Usually, Spruce Street in Philadelphia smells like street food and manhole fumes; during sorority rush it reeks of Chanel No. 5.
Back in January, I joined hundreds of other freshmen girls who had adorned themselves with Burberry scarves tied in neat knots, Stuart Weitzman boots that dug into the dirty slush, and Chanel clutches draped over their shoulders like Christmas ornaments. Together, we waited in sub-freezing temperatures to enter the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium for sorority rush convocation.
Girls stared each other up and down – from our hair accessories to our sheer black stockings – upperclassmen who passed us on the street took Snapchats, and some stopped to make snide remarks.
Greek life is messy and mired in classism and bigotry — especially at a school like Penn, where many students hail from East Coast old money families that have attended the school for generations. Worse than that, Greek life is an institution practically designed to foster destructive to criminal behavior like sexual assault and hazing.
And yet, despite this tainted legacy, the allure of it all – hundreds of new friends, endless networking opportunities and a full social calendar – myself and around 600 other freshmen women at Penn, decided to give it a try. I spent close to $800 in preparation for rush — some girls may have spent even more. I dyed my hair blonder, waxed my eyebrows, purchased dresses and boots for each day of the process, and painted my face in brand new makeup. Others solely paid the recruitment registration fee, which at $25.00 (increasing throughout the semester), is costly in and of itself. Regardless, there is immense pressure to look and act like a sorority girl, and many of us invested in the part.
I, for one, failed in my attempt.
Since their origins at the University in the mid 1800s, Penn fraternities have been problematic. George D. Budd, a Penn student in the 1860s, discussed his feelings on Greek life in his diary: “Besides being the cause of much waste of time they are very detrimental to the morals of their members, as there generally is a great deal of dissipation connected with them. They are in many cases very prejudicial to the standing of the student in college; and are condemned by the faculty,” he wrote.
Fast forward over 150 years later — not much has changed. During orientation, boys would stop me to ask if I’d be a part of their “ratio” so they could get into fraternity parties. Often, the objective of frat brothers hosting parties is to hook up with girls, which means they must maintain a solid female to male ratio. On the weekends, I watched my friends attend champagne and shackles nights at the same organizations, where they were literally chained to their dates. In 2016, an off-campus fraternity, OZ, sent an email to freshmen girls, urging them to come to their “Wild Wednesday” event, wearing “something tight,” and not to be a “tease.” Barely any sororities subsequently condemned OZ, and the ones that did merely removed themselves from group chats with the frat.
Although I was skeptical, I wanted the opportunity to join a community of women that would uplift me in the toxic environment that is Penn; if that meant temporarily putting myself in uncomfortable, degrading situations, I figured, it might be worth it.
When I started college, I felt alone. I was a freshman girl navigating the “Social Ivy,” where being seen at parties feels as essential as getting an A in calculus. In 2014, Penn was named Playboy’s number one party school. This proved to the public that Ivy League students aren’t just nerds. Many are extraordinarily wealthy and use the prevalent, institutional pressure to succeed to justify reckless behavior. In other words, going wild is seen as a quintessential part of the Penn experience.
The copious amounts of liquor and drugs that appeared around me paired with the academic challenges of college first seemed unthinkable. For months, I spent my days holed up in the library until closing hour, reading in my room, and migrating from class to class. Asking someone to get lunch with me was a major feat. What’s more, going out with female friends to fraternity parties came at the risk of being cornered and groped by male students who regarded us as their property. Frat parties are most Americans’ introduction to college life, and joining a sorority is the unspoken next step.
So, after that first semester, I decided to give it a try.
Carlie Ostrom, a rising senior at Penn from Green Bay, Wisconsin, had similar reasons for rushing.
Carlie’s first semester of freshman year was off to an exciting start. “It was so cool meeting people from all over the world. Everyone was so smart; I felt like I was around people who were as ambitious as I was for the first time,” she explained. Around November, most of Carlie’s friends started talking about rush. She never saw herself as a sorority girl, but didn’t want to be excluded from Penn’s prominent social scene.
During recruitment, however, Carlie quickly became disillusioned with Greek life.“It was weird. The people I actually found interesting totally dismissed me because I was from Wisconsin, and hadn’t been to the clubs or entered the scene before rush. They thought I was some dumb Midwestern girl,” she said.
While participating in sorority recruitment, I noticed that many of the girls I knew from private schools in New York City had already been hanging out with other affluent women, who were members of the most coveted sororities on campus. Although I come from a privileged background, I hadn’t acquired the social capital necessary to gain membership into a “top tier” Greek organization. I had some pieces of what they were looking for: blonde hair, blue eyes, travel experience, and a sense of humor. But there were parts of my identity that didn’t mesh well with the sororities I was interested in.
Frat parties are most Americans’ introduction to college life, and joining a sorority is the unspoken next step.
For example, I am bisexual. Penn Panhellenic tried to make rush open to the LGBTQ community by partaking in training sessions with different organizations like Penn Non-Cis. Even in the dress code Pinterest board for rush, they included outfits that were labeled as “soft butch,” which made me feel more isolated than included. In Greek life, the default is straight and cisgendered. During rush convocation, we were told we were not permitted to consume alcohol during or bring men to recruitment events; sororities tend to mix with fraternities as opposed to other sororities; and some of my friends were asked if they had boyfriends during the process.
While Carlie and I felt failed our rushes for differing reasons, Penn’s sororities treated us the same way. “In order to get something from them, you have to provide other social capital,” Carlie explained.
At Penn, there are eight sorority houses. Every potential new member must visit each house; otherwise, she will be disqualified and eliminated from the process. At each visit, she is paired with a woman in the sorority who assesses her compatibility with their chapter. Many of the “best” Greek organization have an unspoken, stereotypical member. These go unspoken by their members, but they exist for a reason, and include “rich,” “international,” “WASPy,” and “coke-heads,” as well as “Jewish,” “dumb blondes,” and “sluts.”
After the first day of rush, I was cut from five of the eight sororities, including the two most-desired houses. Following the second and third days, I only had two remaining sororities, which were known for accepting nearly every girl who rushed. Academically, Penn is known as a competitive pressure-cooker; sorority recruitment is no exception. Most of us weren’t going to settle for a house that picked us because they had to.
“It’s a lot of trying to convince yourself that you are cool enough – you should act that way and hope that the girls that you’re talking to don’t see through your your façade,” said Carlie.
But she ultimately found that her façade was quite transparent. Carlie was cut from all of the sororities she was interested in. While this might be trivial and superficial, there is no denying the immense toll it takes on women’s confidence. A study conducted by Penn psychologist, Melissa Hunt, found that while girls who end up joining sororities experience an increased sense of belonging, those who have unsuccessful experiences with sorority rush undergo self-esteem issues.
“In sum, almost everyone who goes through sorority rush finds it stressful and unpleasant,” Hunt explained. “Many people actually found it demoralizing and depressing. This includes both women who ultimately obtained a bid and women who did not.”
Hunt’s team suggests that there should be enough spots to accommodate every rush participant in order to lessen the negative effects of rush.
“Sometimes I think if I had gone to a different school that wasn’t like this, maybe I’d be a more confident person today, because I hadn’t been so broken about it at some point,” Carlie explained.
Carlie managed to recover from sorority rush quite well, but reminders of it pop up. She says that members of Greek organizations often disregard her as irrelevant ,and that many only pay attention to her when she spends time with her boyfriend, a member of an off-campus fraternity.
Problems with the Greek system extend far beyond the sheltered environment that is Penn. According to a 2015 survey, 12% of female undergraduates experienced non-consensual penetration, and 20.8% were victims of unwanted touching. What’s more, only five out of 27 of Penn’s fraternities completed mandated education programs centered around such issues. Aside from sexual assault, racism runs rampant in Greek life. In 2017, during a date night at Penn’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, one of the beer pong teams was named ‘VietPong.’ Ultimately, relying on an antiquated member-selection process rooted in bigotry is part of what allows these problems to persist.
In sum, almost everyone who goes through sorority rush finds it stressful and unpleasant.
In 2016, in response to similar issues, fellow Ivy Harvard University introduced a variety of sanctions on social groups. The administration banned members of single-gender organizations from holding leadership positions on campus. Additionally, the University put forth a plan to phase out single-gender groups. This change sparked outrage among students. Still, top-ranked Harvard has significant clout in academia. It wouldn’t be surprising if other universities followed in its footsteps. How quickly that takes hold at Penn remains to be seen.
As for me, I spent most of my second semester recovering from the pain of rush. I see members of sororities who rejected me nearly every day. Although I’ve moved on, the hit that the experience inflicted on my self esteem is something that I’ll be reminded of for the rest of my college experience.
Regardless, we can expect hundreds of thousands of women to register for sorority rush next winter.
Undoubtedly, girls will spend their winter breaks selecting “snappy casual” outfits to wear. Perfume will waft down Spruce Street, expensive heels will scrape hardwood floors of chapter houses, and young women will still strive to be a part of a coveted “sisterhood,” one they believe holds the key to truly living out the best years of their lives. But whether they know it or not, rushing costs more than the Tory Burch flats they’ll be wearing or the blow out they get the night before. For many, it’s worth the indignities – and worse – that they may encounter along the way.