This past spring, my youngest son finished his freshman year at Berkeley. Toward the end of the semester, he asked me to proofread his final anthropology paper. The professor had assigned a paper that required the students to conduct a mini ethnographic study of some aspect of college life. My son chose to examine fraternity parties.
Despite my strong objections, he had pledged a fraternity during his second semester. As an insider, he was perfectly positioned to make observations and ask questions about fraternity life. As I was reading his paper, I became more and more outraged by and frustrated with what he had written, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. The fact that it was written in a “matter-of-fact” voice made it all the more shocking.
Here is an excerpt that particularly disturbed me: “The first priority in planning a party is determining the theme of the party. When choosing the party theme, members of the fraternity often opt for a theme that will encourage sexual promiscuity. For example, a fraternity will choose a theme that forces women to dress promiscuously. In one instance I witnessed the theme, ‘Hunt or Be Hunted,’ in which men dressed as hunters and women dressed as animals to be hunted.”
Later in the paper, he described the “bidding” process, which is the vernacular for selecting the sororities that would be honored with invitations to their parties. He wrote, “When I asked another brother how the fraternity decides which sororities to give these bids to he simply responded, ‘The most rich, white, and attractive’.” This was particularly surprising and disturbing. The demographics at Berkeley reveal that about 40% of the student body is Asian, while only about 29% is white. I unfortunately wasn’t surprised that looks were part of the equation.
My son observed that “the bid system allows the frats to objectify women and make judgments based solely on the beauty of the women. This has two effects; it leads many in the fraternities to look at sororities simply as a supply of attractive women. It also forces women into a gendered role, which is primarily supplying entertainment for male fraternity members. One woman that is a member of a sorority told me that when her sorority is invited to a fraternity she feels pressured to be sexually promiscuous so that her sorority would continue to receive bids.”
“Running security,” also referred to as “working the door,” requires “maintaining the ratio” — ensuring that there are always two women to every man at the party. My son writes that this “allows the males to pick and choose females for their personal sexual interests.” He noted, “I personally witnessed a fraternity member deny a group of girls from entry into his house’s party because the girls ‘were not attractive enough.’”
My son is a thoughtful and intelligent young man. He joined his fraternity because his friends had joined the fraternity. He made many good friends and worked on charitable projects with this fraternity. He has never been physically hazed. Furthermore, he tells me the examples in his paper are a composite of what he has seen, and they did not all occur at any one fraternity. In fact, in his paper he wrote, “This does not necessarily mean that the fraternity members personally wish to encourage this promiscuous behavior, but rather, as I was told by the social chair of a fraternity, ‘The theme of a party is selected in order to cater to the audience, rather than cater to the fraternity.’”
When my son chose Berkeley, he thought he was selecting a liberal, cutting-edge, West Coast school that would be totally different from his East Coast home-state options. Berkeley, after all, is well known for being a place where social movements begin. He unfortunately found that not only is Berkeley not leading the charge in social change but that it has, at least where women are concerned, fallen into the age-old social stereotyping and devaluation of women. I have to wonder why young college women anywhere subject themselves to this kind of objectification, but I am particularly surprised by the women of Berkeley.
Why would super smart women voluntarily subject themselves to visual inspections at the doors of fraternities just to get into a party where they outnumber men two to one? My son doesn’t think he can have much impact on this system, and he’s probably right — but young college women certainly have it within their collective power to change it.
Here’s what Berkeley women need to do:
Step 1: Stage a long term boycott by: 1) never accepting “bids” to fraternity parties, 2) never attending a party that maintains a two-to-one, female-to-male ratio, 3) never attending a sexually themed party and 4) never attending a fraternity party that conducts a door inspection.
Step 2: Spread your social movement to other campuses by: 1) reaching out to other sororities and enlisting their participation in your boycott and 2) reaching out to women on all college campuses and inviting them to join your revolution.
Step 3: Lead by setting the example and broadcasting your efforts and the results of your efforts far and wide!
Women in the U.S. today earn about 57% of all undergraduate degrees. The women of Berkeley have it within their collective power to change a social custom that is bad both for women and for men. It’s time for this generation of Berkeley students to do what Berkeley is known for: leading social change. Step up, Berkeley!
Ellen Haring is a Senior Fellow at Women in International Security (wiisglobal.org) and a concerned mother.