color at an open party, announcing “white girls only.” McNeil recounted conversations she had had with other first-year women of color, who said they were “very nervous about attending frats, and what that would be like.” While fear and disgust in reaction to overt racism seems to be universal, some of the first-years I spoke with were resistant to gender integration as a solution to such problems. engender itself does not claim that the co-education of fraternities will be the be-all and end-all, but rather a concrete first step towards more inclusivity at every level. Isobel Anthony, SY ’20, agreed that when you have “a diverse group, automatically you are less prone to do things that are offensive to people.”
Last Wednesday night, when I would normally have been reading or hanging out with friends, I ditched my backpack, put the essentials into the pockets of my Wranglers, and headed to SigEp. Walking into a room packed with roughly 120 men is a daunting idea no matter the gender ratio—that night, there were around ten women. Every non-male rush I’ve spoken to agrees that such events are unavoidably uncomfortable; but SigEp’s brothers, for the most part, were friendly and inclusive. Esse says that “it’s been a blast to rush.” Nika Zarazvand, TD ’20, says that she’s “had really positive experiences at the frats so far,” in particular because she’s found that once she explains “what we’re trying to accomplish and why, most guys agree with the logic even if they have personal views that are more resistant to change.” Experiences have also been less positive, due to the social climate inherent to frats. Haja Kamara, SM ’19, told me about an “off-color comment” that a brother made in conversation at a smaller rush event. “I guess he thought it would have been fine if there were only men, but then he realized I was there after he said it,” she explained; he then apologized somewhat sheepishly.
One universal thread through these accounts seems to be that the root of the problem is less SigEp and its members and more the nature of the institution. Upon explaining engender’s short-term objectives, one of the most common reactions we receive is the classic: “If you don’t like frats, you shouldn’t go to them.” Critics recommend that instead of trying to join fraternities, we create our own co-ed spaces. I’ll be the first to say that this campus certainly needs more of those, but ignoring all-male spaces doesn’t solve the problems they perpetuate. In addition, a significant part of engender’s mission (with the encouragement of recent sanctions on all-male social institutions at Harvard and Princeton) is to eventually affect change on campuses far more problematic than our own.
During a rush meal with a SigEp brother this week, I wondered aloud, “Should I submit a request for a bid?” Maybe it’s uselessly symbolic, considering we’ve already been told we won’t be receiving them. This time next year, we won’t be on the other side of the process—and there’s a lot of ground to gain with every other fraternity on campus—but that won’t stop us from rushing again.