Last week, A Cornell fraternity made headlines when it was placed on probation for two years following an investigation that found members had held a contest in which “points” were earned for sleeping with the woman who “weighed the most.”
As a 2015 Cornell graduate, I found the “pig roast” competition held by Zeta Beta Tau to be disgusting, but hardly surprising. Frats like Zeta Beta Tau have unchecked social power at Cornell and nationwide, a reality marginalized students like me know intimately.
I decided to attend Cornell University on the promise of the campus store’s tie-dye T-shirts, which featured every imaginable iteration of the corny but charming adage, “Ithaca is gorges.” Ithacans describe the town as 10 square miles surrounded by reality, and I naively imagined four years of making friendship bracelets and braiding hair bathed in the golden sunlight that ricocheted off the gurgling waterfalls.
Ithaca is, in fact, gorgeous, but the town’s happy-go-lucky hippie brand (which has its own racial and class-based shortcomings) is drastically different from Cornell’s campus culture. The reality was that as a freshman starting college, Cornell was socially terrifying, academically rigorous, and geographically isolated.
My classmates and I felt lonely and scared; we were scrambling to find some semblance of belonging. Though I never participated in the Greek system, largely because as a brown woman I felt like I wasn’t seen as attractive or charming enough, a large part of me understood the allure. Finding allies in a sea of fiercely competitive and socially awkward 18-year-old strangers felt impossible, but trying to survive that same environment without them was even worse. A system that ostensibly helped you find friends ― or better, brothers and sisters ― looked like a refuge.
Rushing didn’t technically begin until second semester, but most of my freshman-year floormates began informally meeting with fraternity and sorority members within their first few weeks on campus, hoping to improve their chances of getting in.
Even for those of us who claimed independence from Greek life, its draw was almost unavoidable. We faced so much daily pressure to excel, and the easiest coping mechanism was to drink heavily on the weekends, when many of us were learning how our bodies responded to alcohol for the first time. The primary providers of free alcohol, especially for underage women whose bodies were seen as commodities, were frat parties.
My best friend and I would spend hours every Friday night curling our hair, layering on blush, and heading out to parties where we tried our best to sidestep the men who grabbed at our hips, or who asked us “what made us different from most girls,” or who tried to get us dangerously drunk and vulnerable.
Written down and examined in hindsight, the experiences that felt like rites of passage as a freshman are deeply troubling. I once went to a party at a frat annex wearing sweatpants and glasses. As I came out of the bathroom, a group of men started yelling at me that I was too ugly to be there and that I should leave. As a woman who existed outside of their narrow idea of beauty, I was not only worthless, but also somehow offensive to them.
Another time, my male friend walked across a frat lawn wearing a skirt. He was assaulted by frat members who threw cans and bottles at him because his gender expression threatened their fragile notion of what it meant to be a man. Additionally, many of my women-of-color friends were told they couldn’t bring other women of color with them to Greek life events if they wanted to be allowed in.
And, of course, there have been the countless public incidents, like when the president of Psi Upsilon was accused of sexual misconduct, and members of the same frat were later alleged to have been involved in a racially motivated attack.
The “pig roast” competition is the most recent of these vile practices to be publicly recognized. It targeted, degraded and fetishized fat women, reducing their bodies to tally marks in a fraternity-wide competition and referring to them as “pigs.” The fraternity has since issued an apology, but it sounded like a stock response, using vague language like, “Your feelings are legitimate and appropriate reactions to something of this nature.”
University administrators argue that the misogyny evident in competitions like the “pig roast” are antithetical to Cornell’s values, without acknowledging how intricately Greek culture is tied to the school’s social culture.
(Of course, the people who join fraternities are not all the same. There are certainly men who exist at intersections of marginalization ― men of color, men from low-income backgrounds, and queer men all interact with the Greek system differently than straight white men do. Still, their participation in an oppressive system often leads to the oppression of women and gender nonconforming people.)
Recently, Jia Tolentino wrote about SHIFT (the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation), a research initiative at Columbia University studying the many factors that influence rates of sexual assault on college campuses. The researchers say they consider “sexual assault socio-ecologically: as a matter of how people act within a particular environment.”
As some of the students Tolentino interviewed said, an emphasis on external factors rather than on individuals can seem distracting, given the gravity of sexual assault: Why not just expel abusers and send a clear message that sexual violence is not tolerated?
But considering the outside influences that encourage men to objectify women isn’t exonerating them. It’s helping to understand social factors that explain their power, and to show steps that can be taken to protect vulnerable populations.
When I think of my time at Cornell, and my reasons for engaging with fraternities when their members clearly didn’t have my best interests in mind, myriad factors played a role. My classmates and I entered college with the same desires and fears ― we wanted friends, community, love. We all struggled to feel brilliant and charming. We were all learning how drugs and sex factored into those desires.
But for so many young men who feel the need to join fraternities, especially those with social capital based in their whiteness and their class, those vulnerabilities are channeled into violence.
And so, belonging comes at the expense of women and people of color and queer bodies. Their brotherhood is based on exclusion.
As the MeToo movement has shown, women and gender nonconforming people of every age and profession face daily sexual harassment. The abuse is upheld and encouraged both by our fundamentally and institutionally sexist society and by specific administrators and colleagues who turn a blind eye, teaching men that they face no repercussions when they abuse their power.
Until college administrations acknowledge just how intricately woven fraternity culture is with rape culture, they are complicit, too. When institutions like Zeta Beta Tau provide students with brotherhood contingent on the number of women they sleep with, they aid in strengthening a culture that already views women as valuable only for their bodies and what their bodies can offer these young men. It’s not enough to solely deal with these incidents on an individual and personal level. We must be addressing why events like the “pig roast” happen in the first place, and how we can transform our culture so that they no longer do.
Though many abusers are finally being held accountable, the movement isn’t over until every system that encourages misogyny is dismantled.