On the weekends, I like waking up at the crack of dawn to yell at my friends from the window of my bedroom as they return from their late-night excursions, hookups and booty calls. In my sorority, this has become a celebratory ritual of sorts — one in which we can all anticipate a characterization, a story, a climax (or the lack of one).
The ritual always starts with one question: “What house is he in?”
This is important information, apparently. Not just in my sorority, but in all fraternities and sororities at UC Berkeley where hookup culture is the invisible specter haunting us.
I could spend hours talking about how weird, messed up and bureaucratic the Greek system is, but I won’t get too deep into it other than saying that when you join a house, you have the reputation of that house attached to your name. So when you sleep with someone, you’re not just sleeping with that someone, you’re also sleeping with their fraternity or sorority.
This is what I call having sex for social capital. Social capital encompasses the resources that we have access to through our relationships. In Greek life, you can expect people from top houses to more or less hang out with and have sex with people from other top houses because that’s how you maintain your heteronormative and heterosexist social capital.
Aside from the fact that many fraternity men still feel entitled to the bodies of the women who attend their parties, individual investments in the social hierarchy from members of Greek life are built into a system that is obsessed with getting plastered and having sex — often at the same time. This means that whose parties we attend, whose drinks we consume and who we choose to sleep with at the end of the night is a process of socially reproducing hierarchies. And you’re either climbing the ladder or falling down it.
Although funny wisecracks, such as “Look the other way if he’s not a KA,” appear at face value to be, well, just funny wisecracks, they speak to something more profound about the power of institutions that so many people in Greek life are reluctant to dissect. Even the language that we use about who we have sex with is framed around some organization or institution rather than the individual themself.
No one really says, “I hooked up with Matt down the street” as often as we say the abridged version, “I hooked up with an SAE.” Whenever a close friend of mine and I mention the “top house” that she’s part of in our statistics lecture, at least three dude-bros turn their heads around to look at her and give her a nod.
Even some sorority women won’t boycott spaces where fraternity brothers actively chanted a homophobic slur one year ago. Forfeiting the potential social capital of hooking up with a hot guy at the “best party” on campus would be too devastating.
As its own bubble consumed by social capital, Greek life cultivates a culture in which power and privilege are eminent. But it would be a mistake to attribute this system only to Greek life. Indeed, the power and privilege that is inextricably linked to Greek life’s hookup culture didn’t just materialize out of thin air.
Who are we told is sexually desirable? Who can give those on the bottom rung the social and political privileges that we need to survive? The answer is cisgender people. Heterosexual people. White people — or people who pass as white, at the very least. People who have historically had the most power and privilege are the people that everyone wants to party and sleep with.
Although kept somewhat hush-hush amid the wokeness of UC Berkeley culture, it’s no secret that the people who fit this checklist are not only overrepresented in “top houses,” but also overrepresented in Greek life in general. They are also overrepresented in Hollywood, in Congress and in any space where people wield enormous power.
When people in Greek life and beyond blur hotness and power together — when some bigger institution or body has to tell us who’s hot and who’s not — we perpetuate a culture in which those who don’t have racial, class, gender or body privileges are unable to obtain social and political power, or even just feel sexy.
Of course, no one is going to tell you that you need to hook up with this person in that house to survive, but leveraging sex for social capital and longing to feel accepted is undeniably something that some of us feel inclined to do. This pressure persists even when power differences and hierarchies are exposed for what they are: normative, baseless and absurd.
To say that the Greek system isn’t perfect is an understatement, but it’s not going to go away anytime soon. I’ve also never once thought that I regretted joining the Greek community, which is why I care about its development so much.
Like any system, there is the power within it to alter it. We must create a new system that puts less emphasis on identifiers, such as how homophobic you can be, how much money you have or how much traditional power you hold. Establishing this system requires completely overhauling some significant parts of the old one.
That kind of radical transformation ultimately begins with rethinking the ways and reasons that we have sex with each other.
Laura Nguyen writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]