Nationwide, college campuses are grappling with how to appropriately address the problem of sexual assault in their communities. From The Hunting Ground’s unflinching examination of sexual assault on college campuses to best-selling author Jon Krakauer’s investigation of rape on campus in Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town to California’s recently enacted “Yes Means Yes” law requiring college students to give affirmative consent before sex, 2015 has been a year filled with headlines about campus sexual assault. Greek Life has been the subject of much of the campus sexual assault debate but the discussion has predominately focused on the ways that fraternities contribute to rape culture. Why are sororities overlooked? We spoke to Alexandra Robbins, an investigative reporter and author of five New York Times bestsellers, including Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities which she recently updated for 2015. Robbins answered our questions about sororities’ culpability in campus sexual assaults and how prospective pledges can stay safe.
Q: What led you to start focusing on sororities?
A: No one had ever written a fly-on-the-wall book about real sorority life before. I wanted to write a work of investigative journalism that felt like a fast-paced beach read, and I discovered that sororities had the kinds of fascinating stories to accomplish that goal.
Q: How did readers initially respond to your book?
A: Some sororities boycotted the book and penalized sisters caught reading it. While the vast majority of the feedback I received was positive, a small but extremely vocal, vicious minority of readers responded by trying to shame me online and personally attacking me merely for reporting on the topic in the first place.
Q: In your latest investigation of Pledged, what surprised you the most?
A: I was surprised that sororities seem to have gotten worse for sisters. The focus on image, girls’ appearances, dependence on fraternities for validation and group self-esteem – all of those things are emphasized even more than they were during my first investigation. These organizations could be such amazing forces for women, and yet some of them are too busy requiring their girls to wear Spanx and makeup and pushing them to spend large amounts of time in fraternity houses.
Q: Sexual violence is not a new issue to college campuses but how has sexual violence in the Greek community changed since your 2004 investigation?
A: What’s changed has been a slew of research showing that fraternities are significantly high-risk – and that sorority sisters are more likely to be victims of sexual violence than non-Greek college women. Given the evidence, it’s surprising that sororities haven’t changed their emphasis on fraternity interaction – and that schools continue to expand their Greek systems, even on campuses where rape in the Greek system specifically has been proven to be a staggering problem.
Q: In what ways could the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), the umbrella organization for national sororities, help address the issue of sexual assault & dating violence on campuses and better protect their members?
A: The NPC needs to overhaul its system, from the shallow recruitment process, which isn’t fair to sisters or potential recruits, to the emphasis on fraternities. If the NPC instead encouraged sisters to focus on the values on which these groups were founded – service, scholarship, leadership, and friendship – then there wouldn’t be as strong a reason to pressure them to couple with fraternity brothers. It’s pretty simple, really. An easy way to protect their members would be to quit sending them into the freaking fraternity houses over and over again.
Q: Do you have any advice for sorority members looking to create change? Incoming freshman who are considering pledging? Parents of prospective new sorority members?
A: Sororities are notoriously resistant to change. It’s hard to create change as a new member because you’re outnumbered by sisters who are higher in the pecking order. The hierarchical system in these organizations can be a problem – arbitrary and intimidating. But if enough sisters are willing to stand up for themselves, there’s a chance they can begin to alter the system, chapter by chapter.
My advice for incoming freshmen:
1) Understand that there is not a lot of adult supervision in these houses. At the sorority house I got kicked out of, the advisor knew about a major drug problem in the house but laughed it off and looked the other way.
2) Do your homework: Do the best you can to get to know the girls and the sorority before recruitment, because during rush, you’re not going to see the sorority as it really is. At one pre-rush meeting I attended, the adviser and officers blatantly instructed sisters to lie to recruits to make them want to be in the house. That’s not unusual.
3) If the sorority you’re pledging makes you feel uncomfortable, leave. There are some wonderful chapters out there, and as long as you get out of a sorority before initiation, you’re allowed to pledge another group.
My advice for parents:
These organizations are secretive by nature. One set of bylaws I acquired even said that any girl who talks about certain chapter business to any non-members (which would include parents) could be kicked out of the group. That’s insane. Parents should make sure to keep an open line of communication so that their daughters feel comfortable telling them about their sorority lives and so that parents can continue to guide their children through a program that can become dangerous.
Alexandra Robbins, who has written five New York Times bestsellers, is the author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, which she has updated for 2015. An investigative reporter and the 2014 recipient of the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, Robbins’ books include The Overachievers, a New York Times Editors’ Choice and People magazine Critics’ Choice, and The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, which was voted Best Nonfiction Book of the Year in the Goodreads Choice Awards, the only people’s choice awards for books.
Robbins has written for several publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The Washington Post. She has appeared on dozens of national television shows such as 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Oprah, The View, and The Colbert Report.