As fraternity and sorority recruitment concludes on campuses across the country, national attitudes on the Greek system remain divided and controversial. Each year, Greek organizations make national news for one reason or another: headlines throughout the past decade have routinely featured allegations of excessive hazing, racism during rush, and overt sexism, to name a few.
Yet despite the bad press, fraternities and sororities remain as strong as ever, as The Washington Post reported last year. Interest in joining Greek organizations is the highest it’s been in the past 15 years, and national membership is up nearly 50 percent since 2005.
Still, this uniquely American tradition may be in danger of ruin, though not at the hands of the national media. Rather, fraternities and sororities are increasingly facing a new threat in the age of polarized gender politics, and now may be stripped of a key characteristic that distinguishes them from other campus groups—their sex-specific membership—by those who wish to erase major sex distinctions in civil society.
‘Inclusivity’ Means Ending Greek Organizations Altogether
When I returned to the College of William and Mary for my senior year this fall, I was surprised that some Greek groups on campus were pushing to become more “inclusive” this recruitment season. The leadership of our national organization informed my fraternity that our new policy would be to allow those who “identify as male” to rush (although we have no obligation to extend a bid). My school’s chapter of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority adopted a similar policy, posting the following message on their Facebook page shortly before formal recruitment began this semester:
Now, I don’t anticipate that Theta or any other sorority will be handing out bids to biological men any time soon. As with every other school, the transgender population on campus is minuscule; I haven’t heard of any trans students rushing this fall. Thus, it’s likely these policies are little more than a “look at how socially conscious we are!” virtue signal (which is entirely unnecessary at a modern liberal arts college like William and Mary, but I digress).
However, in the past few years Greek organizations have extended membership to individuals of the opposite sex several times, so the possibility of it going mainstream is by no means out of the question. (Notably, all the instances I managed to find were of “transgender men” joining fraternities. It seems sorority women have not yet taken to the idea of allowing men into the sisterhood.)
To understand why this type of policy would be detrimental, let’s examine the central purpose of a fraternal organization. The first fraternity in the United States, founded at William and Mary in 1776, was the Phi Beta Kappa society, which sought first and foremost to foster “friendship at its basis” and secondarily to maintain “benevolence and literature as its pillars.” PBK generally only extended membership to philosophical and intellectually curious students.
Over the years, fraternities have evolved in both their activities and missions. Social fraternities, the type most often discussed in the news, are single-sex organizations that generally promote fellowship as their primary goal. Most tend to think of these simply as the “Animal House”-inspired outlet for students who want to party, a group united only in their desire to choke down cheap vodka and shotgun cans of Natty Light. While this is certainly one facet, Greek life also fosters a wide range of beneficial activity, from philanthropy and community service to athletics and academic counseling.
Just as Phi Beta Kappa only extended membership to a certain type of individual, fraternities and sororities today are also inherently exclusionary—and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The recruitment process is so important because incoming men and women want to find a group on campus that best fits them, with the right individuals to share the college experience with. Similarly, those who are already members want to extend membership only to the new students who share their collective values, and who can contribute to their organization’s operations and overall membership experience.
Biological sex is the most basic—and most important—criteria for exclusion, for it is precisely the one that makes these groups extraordinary and distinguishable from every other campus group that fosters social relationships.
Even In Friendships, Biology Matters
Fraternities and sororities have continued to uphold sex-specific membership even today, when the pressure to go co-ed has never been higher. Some elite universities with progressive political priorities, like Wesleyan, have actually mandated de-sexing fraternities to “crack down on sexual violence.” (Nothing helps end rape culture like coercing college girls to live in fraternity houses, amirite, Wesleyan?)
Other colleges, like Harvard University, have taken steps to discourage Greek membership at an institutional level, forbidding fraternity and sorority members from holding leadership positions in other campus groups and rendering them ineligible for scholarship opportunities.
Given the mounting pressure, why haven’t Greek organizations just given in? Is it because they’re elitist, sexist institutions that seek to “perpetuate America’s increasingly two-tiered society,” as some in the media argue? Maybe. But as a fraternity member myself, I think it more likely that these organizations recognize the virtue in creating and maintaining small social circles comprised only of same-sex individuals.
At the core, fraternities and sororities offer unique opportunities for men and women to bond and build relationships over shared experiences, which are often rooted in their natural, biological differences. As one liberal skeptic-turned-fraternity brother admitted, fraternity life in particular offers “a shield of goofy bonding behind which guys can…figure out who they actually [want] to be.” This figuring-out process works best when you’re able to form close relationships with other men, who are the only ones that can truly relate to the extraordinary maturation that goes on during the college years.
Indeed, the typical “guy stuff” that figures prominently into the fraternal experience for many college men—playful mockery, everyday pissing contests, and roughhousing for no good reason—are actually deeply related to human evolution and biology. As professor Anne Dagg and co-author Lee Harding also explain in “Human Evolution and Male Aggression,” much like chimpanzees who form male coalitions, human males gradually developed a “need for trust in their fellows [that] evolved into the tight friend-bonding that can be seen today.”
This fits my experience as a current member of a social fraternity. Beyond the FIFA matches and the intramural sports games—or perhaps because of these things—it develops a strong support network that students can rely on for valuable advice and assistance throughout all the college experiences that are uniquely male. The bonds I’ve made by joining a social group of only fellow men have given me a level of knowledge, confidence, and fulfillment that I would not have developed otherwise.
Practically, De-Sexing Wouldn’t Work Well
There also exist more practical matters to consider. The vast majority of trans people who may hope to join Greek organizations aren’t those you see on the covers of magazines or in Nike’s Olympic commercials. They very likely haven’t gone through the costly transition surgeries or taken opposite-sex hormones and, therefore, probably look like their birth sex.
How will a trans pledge adapt to group showers in the frat house, or participate in the shirts versus skins basketball game? How will the sorority girl feel when she’s randomly picked to live in a 15×15 room with the trans pledge—a biological male—when she moves into the sorority house?
It’s likely any transgender people who do join Greek organizations would end up being excluded from the myriad activities and bonding experiences that are essential to the experience and derive—for better or worse—from nature.
A female in a fraternity, for example, may not be able to participate alongside the stronger guys in IM sports, and would probably feel awkward during certain conversations about sex (which, let’s be honest, happens quite often among a group of testosterone-filled 20-year-olds). Similarly, a male in a sorority may feel very left out when his “sisters” discuss their baby fever and talk about becoming wives and mothers, or when they discuss their intimate experiences with men. These likely scenarios would create a discomfort that complicates the dynamic for everyone.
Combining the sexes in fraternities and sororities, regardless of the identities of those involved, would ultimately detract from what makes these organizations different and exceptional. While many universities may be far from matching the progressive plunges my own college has made, any fraternities or sororities considering “inclusion” would do well to consider how fundamental single-sex membership is to not only their practical operations, but also to the value the brotherhood (and sisterhood) offers to students navigating the messy worlds of college and young adulthood.