Photo: JHU Sheridan Libraries / Gado / Getty Images
No one comes to Yale for the holidays, but students are always looking for them. Even the most academic 18-year-old can’t resist the bugle call of America’s fraternity parties, which have been sold to us time and time again by movies, TV shows, and Barstool Sports. When I was in first grade in 2019, going to fellowship parties was an activity at least twice a week. It was a ritual that involved swallowing several shots of chased blue raspberry Svedka with orange juice stolen from the dining room. Most of the girls, myself included, wore some variation of a cropped tank top, jeans, and white sneakers (probably Nike Air Force 1s). We would gather in even, chatty crowds around a handful of houses on the High Street in New Haven, Connecticut, trying to get the attention of the brother of the fellowship at the door. Inside there would be a mass of vibrating people, moving arrhythmically to terrible music, sweaty, hormonal bodies pressed against each other, whether out of attraction or out of necessity.
Greek life is certainly not as important at Yale as it is at large southern colleges like the University of Alabama. But Yale fraternities have some of the longest institutional histories in the country. Delta Kappa Epsilon, from Brett Kavanaugh’s infamy, was founded at Yale in 1844. The underlying conditions of a brotherhood – being an island group of socially powerful men – are exacerbated in places like Yale. There is no shortage of men here, from families of powerful and wealthy former students. They join the same organizations as their fathers and grandfathers and therefore have a greater incentive to maintain the old boys’ clubs. Equally heightened is the danger of fraternities – Yale continually tells students that they are destined for greatness, that they deserve to be here, that they are not only good but also excellent. Imagine what this does for the ego.
But these things weren’t on my mind when I joins a fraternity: the now former Yale chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp). I only thought how fun it would be, how cool it would be to be one of the first women in SigEp. There was a precedent for this – in 2017, a group of female college students rushed into the male fraternities of Yale. They were part of a campus group called Engender, which had been founded the year before to push fraternities to embrace the genre. Two years later, three Engender members filed a federal class action lawsuit, alleging that the fraternities and housing companies that rented them had discriminated against on the basis of sex – because no woman was allowed to be one. member and therefore no woman was allowed to live in the houses. The group also accused Yale of “willful indifference” to sexual harassment. In January 2020, a Connecticut court dismissed all but one of the charges, leaving the complainant with only one Title IX complaint regarding a sexual harassment case.
Aggregate research on Engender’s website makes an explicit link between gender segregation and sexual assault. There have been other movements, nationwide, to tackle sexual assault by banning alcohol in fraternities or attempting to ban single-sex organizations altogether. But Engender’s current advocacy is only about integrating gender into fraternities. They explain this by asserting that “sex discrimination in fraternities… [encourages] various forms of sexual violence, resulting in much higher rates of sexual assault by fellowship members. At its heart, Engender’s mission statement affirms the bold claim that the presence of women will change the behavior of men.
Last fall, a fraternity finally allowed women to register: SigEp. They disaffiliated from the national organization and renamed themselves Edon Club, inspired by the name of the building that fellowship members rent.
SigEp had been at Yale for less than two decades. Co-education was one of the few reasons the SigEp chapter of Yale decided to disaffiliate – when the national organization sold the New Haven fraternity house, the chapter decided that the high dues they were paying at SigEp were no longer worth it. A few weeks after officially losing the name SigEp (and throwing away the Greek letters that hung over their door), the boys decided to become students.
Edon recruited six juniors to be part of their first class of women. They were beautiful, appreciated and already friends of the men of the brotherhood. In the spring, these women helped organize the first emergency process open to Yale students of all genders. The selection process was like a marathon, involving dozens of one-on-one meetings with the members and a few group events. Sixteen sophomores – 12 women and four men – received offers in February. I was one of them.
We tried to stop using the term “brotherhood”, but the identity was difficult to eliminate. The selection process was still called “rush”, after which successful applicants entered a probationary period during which they “signed up” for the organization. I think after a while we all gave up on pretending.
I rushed in because it had been a long quarantine year, and I was newly vaccinated but still struggled to make new friends. The process started with informal talks with current members. The best, by far, was the one I had with a boy who had come to Yale to play on the squash team that won the national championship but found religion instead. We talked about his recent foray into Buddhism and the potential healing properties of hallucinogenic drugs. During the evenings organized for future members, I also discovered my great affinity and my significant competence for drinking games.
I understood, after joining, the intoxicating power of fraternities. The collateral is deliberately calculated to create strong bonds within the group. (Hazing is an inevitable topic when discussing fraternities, and it has resulted in deaths at other universities, but we never did anything that would have hurt our well-being by promising.) some of my closest friends by promising Edon, in part because of the cultivated atmosphere of camaraderie. Of course, alcohol plays a significant role in getting to know your colleagues. But you wouldn’t like to party with people you’re not friends with. (Before asking: Edon members discussed making rules against fraternization, but truth be told, it is impossible to prevent students from having sex with each other, and even members of unisex organizations do. The norm is that current members should not get involved with students rushing or promising fellowship.)
In all colleges, Greek life is an intrinsically gendered experience, and the fraternities hold the power of invitation and the promise of drunkenness. Edon’s integration didn’t change the fact that our social power (and, therefore, mine) stems from our ability to throw parties and give away alcohol for free.
In the fall of this year, the Edon Club opened its doors to revelers, and the student body rushed back in force.
At one of these parties, I saw my closest friend in Edon having a panic attack in the bathroom on the second floor. Downstairs, she had met a boy who had spent the semester harassing her. Another member, although he knows his story, let him into the party. Now we were hiding from the crowd, listening to the sounds of a successful party we had been throwing. We perched on the edge of a yellowing tub, taking deep breaths together. I was struck, even then, by our naivety, our blindness to the larger problem.
Maybe there had been a part of me that thought joining a fraternity would isolate me from the dangers of being a student – that rate of sexual assault in four. Did I think I could dodge the risks inherent in femininity? Of course, I had acquired some form of power within a coveted social space on campus. I became the brother of the fellowship at the door.
But I can’t protect all the freshman girls on campus no matter how hard I try. Nobody can. Edon, for what he’s worth, does his best. We take turns staying sober during the holidays and watching our guests. We serve all the drinks ourselves. We maintain a blacklist of dangerous individuals. There is a very strong argument that any degree of harm that can be avoided is important, because it is a lifetime that has not gone wrong because of an assault.
Yet it is not a single thing that puts me or other women at risk of experiencing sexual violence. It’s the whole of gender, of misogyny, of structures of violence. I have lived under this threat all my life. He followed me through dark, empty streets, through tight rooms, hidden from view.
So what do we do? We return to the party.