Ten years ago this spring, I entered a fraternity house in broad daylight to see fellow sorority women perform a drunken strip-tease. The event had no official title, it was simply known as a lip synch. Its purpose, if you can call it that, was to see which sorority had the best song-and-dance routine. The best performance was determined by a panel of judges, mostly brothers of the fraternity, and that year, a “celebrity” guest judge: a professor in the college’s government department.
The event was one of more than half-a-dozen competitive events that made up the fraternity’s week-long charity fundraiser, known as Derby Days. The entire effort was held in the name of raising money for a network of children’s hospitals. But what was really at stake that afternoon was who was going to be deemed the most desirable group of women. And that made me feel numb, and then enraged, for reasons I would struggle to articulate for years to come.
Some of the Derby Days events were benign—a penny war, for example—but most, like the lip synch or the beauty pageant or the skit contest, had a clear message. The winners were the most sexually attractive group of women to a certain group of men.
If you had asked me before I went to college if these events would’ve upset me, I am not sure what I would’ve said. I never considered myself a prude, nor was I sheltered from the world of sexual innuendo. I spent my high school years at a liberal boarding school in the Northeast, where we watched endless reruns of Sex and the City and gossiped about our classmates’ hook-ups.
But there was something about that day in 2004 that gnawed at me. I am sure some of the women who performed in the event got a genuine thrill: They enjoyed performing in front of people. And of course most people like being viewed as attractive. But seeing the event play out in front of me—to feel swallowed by the intense competition, to feel like I was accepting the unspoken terms of the event—changed me. The event seemed to confirm so many negative stereotypes about women and men. That women valued, above all else, being seen as sexually desirable to these men. And that men wanted and encouraged the women to perform as objects for their entertainment.
The rage I felt about Derby Days crept up at the most unexpected times. I would be running on a treadmill and suddenly start plotting an interpretive dance for next year’s event, in which my friends and I would perform an Enya song while wearing garbage bags that hid everything about our bodies. In retrospect, I probably should’ve done that. Instead, it took my friend Liz and me a full year to work up the nerve to ask our sorority to boycott Derby Days. That night was my first lesson in real politics, as I quickly learned that if you want to do something unpopular, you need to line up a lot of support ahead of time. (I had not.) Instead, two women countered my plea with words that I will never forget: “That would be political suicide.”
I was taken aback by the fact that these women would openly acknowledge what I thought we were too old to admit in college: These men were popular. And that made them powerful. And if we rocked the boat, we could be shunned. My sorority’s national advisor, an adult well into her 30s, called me soon after the meeting and tried to talk me out of the boycott. I then took my complaints to the adult in charge of my college’s sorority and fraternity community. She told me the fraternity members were “nice guys.” So we gave up for the time being.
Two years later, Liz and I, along with the support of several female professors, formally complained to the administration about Derby Days. We argued that performing a strip tease in college housing, with a college professor as a judge, made it seem like it was a college-sanctioned contest. The administrator we met with, who is now retired, appeared outraged that the fraternity would hold such an event. He later told us, “frank discussions have taken place with the fraternity about my concerns.” My sorority ended up largely withdrawing itself from the competition in part due to our agitation over the events.