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Sister Act

Inside the secret life of sorority girls at Ohio State University

Ohio State University, Sororities

Ohio State University

Denis Jr. Tangney

THE DOGWOODS ARE IN bloom here at Ohio State in Columbus, the second-largest university in the United States. Stark residential towers rise to the north and south. A collection of 1950s and 1960s aluminum-and-glass buildings facing the main thoroughfare have the look of Stalinist architecture. They lend the campus that air of impersonality that many large universities seem to strive for.

With more than 35,000 undergrads, including more than 7,000 minority students, OSU’s can be overwhelming to the sheltered incoming teenager. Still, it is shocking that flocks of OSU’s young women are joining sororities, the cornier the better. They are embracing honor badges, sacred oaths and archaic codes of feminine virtue. Seventeen sororities – many housed in expansive mansions along Indianola Avenue and Fifteenth Street – claim a membership of nearly 2,000, and pledge classes have doubled over the past two years.

Sorority members say that their organizations make strong female role models and promote ideals of service, sisterhood and leadership. Their success at teaching these values can be judged during OSU’s Greek week, the oldest celebration of college fraternal organizations in the land. “Greek week,” its organizers say, “is a chance for the Greek community to come together and shine on campus.”

A SOLEMN EVENT ON THE GREEK-week calendar is Alcohol Awareness Day. For twenty-four hours, all sorority sisters and fraternity brothers pledge to abstain from liquor. To help get them through it, organizers have planned a night of Survival Bingo in Raney Commons, a hall that will seat about 300 ostensibly sober bingo players.

Seven sorority presidents gather at a table half an hour prior to the event. Six are blond. All wear beige khaki shorts and white blouses or T-shirts adorned with either Greek letters or Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch logos. Their hair is pulled back straight behind their ears with either hair bands or sunglasses. Each wears silver hoop earrings.

Raney Commons fills to capacity with sober, white, clean-cut young people and begins to resemble a fantasy from deep inside the brain of Ronald Reagan, during whose presidency most of these Greeks were born. Black students congregate elsewhere: There are eleven African-American Greek organizations, known as the “black Greeks.” The black Greeks evince little interest in joining in with the white Greeks. Leon Coleman, president of all OSU’s black Greeks, says, “In a struggle, sometimes you have to have your own, be around your own.”

The monotony of the ensuing bingo game is broken only when the number sixty-nine is called. Cheers grow louder when sixty-nine is again called. At last, a hooting fraternity boy is driven over the brink when sixty-nine sounds yet again. He hurls a bingo prize, a bag of Capri-Sun Coolers, at a table packed with sorority sisters. They throw it back, and flocks of the silvery bags are across the Commons.

Preparing to leave, two sorority sisters berate a pledge who has forgotten to carry out their winnings, a case of sprite.

“It’s your job to carry it back to the house,” one of the elder sisters scolds.

“Can’t one of you help?” the pledge asks plaintively.

“That’s your job,” explains the other sister. As the pledge trudges back into Raney Commons, the two sisters confer about her performance and leadership potential.

“Dude, she is such a whore.”

“Totally.”

At 3 A.M., two wobbly-legged sorority girls stand in an alley off Fifteenth Street. A third girl kneels between them on her hands and knees and throws up. Her two friends yank her backward. “Don’t get it on you,” one of them says. “A sober monitor will smell it.”

All sororities have a zero-tolerance alcohol policy. Many do not even allow a single can of beer in a twenty-one-year-old girl’s personal refrigerator.

Fraternities, however, are allowed to serve beer in bottles under an elaborate system of ID bracelets, drink cards and monitoring by student sober patrols. They offer the only Greek parties that sorority girls can go to in order to get drunk. Everyone swears that the system works beautifully, and it does, insofar as it allows all Greeks, whatever their ages, to get drunk at pretty much any time of the day or night.

TWO YOUNG WOMEN HANG OUT BY the main pedestrian crossroads, called the Oval. One has hair dyed light-bulb yellow; the other has dark purple hair braided in strands around alphabet beads. They are both first-year students, and neither would dream of joining a sorority.

“Girls in sororities are so conformist,” says the yellow-haired one. “They’re like Gap clones or something.”

“I don’t know if that’s really true or fair,” her friend interjects. “Like, I read a survey about sorority girls. It said sorority girls have, like, the highest percentage of pierced clits.”

She cannot recall in which magazine or scholarly journal she found this fact.

The first girl volunteers that her friend from across the hall in her dorm recently pledged with a sorority: “she’ll still talk about it now, because she hasn’t moved into her house yet. Once they move in, it’s kind of like a cult, and they stop speaking to their friends outside the sorority.” Yellow hair leads the way to a residential tower on north campus, where her roommate Heather*, 18, slouches on a metal cot. Heather is soon to be a resident of Chi Omega’s sandstone-and-brick mansion. Her chestnut hair falls to her jaw line. She smiles frequently and smokes a Marlboro red.

Heather says she feels “truly blessed” to have been accepted by her sorority. She was intimidated by the size of OSU, and being a sorority sister makes the university feel like a small college.

At the same time, Heather criticizes the cruelty of the rush process, in which some sorority girls rate the appearance of potential pledges down to the straightness of their teeth and the number of zits on their faces. (Other girls have spoken of secret sorority guidebooks that subtract points for frizzy hair and cheese thighs.)

Heather alleges that at least one sorority at OSU practices a form of hazing known as the “fat table.” She describes it: “You have to strip down to your underwear and bra. You sit on a table, and all your sorority sisters circle the fat and ugly parts of your body with magic markers.”

Heather says her own sorority is cruelty-free. Even if it weren’t, she has little to worry about since her teeth are straight, her body is slim and her skin is as pure as a cold glass of milk.

“Some sororities you have to dress definitely a certain way,” she elaborates. “You have to have your nails done, your hair perfect. You have to dress up all the time in very nice clothes from Express, the Limited, Gap. Anything with heels for shoes. And for going out, all the girls must have tight, hot-bod sex pants.”

Heather produces a pair of black Lycra pants and models them, holding them in front of her waist.

“My particular brand is called Hot Kiss. Tight, hot sex pants are always black. They flare out at the bottom, and they’re tight. They’re hip-huggers. You wear these with a tight shirt. Maybe a bare midriff. It depends how much you want to show when you go out at night. Some girls wear these to class. I don’t.”

One of the chief benefits of joining a sorority, she says, is having a brimming social calendar. “

We have TGs practically every week. This is just a party at a fraternity house. TGs are a group of fraternity guys and a group of sorority girls getting as drunk as they can and dancing.

“A crush party is when you have a crush on someone and you send this little note to them. It says, ‘You’ve been crushed, and if you come to this party, you’ll find out who has a crush on you.’ Usually, we have this at a bar, so everyone can drink a lot.

“The formal is, we have to get all dressed up and go in limos somewhere and dance and drink.

“My sorority does a lot of philanthropies. We have parties that raise money for them. We usually go to parks. It has to be somewhere we can drink. Because drinking’s a big part of philanthropy.

“Sororities are almost like an intense version of Girl Scouts, but with lots of alcohol,” she observes.

According to Heather, a sorority girl reaches the pinnacle of social achievement when she is lavaliered. “Being lavaliered is when a guy gives you his fraternity pin. It’s like a pre-engagement to be engaged.

“To wear a guy’s fraternity pin is a big thing. And for him to give you his fraternity pin is a big thing, because he’ll get the crap beat out of him by his fraternity brothers for doing it. First [the young man and his fraternity brothers] all come to the house and sing a serenade for the girl being lavaliered. Then his brothers have to beat the crap out of him. That way, he only gives his pin to a very special girl.”

Heather beams; a recent lavaliering party comes to mind.

“It goes like this: After a sister is lavaliered, the president calls a meeting. We all get in a big circle and pass a candle around. We sing a song. It’s about something in the spring, and in all the seasons, how we’ll always be sisters. And whoever has been lavaliered will hold the candle and blow it out.

“Sometimes a girl will go up to a boy’s bedroom at a TG. The big thing in that type of situation is to get his shirt. She’ll come down wearing it, but that’s not like being lavaliered at all.”

SOME PEOPLE SAY THAT THE GREEK system is a sort of apartheid, enabling children from predominately white, upper-middle-class enclaves to safely attend a messily diverse university such as OSU without having to mix with those who are different. Presumably, a sorority is a place where a young white woman can be lavaliered by a fraternity boy, and they can move on to form their own family in a predominately white, upper-middle-class enclave, preferably one that is gated.

This theory seems at first to be affirmed when Andrea*, a twenty-year-old Alpha Delta Pi, leads the way into her sorority house. She opens the door and enters the all-clear code on the house’s burglar alarm. “We have to be safe,” she says, pointing south toward a black area of Columbus. “It’s total ghetto a few blocks from here. Serious.”

Andrea is a former cheerleader with scars on her knees from injuries sustained while building a high school homecoming float. As if these credentials weren’t enough, she is a straight-A computer-engineering major.

She goes into the large, institutional kitchen: “Our cook is a black guy named Bob. He says his wife is a queen in Africa or something.” She rolls her eyes with exaggerated disbelief. But later she laughs. “Personally, I’m down with the brown,” she says. “Serious. My boyfriend’s black.”

Andrea then describes how, contrary to the apartheid theory, joining a sorority broadened her cultural horizons. She grew up in a rural Ohio town. There were no blacks in her neighborhood, and her high school had a small but active White Knights association, which she describes as a “mini-Ku Klux Klan.”

“When I got into my sorority,” she says, “I found out five of my sisters here were dating black guys. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I had no idea that went on. And they’re, like, marrying these guys, who were really cool.

“It was instant attraction when I met my boyfriend. Almost instant. At first, he chased me for a while, because I was, like, scared of the fact that he was black.

“I started sleeping with him after we’d been dating not very long. Usually, the rule is I don’t sleep with a guy until, like, after two or three months – at least, and a major exchange of gifts at a holiday. Serious. Meet the family, the whole thing. It only took him a month.”

IN THE GRASS OUTSIDE THE STUDENT union, a campus lesbian leader and “theoretical feminist” named Mary deconstructs sorority mating rituals. Mary is Hispanic and on full financial aid. She says, “I could never get in. A sorority is a class thing. It’s a breeding ground for the next conservative America.”

Mary lights a cigarette: “I like to look at the power constructs of their rituals, like lavaliering, where the guy gives the girl his pin. Like, he goes to the girl and says, ‘I’m going to marry you.’

“So then his fraternity brothers beat the crap out of him because he’s negating his power as a single male by making that commitment with the girl. He’s compromised his male power.

“Then she gets to blow out the candle, and that’s ending her power in the sorority. She’s saying, ‘I’m leaving my sisters because I’m going to go live with this dude, and I’m going let him govern my life.’

“I look at sororities as whorehouses.”

Mary tamps out her cigarette and enters the student union. A third-floor meeting room has been reserved for the planners of OSU’s fourth annual Take Back the Night Rally, billed as a “march and candlelight vigil to protest rape and other forms of violence against women.”

The meeting, organized largely by radical feminists, is also being supported by two Delta Phi Epsilons, Rachel Glass and Hallie Fleisch. Hallie and Rachel enter wearing khaki Gap sorority uniforms. Rachel, with her short dark hair in a bob, smiles warmly and sits near Mary. Hallie looks around the room with muted horror, as if she is about to undergo a weird hazing ritual. She peeps a barely audible “hi” and drops into a corner. The other women wear an eclectic mix of combat fatigues, Guatemalan peasant dresses and biker leather gear, such as spiked wrist cuffs and dog collars. As they sprawl out on the floor, vast swaths of armpit and leg hair are exposed.

The lesbians are chatting about the Live Homosexual Acts event they are planning to stage on the Oval. “We’ll have a lesbian and gay volleyball game.”

“We should have people bring coat hangers and wire cutters to, like, symbolize putting an end to illegal abortions.”

Mary brings the meeting to order. A blonde in combat boots suggests that everyone should go around, introduce herself and describe her “first crime.” It’s intended as a humorous icebreaker.

Everyone except Hallie laughs.

“My first crime,” begins the first person up. “When I was little, I used to go under the porch and pee.”

“I don’t know if porn is a crime in Ohio,” says a girl in glasses that resemble welding goggles, “but when I was in elementary school, I used to write porno stories for my girlfriends and write dirty things about the guys they had crushes on.”

Rachel relates a story about getting a speeding ticket when she was seventeen.

It is now Hallie’s turn. She looks up with a pained expression. She struggles to say something, then blurts out, “I can’t think of anything I’ve done wrong.”

Sensing Hallie’s discomfort, the others rush to put her at ease. There is a murmur of “That’s OK, Hallie.”

The first order of business is raised by a woman who would like to exclude men from marching. She argues that men shouldn’t participate because they are the principal perpetrators of violence against women.

Across the room, a young woman begins to cry. “You all know how I feel,” she says. “There’s a lot of pain.”

Somebody else begins to cry, and soon everyone is either sniffling or rubbing somebody’s back in a comforting, supportive way – except for Hallie, who looks up with a somewhat annoyed expression and asks, “Shouldn’t we have a vote or something?”

Rachel raises her hand. “I have something to say. Didn’t we already put out a press release saying men were invited? Wouldn’t we look dumb if we changed our minds now?”

“I guess we have to let them march,” someone says.

“How about if we have them march, like, forty feet behind us?” suggests somebody else.

“It’s OK if they march,” says the leader who originally wanted to ban men altogether, “but they have to make the posters.”

When the meeting ends, Rachel Glass discusses the balance between being a sorority girl and a feminist. “I’m probably one of the only self-defined, outspoken feminists in my sorority,” Rachel says. A senior who is graduating at the end of the summer with a degree in women’s studies, Rachel describes herself as coming from an affluent background, “a completely shallow, materialistic culture which pushed me into sorority life.”

She takes issue with fraternity men, whom she feels view sorority sisters merely as “bodies,” but cherishes the sorority’s sisterhood and opportunities for leadership, which she feels have made her a strong woman. Her sorority experience was complemented by her exposure to feminism. Both influences have made her stronger and more capable of dealing with a sometimes confusing and hostile male-dominated world. Rachel cites an experience in which she drew on her strength as a feminist. ”

A [sorority] friend and I were walking home from a party junior year and we got sexually assaulted,” she says. “We were walking down the street and this guy totally grabbed my friend’s ass. She stopped in her tracks, and she was like, ‘Oh, my God! That guy just touched me.’ We were like, ‘Oh, my God; oh, my God.’ We started walking away really fast. He just, like, unzipped his pants, whipped it out and started jerking off. We both felt violated.

“But I coped with it a lot better than she did, and I think that was due to being a feminist and being a woman’s-studies major and understanding, like, the system of patriarchy and how women are oppressed. I just got angry.

“My friend very much internalized it. She blamed herself and was like, ‘I shouldn’t have worn these tight black pants tonight.'”

REGGAEFEST FALLS ON THE DAY AFTER Greek week ends, but the Kappa Sigma frat brothers who host the event see it as the last big Greek blowout of the year before exams and the farewell of another graduating class.

Reggaefest is open to the public and offers four bands performing on the grassy slope in front of the Kappa Sig house, the former governor’s mansion. Up to 8,000 people are expected to show.

Orange cyclone fencing cordons off the streets surrounding the Kappa Sig grounds. It is drizzling. Columbus police in white caps and shirts that make them resemble sinister ice-cream men with guns mill around beneath a canopy by the stage.

Nearby, a campus administrator is having a heated discussion with Jeff, a Kappa Sig organizer of the event. The administrator has smelled alcohol on the breath of Kappa Sigs and their sorority “goddesses” (sorority sisters invited to the private, VIP Kappa Sig house party in exchange for selling tickets) manning the front entrances. Reggaefest is a designated alcohol-free event.

Jeff is a lanky, twenty-three-year-old senior political-science major. His attempt to mollify the administrator is hampered by the fact that his own breath reeks of beer, and he is slurring.

Jeff finally walks away shouting, “Reggaefest has been voted the Number Two party in America! Now the administration won’t even let us serve alcohol! The American people need to know what’s happening.”

Jeff enters the Kappa Sig house. A long-neck Bud appears in his hand as he climbs the stairs. The frat house bears all the signs of wear and tear from heavy partying. Carpets are crusty, walls scuffed and punched in. The halls smell like a truck-stop men’s room. A sign tacked to the wall from two nights ago says, “Tonight is May Fifth, Cinco de Mayo. Dress Like Mexicans!”

The unofficial, private VIP Kappa Sig party is being held on the third floor. Woozy sorority goddesses stumble through the narrow halls.

Two of them, Jenn* and Tricia*, raise beers and drunken grins. “They try to come down on us,” says Jenn. “But we still set it off!”

Jenn turns to Tricia: “You know what less alcohol means.”

“More drugs!” they scream in unison, clinking bottles and guzzling.

“Do I have beer on my pants?” Jenn pulls up the tail of the men’s shirt she’s wearing. A dark stain runs down her pants’ butt seam and disappears between her legs. Could be beer; could be pee.

Another girl comes by and waves a ruby-red drink under Jeff’s nose. “This is a Terry Special. Rum, gin and six different kinds of fruit drinks. It’s tasty!”

Jeff ignores her. He does an about-face. He clambers down four flights of stairs, leading the way into the basement TG (party) room. There is a mirrored disco ball overhead. The tile floor is so sticky with beer, it’s like fly paper. Jeff shoves open a steel fire door leading into a dank cement chamber.

“You want to know about sorority girls?” asks Jeff. He sits on a loose foundation stone. “This fraternity taught me how to be a gentleman. You know what they call us [the Kappa Sigs]? The Gentlemen on the Hill.

“Here’s the secret: We learn how to treat girls like ladies.”

Jeff begins to sing what he calls the “sweetheart song”: “You’re as pretty as a picture/You’re as sweet as you can be/I love you most sincerely/You’re all this world to me.”

He stops. “That’s it. When a girl is really special, that’s what we do. You serenade her, you pin her, give her a ring, give her a rose.”

At ten o’clock the Itals are playing, but the lawn in front of the Kappa Sig house is mostly empty. There are just a few hundred dancers, not the expected 8,000.

The sorority goddess who had been drinking the Terry Special on the third floor is outside talking excitedly to someone in the darkness. “I want to marry a rich man,” she declares. “I want to go to an Ivy League grad school, find a brilliant professor and follow him!”

Jeff surveys the dismal turnout. “This party sucks. It’s a disgrace. I’m ashamed,” he states. “Let’s go fuck some sorority girls. It can be arranged. Anyone you want.”

He stumbles across the lawn. “Fuck a sorority girl,” he repeats, apparently forgetting the bull session of twenty minutes ago in which he declared his chivalrous ideals, learned through fraternity life.

Jeff climbs under a section of plastic cyclone fence along the driveway. In the darkness there appears to be a row of cinder blocks, perhaps the top of a wall. Jeff steps forward, then disappears. There is a dull thump, like a cantaloupe dropping onto the floor in a supermarket.

Jeff lies on the asphalt at the bottom of a five foot drop. He springs up, unfazed by his fall. “Anybody see?” he asks.

There is an apartment block thirty feet across the yard. Partyers spill out from the yellow light of a sliding porch door.

“You want to fuck a sorority girl?” Jeff babbles, leading the way into the apartment. “My Kappa Sig brothers can arrange everything.”

Inside, girls are piled two and three deep on the couches of a small TV room. They stare ahead, smiling and laughing dully at nothing in particular.

There is a large guy in sunglasses. Someone identifies him as a recently graduated Kappa Sig. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of triangle-shaped, blue-green pills. Ecstasy.

“Let’s double team one of these babes tonight!” he shouts, handing out tabs to all takers.

Jeff leans against a sliding door in the entrance. The flesh around his mouth is slack. His forehead looks chalky and damp. His eyes are dull. First-aid manuals commonly describe these symptoms as the initial signs of shock.

Jeff’s collar is flecked with blood. Partially coagulated blood runs down the back of his neck in the shape of a slug. It is suggested he go back to’ the Kappa Sig house and seek medical attention, or at least lie down.

Jeff weaves back to the Kappa Sig house, cutting a wide swath around the wall that felled him minutes ago. The gentleman on the hill vanishes inside the former governor’s mansion.

The sorority goddess who had been drinking Terry Specials, then plotting to find a brilliant Ivy League professor, stands on the steps. She is being supported by two fraternity brothers. “I never drink,” she babbles. “I’m a good girl. I’m a good girl. I’m really a good girl.” 

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