May 6, 2024

REYEN | Cornell’s Greek Tragedy

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I promised myself I would never join a sorority. And yet, like many young women on Cornell’s campus, I went through sorority recruitment as a second-semester freshman, concerned about branching out after several socially stunted years during the COVID-19 pandemic. Naively, I was drawn in by the perception that the academic rigor of our University would eliminate some of the racist and sexist practices I had heard about at notorious “party” schools, and frankly, I wanted to participate fully in the college party experience.

As a freshman on campus, receiving an invitation into the social foray can feel like an achievement. I was initially swept up in the affinity of belonging that often accompanies membership in one of Cornell’s Greek organizations. As I have matured, however, my observations of the inner workings of one of Cornell’s most dominant social scenes have highlighted rampant, glaring issues. The truth is, our campus’ social culture is set up in an inherently predatory way, whether or not individuals enter into it with intention or awareness of that fact. 

Satirical campus news outlet @cu_nooz posted the following on Valentine’s Day this year: “OP-ED: If Perfect Match Says I’m Meant to Date Only Freshman Women, Then Who Am I to Question It?” While fictional, this pseudo-headline, written from the perspective of an older Cornell male student, highlights an uncomfortably common mentality among Cornell’s male population.

The primarily fraternity-based party scene — one in three Cornell undergraduates are involved in Greek life — constructs an environment where older boys barter free alcohol and the promise of a large, vibrant social setting, with the knowledge or assumption that the alcohol and drug-fueled environment will gain them a return on their investment — in the form of sex. 

While already an unsettling practice, it is also essential to note that these alcohol-fueled encounters are often far from consensual. Research shows that 29 percent of sorority women report having been sexually assaulted when in college (Minow 2009). This rate is a staggering four times higher than rates of sexual assault amongst non-sorority women. In 2023, 11 percent of the student body reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since matriculating at Cornell. Statistically, someone you know is a part of this grim percentage. I would certainly not be exaggerating to say that every woman I know on campus has either been personally affected by, or is one degree of separation from,  a nonconsensual sexual encounter.

The date-raping of women at Cornell fraternity parties in late 2022 is a salient example of the worst of predatory behavior and male entitlement at Cornell. I’m sure most men on campus balk at the idea of these incidents just as much as I do. However, we must be better at holding male-dominated spaces accountable lest these environments become a slippery slope into fostering a campus rape culture.  

Specifically, the group-think and lack of accountability in (majority white, straight, cisgender) all-male social groups, whether it be athletic teams or fraternities, is outright terrifying. While this phenomenon is by no means specific to our University, the Cornell masculinity dynamic seems to seize otherwise “nice guys” — your class buddy, that friend you go way back with from O-week — and persuade them to turn a blind eye to misogyny out of allegiance to the pack. 

It is alarming to think that so many men appear afraid to call their male friends out for body-shaming, racial slurs, transphobic comments and other degrading statements made about women. Women of color are dually vulnerable to offensive tropes perpetuated in such toxic masculinity-laden environments. The rhetoric about women within these organizations sets a worrisome precedent that will no doubt translate into workplace “boys’ clubs” and “locker room talk” post-grad. I’ve often heard the rationale: “But I wouldn’t let so-and-so around my sister,” and I know many comments shared within the ivory towers of fraternity houses would be carefully censored around participants’ mothers and other female family members. I must ask, then, why the same respect and courtesy is not afforded to the women of our campus community.

Don’t get me wrong, male friendships and a sense of belonging are surely important, and I can imagine these values as reasons that men elect to join fraternities. However, I must question whether some of the existing dynamics on our campus can be healthy when they are constructed on the framework of constantly — overtly and covertly — proving one’s masculinity. Toxic masculinity doesn’t just hurt the women and non-binary folks on our campus — it harms men too, and the effects are no doubt felt in our University community.

Because of my privilege and previous complicity in Cornell’s Greek life system, I find myself uniquely situated to speak out about our campus’ broken social culture. Knowing that I developed meaningful and lasting friendships with other women as a result of my participation in Cornell’s Greek life, I grappled for a long time with whether or not to fully denounce the organization. I remain grateful for this positive relationship building, while recognizing that other women have had very different, and at times negative, experiences with the same system, and that Greek life has historically excluded those from non-white and/or non-wealthy backgrounds. 

Unfortunately, three years here has confirmed that Cornell is no different: the Greek life system as it stands requires serious, intentional reform in order to deconstruct the interwoven rape culture that permeates the social fabric of this campus. 

Carlin Reyen is a third year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her fortnightly column Just Carlin’ It Like It Is centers around student life, social issues, Cornell life hacks and the University’s interactions with the broader community. Carlin can be reached at [email protected].

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