A new book snoops on sororities.

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2004 3:05 PM

Girls Just Want To Have Fun

A new book snoops on sororities.

Book cover

The classic American vantage point on sororities is that of Bluto's in Animal House—standing on a ladder in the dark, peering into a bedroom window. This is partly because sororities veil themselves in secrecy, which only makes freshman hormone cases more curious than ever about them. Curiously, though, while sorority life is almost as old as women's college education itself, virtually nothing has been written on it. Scholars have done some work on traditionally black sororities, but the inner world of predominantly white sororities has been largely ignored.

In her new book, Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, Alexandra Robbins tries to fill this void by infiltrating two sorority houses at an unnamed southern university and providing the fly-on-the-wall perspective that undergraduate men have so long wished for. But for a book on such a salacious topic, the message that Robbins conveys is all wrong. That message is: Move along, people; there's nothing to see here. Robbins' prudish neglect of the more gleefully decadent pleasures of sorority life reveals a disturbing authoritarian streak, and it allows her to avoid a serious question about the nature and purpose of college education: Does sorority fun fit in with the type of pleasures a university should be in the business of promoting?

Robbins claims she set out to provide "a balanced view of sororities," and she does evince a certain sympathy toward the four sorority women who helped her get access to their houses. But the writing of her book—the stories she tells and how she tells them—is an act of obvious, if unconscious, hostility. Reading Pledged is like hearing someone relate one of those comically obvious dreams whose meaning only the dreamer is capable of missing. The book is larded with moments of reflexive sneering and naively invidious description—Robbins' sorority girls typically "sniff," "sashay," "saunter," and "flaunt." And Robbins cherry-picks anecdotes to argue something that would be damning if it weren't ridiculous: For the affluent, attractive, sexually comfortable, socially savvy women who live in sorority houses, life is an unremitting drag. As Robbins tells it, sorority women desperately try to have fun, but their efforts consistently misfire, leaving her with a bleak chronicle of bulimic purging, problem drinking, humiliating sex, and hour upon hour of cliquish infighting and romantic bickering.

Robbins' account belongs to a tradition of public anxiety about women on college campuses. But sororities used to allay rather than provoke that anxiety. In one of the few scholarly articles ever written on white sororities, published in American Sociological Review in 1965, John Findley Scott argued that sororities served mainly to provide their members with high-status husbands. The striking thing about the early-'60s sororities that Scott described—with their status-consciousness, their public courtship rituals, and their obsession with sexual reputation—is how much they served the interests of their members' parents, who traditionally sought to control their daughters' sexual behavior in order to preserve their marriage value. In serving parental ends, sororities also served those of the colleges and universities charged with overseeing the moral and physical hygiene of their coeds.

But college women have considerably more control over their social status these days. Indeed, white women increasingly view their sororities the way that black women have long viewed theirs—as networking resources. With the old marriage goals pushed aside, the rules about ladylike comportment and sexual chastity, designed to reassure future husbands, are increasingly irrelevant. Nonetheless, the old spouse-hunting rituals have been retained—the endless Greek mixers and formals. Add a general relaxing of sexual mores, and combine it with the expanding role of alcohol and drugs in post-1960s campus life, and the battery of courtship rituals designed to enhance the marriage value of sorority women by rationing their sexual availability becomes something rather different.

From one angle, then, sororities have become the problem that they used to be the solution to. Several recent studies show sorority women to be at a higher risk of eating disorders, binge drinking, and sexual assault. In a sort of public health trifecta—combining intimations of substance abuse, anorexia, and sexual assault—a University of Colorado student testified before the Colorado state legislature in 1999 that weight-conscious sorority women sometimes ingest the "date rape drug" GHB voluntarily, because it provides the equivalent of an alcohol buzz without the calories. But focusing exclusively on these problems hardly offers a "balanced view" of sororities. It goes without saying that the loosening of rigid courtship norms has resulted in more than just negative public health outcomes like alcohol poisoning and date rape. It also means that lots of sorority women have crazy, drunken fun—and that sometimes that fun includes sex that they enjoy.

Indeed, Robbins' lack of "balance" is most evident in her queasy treatment of sorority sex. She focuses only on pathetic or patently debased sexual details—the desperate hooking up of her most desperate subject "Amy"; the debauched humping of some spring breakers in Jamaica. She even describes her happier lovers with a strangely abstract distaste: "On the limousine ride home, Chris and Caitlin began kissing, foreplay to what they would finish once they returned to Chris's apartment."

Dwelling on these public health risks inevitably serves to justify an expansion of authority for campus behavior cops and campus experts in mental hygiene. This authoritarian tendency is ubiquitous in Pledged. Robbins observes that "[e]veryday life in a sorority house generally goes unsupervised. The only adult who lives there is the 'House Mom.' … " It's disconcerting to have to point out to a recent college graduate that most sorority houses are populated exclusively by "adults," as that term is legally understood. It's even more disconcerting to register a hankering to impose a more exacting regime of supervision on these adults. But this is exactly what Robbins is up to. Late in the book she complains that Greek organizations are allowed to self-enforce their no-drinking rules. "From what I saw over the course of a year, it appears that these policies simply aren't working. While it is true that the sorority houses themselves were mostly party-free, that didn't stop girls … from drinking alcohol in their rooms."

The horror! Robbins considers several reform proposals in her conclusion. In one section heading she addresses "What Colleges and Graduates Can Do." Her answer is "Establish Authority." Robbins means that control of sororities should be wrested from "Greek alumni" and "national sorority offices." "Whereas university administrators are trained officials with degrees," she writes, "national officers aren't necessarily qualified to counsel or supervise students."

But this emphasis on top-down authoritarian corrections prevents her from making a much more telling criticism of sororities. The intellectually honest thing would be to admit that some sorority girls have a total blast--and then to acknowledge how that might be the real problem. A university education is supposed to be about the cultivation of certain tastes, the refinement of one's capacity to experience pleasure. It's hard to see how sorority fun accords with this, and, thus, why sororities should be officially recognized student organizations. It would be refreshing to hear a college administrator address the issue of sororities not as an excuse to expand administrative authority over student behavior but to assert the primacy of a liberal arts education in an increasingly corporate university environment: If college women want to form exclusive social groups off campus, without a university imprimatur—a college president might say—they should be free to do that. But a college education should be about the cultivation of those pleasures specifically associated with liberal learning.

Barring such an administrative declaration—and the thought is sort of pipe-dreamish—it would be helpful if people writing books on sororities would at least consider how these groups fit into a defensible conception of college education. But Robbins writes nothing about education. She's more interested in what the administrators call "behaviors"—how they can go astray of rational standards of risk management, and how, through proper surveillance and corrective counseling, they can be brought back into line.

Matt Feeney is a writer in Oakland. You can email him and follow him on Twitter.