Could Sorority Hosted Parties Reduce Sexual Assault?

Rooms where sororities can host non-alcoholic pre-planned parties on American University’s campus. Credit: Nicole Schaller

By: Nicole Schaller

December 11, 2017

One in five women will be sexually assaulted in college, statistics show. When looking further, studies found men in fraternities are more likely to be sexual assault perpetrators compared to college men not affiliated. According to three different studies, fraternity men are three times more likely to commit rape.

“Not everyone in a fraternity is a rapist, but they are in an environment that’s fertile for toxic masculinity, which is one root cause of rape culture,” said Maya Vizvary, the sexual assault prevention coordinator at American University.

A solution that has floated around in reducing sexual assault is for sororities to hold more parties. Vizvary explained that the change in power dynamics on who is controlling the parties could affect the college party landscape.

“I think they [sorority-led parties] would be better because there’s more control, than if going to a frat party,” Vizvary said. “They are deciding what’s being served, what the theme is, and who’s going to be let in, and when the party is happening. Fraternities have more potential to manipulate the situation or control what’s happening, and I think if sorority were having parties, and inviting who they wanted to come that just puts a lot more control in their hands.”

For college women, the fraternity party atmosphere can often be unsafe. Maria Szczesny, a University of Maryland graduate from last spring felt unsafe at fraternity parties on multiple occasions. One instance had a significant effect on her.

“I actually stopped going to [fraternity parties] because there was an incident that wasn’t very serious, but my friend had to step in front of a guy who pinned me against the wall,” said Szczesny. “I hadn’t even seen him in my life before, and he decided that’s just what he was going to do that day. If you talk to not just sorority women, but any woman who’s gone to a fraternity party or any other parties happening on campus, that’s going to happen to the majority of them unfortunately.”

Szczesny was part of a sorority at University of Maryland.  She requested the specific sorority she is affiliated with to not be disclosed. She had conflicting feelings on whether sororities should hold parties. As of now, all national sororities are not allowed to hold parties with alcohol at their residences.

“I think from a feminist point of view it kind of sucks that sororities have bylaws that say you can’t host parties with alcohol or you have to have very strict rules, and frats just don’t have that,” said Szczesny. “But fraternities and sororities are run by two very different institutions.”

Separate organizations lead fraternities and sororities. All 66 national fraternities are part of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, and all 26 national sororities are part of the National Panhellenic Conference. The organizations take different approaches to how they lead their groups.

“North American Interfraternity Council allows the fraternities to make decisions individually by chapters,” said Kathleen Tucker, the Coordinator of Fraternity, and Sorority Life at American University. “Whereas the National Panhellenic Conference is very much a guiding organization that creates policies, and a lot of the decision making. It is a lot more structured. All 26 organizations that fall under the National Panhellenic Conference follow very strict guidelines that they put out.”

Due to the structure of the organization, the National Panhellenic makes it hard for sororities to make decisions independently from other chapters. If one sorority wanted to approve parties with alcohol, all 25 other sororities would have to unanimously agree to allow parties with alcohol in their chapters as well. This differs from fraternities, who can individually make independent decisions from the other chapters in the North American Interfraternity Council.

In a statement by Dani Weatherford, the Executive Director of the National Panhellenic Conference, she expressed the reasoning for the ban on parties and alcohol at sorority houses.

“Our organizations are – at their core – about empowering women and providing opportunities for leadership and engagement on campus. Of course, our organizations are also social by their very nature and chapters do, in fact, host social functions. The key difference – particularly at a time when student safety is particularly top of mind – is that our members don’t host them in their chapter facilities, and they look to third-party vendors as a way to make sure that they’re providing a safe and secure environment when alcohol is present.”

Yet, the idea for sorority to host parties remains a strong solution in creating safer atmospheres for college sorority women.

“Some arguments I’ve seen before is women would be able to regulate their houses better,” said Tucker on having sorority house parties. “That they would be able to lock room doors that they would be able to control access point, and that they would feel safer in the space that they are in.”

The down side for parties held at sorority houses would be the increase in insurance costs for chapters, as well as an increase in liability. Fraternities on average pay higher dues to cover the insurance for allowing alcohol. Resistance against sorority-led parties among members themselves source these as the main reasons for not wanting parties. The president of the Panhellenic Council at American University, and member of Phi Sigma Sigma, Lily Brown, expressed why she would not want sororities holding parties with alcohol.

“I don’t really care all that much in throwing parties,” said Brown “There’s a lot of legal risk when throwing parties.”

Other sorority members share similar thoughts. Rachel Fariello, a psychology junior at Florida State University, and a member of Pi Beta Phi, does not want to take on the responsibility of holding parties. Currently Florida State has suspended all Greek life after a Pi Kappa Phi fraternity pledge died of alcohol poisoning at a fraternity party.

“We shouldn’t have big parties because it keeps us [sororities] on the elegant side,” said Fariello. “It keeps us out of trouble if we don’t have parties. We still hold functions and have philanthropic events.”

In terms of whether sorority-led parties would reduce sexual assault, many interviewed sorority members did not believe it would make a difference. Many believed that if sororities held parties, it would do more harm than good, since it’s just creating more places where alcohol would be provided.

“I don’t think if sorority were supposed to host parties that it’ll change sexual assault rates at all,” said Szczesny.  “I think it changes who’s providing the alcohol and providing the venue. You’re just providing another outlet for people to drink.”

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) sorority president of Alpha Delta Chi, Gracen Blackwell, shared similar concerns.

“I don’t think there’s a need for sororities to hold more parties,” said Blackwell. “Because it’s just a lot of alcoholic events on one campus at one time, and the fraternities’ houses are more suited for throwing parties.”

Blackwell, Brown, and Fariello all pointed out that fraternity houses are better suited for alcohol hosted events. Alumni invest in many of the sorority houses that are decorated with quality furniture and design. Taylor Schnaars, a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma at Pittsburgh University, noted the differences.

“We have a fancy piano, a chef, a maid and nice carpeting,” said Schnaars. “Whereas the frat houses have bare cement walls, no furniture, and open rooms. They’re made for parties”

Despite the many vocal sorority sisters coming forward and saying they do not want alcohol parties, when conducting an anonymous survey among 112 sorority women from multiple chapters at four geographically different universities, a different message came out.

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Survey on Sorority-led parties. Credit Nicole Schaller

When asked if they would like if sororities could host more parties publicly, almost 85% current sorority members said “yes”. In addition, around 92% thought sorority-led parties would affect the current party scene at their university, and almost 80% said they believed sorority-led parties would reduce sexual assault.

The discrepancy between statements from voluntary sorority members and the anonymous survey could be attributed to sorority members feeling the need to represent their sorority chapter, instead of their individual beliefs. One sorority member after participating in the survey shared these sentiments.

“When things are anonymous, I can openly express my personal opinion. When my name is attached, I represent the chapter as a whole.”

Due to the constraints of the National Panhellenic regulations and to the concerns in the increase of parties with alcohol consumption, Blackwell from UCLA, did not believe that sorority-led parties would be feasible. However, she did note that she believes sorority-led parties could better monitor the prevention of sexual assault.

“Vast majority of sexual assault in terms of Greek life is when [women are] being led upstairs at a frat house. I think frats are more likely to be like ‘yeah you go bro!’ Whereas if I saw one of my sisters walking upstairs with a boy, if we were having a party here, I think me, and my fellow officers would be more likely to say, ‘hey what’s going on? What are you doing? Do you feel comfortable doing this?”

Blackwell recently with other sorority leaders at UCLA’s campus took it upon themselves to change the fraternity party scene on their campus. They demanded the fraternities to implement third-party security at all their parties, have third-party bartenders, as well as each fraternity having a certain number of sober fraternity officers supervising. The fraternities agreed to all their requests.

“We’ve [sororities] been talking to fraternities because there’s been quite a few instances, particularly Panhellenic woman, being drugged and sexually assaulted at fraternity parties,” said Blackwell. “It was actually the Panhellenic Council that refused to hold anymore socials with fraternities until something like [the agreed changes] happened, which is what we wanted.”

The link between heavy alcohol consumption and sexual assault has been found in multiple studies, including the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Blackwell is hopeful that the monitoring of alcohol from outside sources will help with sexual assault prevention.

“We wanted them to have third party security and bartenders at their houses and we wanted them to take responsibility for what has been happening at their houses. I think it’ll help out a lot.”

As of now, no major movement to change the National Panhellenic Conferences’ rules are apparent. Instead, sororities are trying to openly communicate with fraternities, such as UCLA did, and having mandatory education programs for sexual assault prevention.

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