Forget Hazing: Sororities Have Bigger Problems

Sororities, and the women who participate in them, are something people love to hate. The word evokes images of vaguely similar-looking white girls posing for photos, all wearing the same shirt and rocking the same stance (skinny arm and/or sorority squat). It's a word that evokes obvious racism, as seen at the University of Alabama, and the more subtle kind, as described in this Inside Higher Ed article. It's a word that is intrinsically tied to exclusivity and to hazing. It's a word that also, quite literally, means sisterhood.

As a former member of a sorority, I can attest to both sides of the sorority system. I met some of my best friends during pledging, girls who I can count on for anything. And we met through that awful process of exclusivity and hazing. We became incredibly close incredibly quickly — close enough that, at the start of our junior year when three of us deactivated for various reasons, another ten soon followed. The reasoning? It wouldn't be fun if all of us weren't there.

In a piece she wrote for Cosmo, Tess Koman acknowledged the problems with sorority hazing and also defended the practice, saying that it made her feel like a part of her sorority's community. She said she found herself perpetuating her sorority's norms of hazing, though she had suffered under them as a pledge. And I take her point. Even sororities like mine, that, quite honestly, don't even rank as far as hazing goes, perform activities that are designed to bring the sisters together through a shared, not necessarily comfortable experience. And, honestly? Those less-comfortable experiences were some of my favorite parts of pledging.

The difference, I think, between what I experienced and some of what Tess described is that we were never made to feel devalued. No one was bursting into tears. We weren't told we weren't good enough, just to do better. We were yelled at, sure, but more often than not they were yelling at us to make us cheer each other on. There is a crucial difference between hazing that is intended to bring a group together and hazing that is intended to break individuals down. It's a difference that marks the line between hazing and bullying. And that is a difference that every good team captain or New Member Educator knows very well.

What I found so interesting about Tess' article wasn't that she defended hazing. If it was utterly indefensible, people wouldn't still be doing it. What I found interesting was that she didn't include the recruitment process within her description of hazing. Recruitment was why I deactivated my sorority. It left me with an awful taste in my mouth. Even chapters like mine, that don't discriminate based on race, do discriminate based on other things. And those things are, more often than not, things that the woman in question can't necessarily control. During the one recruitment period that I participated in as an active sister, no one said anything similar to "She's not pretty enough, no!" about a recruit. But we said plenty of other things: She's cripplingly insecure; She's really...loud; She's slept with the entire lacrosse team, etc.

For that week in January we all became obsessed with attracting what we deemed "the best" girls to our house. It was addictive. We became consumed by near-constant events, dress-codes, intra-sorority gossip, etc. It scared me. It was so easy to get so wrapped up in it. And, in an environment like that, where you have maybe 15 minutes of chatting to make a decision on whether you would like to (theoretically) be friends with someone or not, how else are you supposed to judge them than by what they look like and how good they are at small talk? And what do either of those things have to do with anything real? Nothing, honestly.

So when we talk about hazing, why don't we start with the recruiting process? The exclusivity inherent in that needs to be a part of our discourse. A system that is designed to make some people feel good at the expense of others is a system that seems, in 2013, pretty medieval. We've all seen Mean Girls. Surely there has to be a better way to foster sisterhood than to cut some people down to make others feel special.

Image: Gustavus Adolphus College Archives/Wikimedia Commons