Lynn Beisner weighs in on the “deranged sorority girl” email that went viral last week.
In a week packed with news, this so-called “deranged sorority girl” email still managed to go viral. It is from a senior sorority member to the rank and file members of the University of Maryland chapter of Delta Gamma.
If you have not read the email, let me make a long and profanity-laced story short for you: This particular sorority member (her name has been withheld for reasons that will soon become obvious) had received multiple complaints about the women of her chapter from the men of their “match-up” fraternity, Sigma Nu. The fraternity guys complained that the sorority women were boring and awkward. The sorority sisters spent too much time chatting with each other at parties rather than focusing on the fraternity guys. To make matters even worse, some of the sorority sisters were open about wanting to spend time at another fraternity’s party. In many cases, they went to other parties because their brother or boyfriend was in another fraternity, but in a few cases, they simply wanted to party elsewhere.
Based on the complaints she has received from the Sigma Nu guys, the sorority leader goes on a tirade using a combination of all caps, curse words, and threats that make her sound both highly creative and thoroughly “deranged.” She makes two claims that are, to her, self-evidently true: 1.Frats don’t like boring sororities 2. The fraternity will stop hanging out with them if they “fucking suck.”
To prevent the social disaster of a fraternity not wanting to hang out with them, the sorority leader demands that the women of the sorority do the following:
1) They must be entertaining to the men of their match-up frat even though they are handicapped by sobriety. They must be “fun” and “talk to boys” and show no signs of social awkwardness.
2) They must not attend any social events on the nights in question other than the events between their sorority and its match-up fraternity.
3) They cannot hang out with their sorority sisters or retreat to a corner of the room.
It is tempting to stop here and talk about whether the woman who wrote the email is deranged, entitled, loathing of her own gender, or all of the above. But it seems to me that this gives us a valuable opportunity to talk about the expectations our culture has about women, expectations that made her believe those demands are entirely reasonable. In addition, we need to understand the evolving culture of “Greek life” and how it is impacting both genders.
An important question to ask is what do these girls have to do to not be “boring” or “fucking suck?” In one part of the email she calls girls who do not meet her expectations “fucking faggots.” This statement makes it obvious that when she demands that the sorority sisters entertain and talk to the men of the fraternity, she is not suggesting that they discuss movies or play board games. She is ordering the girls to entertain the young men by engaging in some form of sexualized behavior.
She takes as axiomatic two things: 1. It is the job of the sorority, the women in the relationship, to be entertaining to the men. 2. If men aren’t entertained, it is the women’s fault.
She never stops to question if the problem might be with the fraternity, not the sorority. It never occurs to her to question their belief that they deserve to be entertained by their match-up. She does not ask the young women who are partying at other fraternities if there is a reason that they prefer those houses to Sigma Nu.
Her attack on her sisters shows no ability or desire to see their point of view. It is clear that she never even considered suggesting to the young men who complained that they change their own behavior. She could have pointed out that young women who are feeling guarded or threatened can appear “awkward” and congregate in groups to feel safe. In her mind, the equation is simple. The boys are bored, and that is automatically the women’s fault and their responsibility to remedy.
To understand why the women of the sorority might not want to party with the men of Sigma Nu, it helps to understand the fraternity’s history in the changes that fraternities and sororities are faced with at the University of Maryland.
Sigma Nu was founded at Virginia Military Institute, one of the most unrepentantly misogynistic institutions in our country. It reflects its ongoing military associations in its culture, authoritarian structure, and the value it places on personal honor. Honor cultures have been shown to produce violence and non-egalitarian attitudes toward women.
The chapter of Sigma Nu at the University of Maryland seems to have its own problems. On a website that allows visitors to fraternities or sororities to rate and write about their experiences, some users described the men of the University of Maryland chapter of Sigma Nu as “awkward” (exactly what the sorority girls were accused of). One pointed reviewer claimed that the men “do not know how to respect women.” Nearly half of the reviewers used the word “creepy” to describe fraternity members and their behavior at parties.
The picture that emerges is that the young women of Delta Gamma at the University of Maryland are faced with two options: Stay home during the best parties of the year or go to an event with men who are described as creepy and disrespectful toward women. It seems that what is truly being demanded is that they make the men stop feeling awkward and make them feel comfortable being creepy.
Another significant thing that we learn in the email is that the girls claim that their job of entertaining the men of the fraternity has been made considerably more difficult, if not impossible, by new rules about alcohol.
According to an article in the Washington Post, administrators at the University of Maryland began cracking down on fraternities and sororities during the last school year. Administrators informed the fraternities and sororities that if they did not completely eliminate hazing and alcohol abuse, the university would take drastic action.
Fraternities, in particular, were shaken by this change. Peter Smithhisler, who is the president of one of the major associations for fraternities told the Post, “Those chapters that can articulate what it means to be a fraternity man—beyond the drinking culture—are the ones making it…Those who rely on the crutch of alcohol won’t make it.”
So what does it mean to be a “fraternity man” without hazing and copious quantities of booze? The rest of the article tells us that being a fraternity man means having a community, alumni connections, a smattering of homophobia, and the promise of regular access to women. In other words, perusing women, hooking up with them, and talking about them have replaced booze and hazing as the bonding ritual of fraternity life.
This switch from alcohol-fueled parties to parties where women are the chief source of entertainment has put members of both fraternities and sororities in a double bind. They are focusing on the opposite sex in the absence of alcohol, but the absence of alcohol makes it hard to engage with the opposite sex. In both the sorority email and the Post article, we read how awkward these parties can be without the social lubricant of alcohol. Yet, the expectation of fraternity young men to “score” seems to only have increased.
The email from the sorority leader gives us valuable insight into the pressures and expectations faced by both young men and women in sororities and fraternities.
What is perhaps more important about this email is that it complicates the simplistic answers given to tragedies like Steubenville. Poppy Harlow of CNN famously said that alcohol played a huge role in the case. Implicit in her assessment was the idea that non-alcoholic parties would be better for everyone involved. But this email shows that dry or semi-dry parties come with their own problems.
It is important for us not to see this email in isolation, as the product of just one “deranged” young woman. It should inspire us to become curious and perhaps concerned about what inspired her. It should remind us that getting rid of alcohol will not magically make parties a safe place. Above all, it should make us wonder why women are still expected, if not required, to cure men’s boredom, to make them feel comfortable, and to entertain them.