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.”
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.”