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.
Still, the contest went on as it had for the previous three years while I was at William and Mary. In response to our complaints, William and Mary’s sorority council surveyed members on their opinions and attitudes towards Derby Days. They found that three-quarters of those surveyed said Derby Days encouraged “inappropriate behavior.” Nearly 70 percent said they found some parts of Derby Days events degrading to women. A task force made up of members of the sorority council recommended that the panel of judges for the event be comprised of both men and women, and that the event be held in a public location. I was not convinced this would make a huge difference, but it was enough to be hopeful.
That hope was seemingly misplaced. Just last month, the website Total Sorority Move got a hold of an email sent by one of the members of the Derby Days frat. It offers a window into the environment at the fraternity these days. In the email, one of the chapter’s members urged his brothers to “save the sluts.” It included other lines that implored the men to “never mind the extremities that surround it, the 99% of horrendously illogical bullshit that makes up the modern woman, consider only the 1%, the snatch."
The college held a public forum to discuss the contents of the email. The official college response, though, continues to acknowledge that there is a problem, but that the institution cannot be primarily responsible for bringing about a cultural change.
“I’ve been working on the irresponsible drinking issue for a very, very long time. And I’ve done all sorts of things here and at Princeton and my ultimate conclusion is the institution can talk about it until hell freezes over, but it’s the kids themselves who are going to have to make a decision about saying, for example, ‘You’ve had enough, stop drinking,’” William and Mary President Taylor Reveley told me.
“I’ll give you an example. When I was in school there was no peer pressure not to drive while drunk. Nobody said to a peer, ‘Hey, give me the keys, you can’t do that,’ or ‘No I’m not getting in the car with you.’ Now I think kids do that. They don’t all do it, but to a remarkable degree they will say, ‘You can’t drive, you’re drunk,’ and go beyond that and they’ll take the keys. That’s a change.”
I agreed that yes, that was a major shift in our culture. But I countered that many institutions played a major role in helping that message take root, by communicating the dangers of driving drunk.
“Sure,” Reveley said. “But in the final analysis if the peer won’t say to a peer… ‘Uh, don’t do it,’ you can only make so much progress.”
Maybe so. But I was a peer trying to influence my peers. And I believe it would’ve made a big difference if the institution had backed me strongly, instead of giving me what felt like lip service.
Derby Days was canceled this year, and following the release of the email the fraternity has put itself on suspension. According to a statement from the fraternity, the William and Mary chapter of Sigma Chi has “ceased normal chapter operations.” The member who sent the email has been suspended from the chapter. William and Mary administrators say they cannot comment on the disciplinary process, if there is one underway.
I told Reveley my history of trying to boycott Derby Days, and how I felt this culture had been brewing in that fraternity for a decade, since before he was president.
“I think now the administration would be a lot more responsive on this issue,” he said. “I am sure there are other issues that where…” and he trailed off for a moment and shrugged. “That’s always a problem that all of us have with institutions. But the way you get at it is as you did. Just keep going at the institution and hope it gets better.”
So here I am. One decade later, and so far to go.