A Call to Abolish Greek Life

It's a hotbed of racism and sexism—why do we still support it?

Weinstein Company / So Undercover (2012)

Despite all the strides made in campus politics over the years—"yes means yes" protocols, student bodies that are more active and socially engaged than ever—so many young adults are heading back to college excited to rush a fraternity or sorority. It's baffling that during a time of peak political awareness, universities and their students still haven't found a way to move on from institutions that do more harm than good.

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The Greek system isn't just antiquated, it's dangerous. And it's time to finally put an end to it.

Fraternities don't just tolerate misogyny, they celebrate it.

Studies show that men who join frats are three times more likely to commit sexual assault and that women in sororities are nearly twice as likely as other female college students to be the victim of sexual assault. Researchers point to a culture of "male peer support of violence against women" as part of the issue—it's not just that misogyny is tolerated, it's celebrated. Men bond over their diminishment of women while schools shrug their shoulders and assume "boys will be boys."

And, as of 2014, more than 60 people had died in the previous ten years because of incidents linked to fraternities. Countless more have been harmed by hazing, drunken accidents, and fires. To give one example, Penn State sophomore Tim Piazza died in February following a hazing incident; several of his fraternity brothers are facing charges of reckless endangerment, hazing, and alcohol-related offenses. Prosecutors claim that Piazza hit his head multiple times, vomited, and passed out during a pledge drinking gauntlet—and while his frat brother watched him struggle for much of the night, they did not call 911 for nearly 12 hours. (More serious charges against the defendants were dropped and the defendants have denied all charges.)

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In addition to harrowing physical safety concerns, these predominantly-white frats and sororities exacerbate intolerance on college campuses. This year, one frat at Baylor University in Texas held a Cinco de Mayo party where some attendees dressed as offensive Mexican stereotypes and in brown-face. The fraternity's national headquarters said in a statement that "the allegations are inconsistent with [its] values," and suspended the chapter while a University investigation took place. A fraternity and sorority at University of Illinois drew ire after a picture circulated of some students at a spring break-themed party dressed in sombreros and Native American headdresses. (The groups later apologized and issued a joint statement that they "would never intentionally plan to harm any individuals or ethnic groups.") And, in one of the most explicit examples of racist behavior, in 2015 a video of frat brothers from the University of Oklahoma gleefully singing a violently racist song was leaked. (The national organization condemned the video, saying "this is absolutely not who we are," closed the chapter, and suspended all members.)

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Yes, there have been apologies, suspensions, and internal investigations, but those only address individual issues, not systemic ones. The exclusionary practices that keep so many Greek organizations filled with mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class students perpetuate gendered and racialized power dynamics that open doors for the most privileged, while marginalizing everyone else.

With the exception of traditionally black and multicultural fraternities and sororities—which, while not without their own flaws, often provide refuge for minority communities on majority white campuses—most Greek organizations simply aren't worth saving or fixing. We need groups on campus that help the students who actually require it; not those that uplift the already-privileged and endanger people.

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I'd ask supporters of Greek life which is more important: their individual experiences or the overall harm that these clubs perpetuate?

Administrators are taking steps in that direction: This summer Harvard made a move to ban final clubs (the Ivy league school's version of frats), noting that the "practices of these organizations go against the educational mission and principles espoused by" the school. The announcement from the country's top-ranked institution made news, but Harvard was following in the footsteps of an increasing number of colleges that are choosing to end Greek life on their campuses. Some places, like West Virginia University and Johns Hopkins, temporarily suspended fraternities after dangerous incidents took place. Others, like Amherst and Wesleyan, put an end to clubs altogether. Colleges are starting to figure this out; it's beyond time for students to follow suit.

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Banning frats and sororities won't magically remove racism or rape from college campuses, and it won't mean that students will stop doing stupid things that get them and other people hurt. But it will send a message about what universities find acceptable, and what kind of organizations they're willing to lend institutional support.

I understand that for many people, sororities and fraternities mean something very special. I get that people have met close friends, and developed leadership skills and networks for future career opportunities through their time in the Greek system. But I'd ask those people which is more important: their individual experiences or the overall harm that these clubs perpetuate? There are better and more progressive ways to find community in college or to cultivate mentorships and job leads than clubs that at best exclude and at worst do active harm.

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College campuses are often where young Americans find themselves—it's where a lot of people figure out who they are and who they want to be. And a lot of us want to be part of something; that's understandable. Let's just be part of something better.

Jessica Valenti is a contributing editor to MarieClaire.com—read her weekly column here.

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