If there were sorority parties instead of frat parties, what would they look like? Would there be pinot instead of Budweiser and comfy leggings in place of skimpy skirts? Or would they take on a riot grrrl theme, with cheap gin and DIY tattoos?
We may soon find out. Some sorority members are pushing for permission to hold alcohol-fueled parties on college campuses, the New York Times reported Monday, arguing that doing so would give them more control over the sexual dynamics that have historically been stacked against women at frat parties.
"I would definitely feel safer at a sorority party," said one George Washington University senior. "It’s the home-court advantage."
Today's college students go to "frat parties" rather than "sorority parties" because sororities pay lower insurance rates in exchange not serving alcohol. Allowing drinking at the houses would jack up membership rates by about $100 per year per member. Still, many sisters think that might be worth it, since multiple studies have found that fraternity members are more likely to commit rape, and women who go to frat parties are more likely to have been assaulted.
I first heard the sorority-party idea from Michael Kimmel, an expert in masculinity and a professor at Stony Brook University in Long Island, whom I profiled for the magazine recently. During our interview, he suggested that colleges might be able to reduce their rates of rape simply by putting the women in charge of the alcohol.
Under the current regime, he said, women have to perform a certain slutty femininity in order to please frat brothers and gain entry into their houses.
"So if you dress like they want you to, drink like they want you to, dance like they want you to, then you'll get in [to the frat house]; you're a babe," Kimmel said. "If you don't do that, you're a bitch, you won't get in."
What he proposed, instead, is for sororities to be the gatekeepers to the keggers.
"That would mean that there would be women at the door, and they would decide if you were gentlemanly enough and trustworthy enough to come into your party," he said. "Think of all the social pressure on [the men]. I think sexual assault would go way, way down."
It's a very interesting theory, and I hope some sororities try it and that it works. Still, there's no perfect solution to sexual assault, and this one has its pitfalls.
First, while being in their own houses might make it easier for sorority members to control punch ingredients or to escape potential perpetrators by locking themselves in their rooms, it might not do much to curb date rape or more insidious forms of assault.
Second, this won't necessarily eliminate some of the sexist views that underpin many campus rapes. Women are still judged more harshly for drinking than men are. In one study, women who sat next to a glass of beer were perceived by both men and women as more flirtatious and likely to consent to sex. Simply being in a sorority house might not prevent some men from believing women are "asking for it" by having one too many screwdrivers.
Finally, this could further the flawed assumption that women are the more dutiful sex; that we are naturally better at policing inappropriate behavior. The Responsible-Lady-Fixes-Everything paradigm is why we have TV commercials where a size-two mom cheerily Lysols every inch of the house while her gross husband watches TV. (Or, more generally, the thinking that women do more chores because they like things cleaner.)
This reasoning is evident in how some of the Times' sources explained why they don't think sorority sisters should have parties: "Mr. Pendleton said that because sororities tended to be smaller and more intimately decorated, members should hold events with alcohol at outside venues like dance halls." You see, the women's intricate doilies and knick-knacks simply will not withstand the constant, salty spray of a "Natty Boh" keg.
If sororities actually decide to do this and it fails to reduce assault rates, it's important that it not lead to even more victim-blaming. At a time in their lives when women are discovering who they are, sometimes drunkenly and raucously, it's not fair to saddle them with the expectation that they should be trying to prevent their own assaults. All they're trying to do is party.