Twisted sisters

In her new book, Alexandra Robbins goes undercover as a sorority sister at an anonymous university. What she found was very little sisterhood -- but a lot of hardcore hazing, public humiliation, binge drinking and extreme peer pressure.


Suzy Hansen
April 14, 2004 9:07PM (UTC)

The cartoonish UCLA sidekicks of the "Legally Blonde" movies' heroine Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) embodied every stereotype we have of sorority sisters -- yet, somehow, they seemed like a force for good. Sure, they were superficial, vain and blindingly blonde, but they also supported Elle while she prepared for the LSATs and immediately came to her rescue when she got in a jam. Plus, they'd cultivated their beauty obsessions into lifesaving wisdom. A round of snaps for those cheery Delta Nus.

Alexandra Robbins, author of "Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities," can't express the same enthusiasm for most real-life sororities. While Robbins insists the book isn't "anti-sorority," after practically living with sisters for an academic year, she told Salon she wouldn't want "a future daughter" to join one of these groups.

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Robbins doesn't rail against sororities in this undercover account of the lives of four sorority sisters at an unnamed (and well-disguised) university. In fact, when she easily might have ridiculed or chastised the girls for their childish, catty or dangerous behavior, Robbins bites her tongue. Still, most people will come away from "Pledged" feeling the same way Robbins does: Who would want their daughter to be constantly reminded she has to be skinny, rich and man-crazy? Without even going into the hazing stories, sororities seem like any mother's worst nightmare.

Or not. Throughout the South, Robbins explains, moms still push their girls hard to get into the right sororities. They even shell out the dough for "rush consultants," something akin to pageant consultants, who guide the girls through the rush process, telling them what to wear and how to behave. As Robbins points out, in the South, what sorority you belong to has lasting implications for not only your social life, but for your professional life as well. In states like Alabama and Texas, Robbins said, "Your sorority affiliation is more important than your major."

We've all heard the sordid tales coming out of the Greek scene -- the heavy drinking, the startlingly old-fashioned values, the exclusivity and racism, the date rapes, the hazing deaths. Robbins folds all of these weightier issues into her narrative, while also offering an often humorous snapshot of today's college youth, from their highly personal and expressive Instant Messaging "away messages" ("When's it my turn to be the priority? Could ya throw me a frickin' bone please?") to their alcohol-fueled attempts at seductive, girl-on-girl dancing (the "booty train" comes to mind). "Pledged" is also a look at that moment in young people's lives when they're deciding what sort of person they want to be, away from home and on their own. College, after all, should be about a new kind of freedom. Do sororities quash these girls' identities before they get a chance to explore them?

Robbins -- a graduate of Yale who did not join a sorority -- is also the author of "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power," "Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties" and the forthcoming "Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice From Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived," out in October. She spoke to Salon over coffee in New York.

How did you get inside the sororities? How did you go undercover?

I have to be careful. I can't really talk much about what I had to do to get the material for this book because I can't risk identifying the four main girls I followed. They'll get kicked out of the sorority.

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Why did they agree to do it?

While I interviewed hundreds of sorority sisters across the country, these four girls' stories would be most representative of sorority life. It was kind of an honor for them. They're good girls and they enjoyed sorority life and they wanted to share that.

One thing that surprised me was that sororities have stricter rules against the media than they do against hazing. I was kicked out of the first sorority house I tried to be involved with. I was blacklisted from an entire campus. When I started writing this book, the 26 national historically white sororities had just instituted a media blackout because they're upset about the MTV show "Sorority Life." They forced me to go undercover.

What are they upset about on the MTV show? What do they think the public doesn't know and is going to find out?

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That was a question I came away with, because knowing what I know now, I have to wonder whether sororities are afraid that the media will portray sororities untruthfully or that they'll expose too much of the truth.

I would imagine that most of these girls are aware of the stereotypes of sorority girls and frat boys -- maybe not so much in the South, where it's so ingrained -- but most of them must know about the negative images. What do they say about that?

In many cases these are sororities of superlatives -- the prettiest, the coolest. But Sabrina, one of my four main subjects, said to me, "I know the stereotypes have to come from somewhere and I'm starting to see where." She saw that in her own sorority.

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What was she talking about?

She was talking about the wealth and the looks and the standards they have. She was an impoverished African-American girl trying to make her way in a predominantly white wealthy sorority. She felt isolated a lot of the time.

Were you surprised by the money -- how much disposable income some of these girls have?

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There was a group that at the end of the year as a gift to the seniors give them each something from Tiffany. And that was a group that doesn't do much community service.

Did they wonder about how much time they were wasting on this stuff? Meetings are more important than midterms in some sororities.

It makes no sense. Yes, sororities require a minimum GPA. Fine, that's great. But they're so sorority-centric that the time that could be concentrated on academics is spent doing things like making posters and writing funny songs.

Why did Sabrina, who was so hardworking and concerned about grades, want to join?

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As an impoverished black woman she saw a wealthy white sorority as a steppingstone. Whether it's going to provide the kind of network she envisioned, I doubt it, because white sororities don't have the same network that black sororities do. One African-American official said their network is stronger than the black churches.

So let's get into that. What are the differences between black and white sororities?

First of all, I think it's funny that both of them are called sororities because they're entirely different things. In the black sororities they celebrate achievement academically and they really do work toward community service. As much as the white sororities claim that's the case in their groups, it's not really so. White sororities focus on relationships. They have ceremonies and songs and rituals celebrating relationship milestones, whereas the reward for getting the highest GPA in one house was a bag of potato chips.

That's a completely different atmosphere than the black sororities. They wiped out the pledge period in the 1990s, though there is still some hazing. But they don't let you rush when you're a first-semester freshman just getting to school and they don't rush you until after you learn about the history and get to know the girls. And it's not even a rush process. It's an application.

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Do sororities significantly reshape these girls' identities? Do you think that people come out of them different from how they went in? Or did they all start out similar and that's why they joined the same club?

Sororities are sort of input-output machines where you go in one way and there is definitely an aura of conformity in there, and it spits you out of the machine another way. Instead of enhancing a girl's individuality, there's a tendency to swallow a girl's identity whole. That's why I've heard countless stories of girls going into a sorority looking one way and after a year they look like everyone else. Or you hear girls say "that's the blonde sorority" or "that's the brunette sorority," and they'll identify people that way. "That's the slightly pudgy sorority."

Does it go beyond looks, though? Do they want the same things from life? Do they have the same attitudes about social issues

Oh yeah, you will find conformity in a lot of areas, attitudes toward ... well, in the sororities I was in there weren't a lot of deep conversations, so it's hard to address that.

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What about professional aspirations?

I rarely heard them talk about professional aspirations. But you will see sororities where everybody's a dance major or an elementary education major because they gravitate to each other.

You were in the meeting when they chose the pledges after rush. What sort of things are they talking about?

Kate Spade. Gucci.

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Right, they're looking at hundreds of girls and they remember them by their purses.

To be fair, that's why they focus so much on designers -- it's a memory tool. In some sororities they blow up pictures of the rushes and the sisters have to memorize them all. Oh -- homecoming queen! Cheerleader!

I was surprised because after getting to know the four girls you profiled, I could not imagine any of them really being that shallow.

That was so important to me -- I'm glad you said that. That's why I chose these four. These are bighearted girls. They're sweet, they're smart and they're friendly.

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So do some of them seem passive about their decision to join? Sometimes it seems like they don't think about it much, like it's just a thing to do.

It depends on where you are in the country. In the South, some people take their affiliation so seriously that if they think they won't get into a particular sorority at a particular school, they'll matriculate at a school to get into that sorority and then switch to their [first-choice] school after initiation where they have to be taken as a sister. For some people this decision drives their entire college career.

What about the hazing stories? You give many examples. There's the "circling the fat" stories where sisters or frat brothers mark up the cellulite on girls' bodies. At Northeastern University, girls had to prove they hadn't showered for a week and stay up all night "separating candy with their noses." At DePauw University, girls were branded with lit cigarettes. Women have been left in the snow and gotten frostbite. They've drowned in the ocean. What else?

There are so many body-conscious activities -- "boob ranking" comes to mind. They had a certain amount of time to take off their shirts and bras and go around and examine each other's chests and by the time the clock was up they had to line up according to size. The sisters did that to humiliate them.

Just last week there was a sorority at Loyola University in New Orleans that was accused of making its members drink and then eat their own vomit. It's still going on.

Obviously, lots of kids drink a ton in college. Did you have statistics that prove that binge drinking is worse in the Greek system?

I wouldn't want to rail against sororities for alcohol abuse because I think that's a college thing. I was a college student. I know what it's like.

Eating disorders, though, I would guess -- just in my opinion -- are more prevalent in sororities simply because of the emphasis placed on body image and on thinness. You're not going to see a lot of obese girls in these sororities. They look for thinness. There was a girl in Vicki's sorority who found an article of clothing and said, "Laura Ann, is this yours?" And Laura Ann, who was probably the heaviest girl in the sorority, said no. The other replied, "But it's a medium!"

Another issue that figured into "Pledged" was date rape -- two of the four girls you followed had been date-raped.

I didn't know when I chose them that that was the case. Both of those rapes happened after Greek functions. I'm not going to say that rape is more prevalent in sororities, though studies have been done making that accusation. When you have an organization that so hinges on relationships with men and alcohol, you're sort of setting the stage.

The fraternity of the guy who date-raped Caitlin basically took the accusation as if it was by her whole sorority -- so it turned into this huge thing. In terms of attitudes about rape, Caitlin's sorority supported her. The guy had to transfer.

However, you have cases like the one of that girl in the South who was raped and left unconscious. Her sorority sisters found her and left her on the stoop of another sorority's house, rang the bell, and ran away. When she got out of the hospital and told the president, she was told not to tell a single person because they don't want nationals to find out.

You don't name that school. But I will say that Southern Methodist University seemed like one of the worst schools for sorority life and backward values. Why?

It's Texas, it's wealthy, it's tradition. That's why I wanted to mention it because of "Pigs' Run" [where the girls run through the streets squealing to their new sorority while frat brothers drench the girls, wearing mandatory white T-shirts, with hoses]. That's also where you had Ponytail-gate in the 1980s where the sorority sisters were chosen to prostitute themselves to help get athletic recruits to come do the school.

You found the girls in white sororities to be pretty man-centric.

So man-centric that one of the girls I followed felt so pressured to find a date for the event that she slept with the guy who date-raped her. She was so pressured to find a boyfriend and to find dates. Every other week there was a mixer where she needed a date.

So are there efforts to reform these organizations?

A former sorority president and a vice president of a university told me that the women in the national office struggle with change. They want sororities to be throwbacks where girls were prim and proper and wore their pearls. They're just so out of touch with sorority life and the girls as individuals. The changes I suggest are to wipe out pledging, overhaul the rush process, wrest control from the national offices and institute regional control.

One of the most shocking scenes in the book takes place at a Northeast Greek Leadership Association Conference called "The Greek P.R. War Room" where you are undercover. The presenter was so angry about the media.

There I was, an undercover reporter, in a middle of lecture where the guy is railing against undercover reporters. He also said: "One death takes ten thousand hours of community service to make up for the P.R. aspect."


Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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