December 23, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Clear 6°C

The damage done

The November "Rolling Stone" rape report led to protests in front on the Phi Kappa Psi chapter, protests that have since subsided.
By Molly Hannon
Published: 2014-12-09

y first exposure to sorority life came as a nerdy freshman at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the Thomas Jefferson brainchild now at the center of a row about rape and bad journalism. It was 2003 and I was eager to "rush," the first step in a time-honored sorority recruitment process. Clapping, wide-smiling girls emerged from their houses to greet us. That membership depended on first-impressions and looks came as no surprise. Sororities can in fact be a useful wake-up call for young women. Rushing can make them realize, faster than they might want to, that the girl-club world is less about intellectual curiosity and wit than appearance, social performance skills, and the ability to convince strangers that you're coolly cut from the same cloth.

Our rush guide advised us to make nametags hinting at our interests and hobbies to help generate conversation. My nametag had an illustration beside the words, "Praha on my mind," a reference to my love for Prague and then-Czech President Vaclav Havel. I thought it might make me seem sophisticated. It got me blank stares instead. I did get compliments on my hair (called pretty and shiny).

Demoralized by the spectacle, I dropped out after two rounds. At the time, I worried I'd be excluded from the fun to follow. I wasn't. Instead, I flitted on the fringes of sorority life. I attended frat parties (free and fun). I listened to complaints from sorority friends who came to believe the system was a sham and a waste of thousands of dollars.

But others took it all very seriously. Later, after graduation, I moved to San Francisco where I bumped into some former Virginia students. The first thing one woman told me was that she lived with Kappas and Thetas. "You know." Yes, I did know. But the post-college relevance eluded me.

Rolling Stone published suggestive images with its Jackie piece, in a separate story titled: "Readers Say Jackie Wasn't Alone."

My own experience with the frat party scene was a mostly happy one. I did see women friends mistreated, mostly through verbal abuse. But I also saw women hurl themselves at men who were either jerks or uninterested, or both.

Some frat men I met became my friends and looked out for me. But when men ganged up, especially near kegs and Aristocrat vodka, I often sensed the potential for things going badly wrong. Girls bore the brunt of jokes but too often said nothing. The line between tomfoolery and aggression could be very thin.

I once rode home in a cab with three frat boys, one a good friend. The cabbie was with his UVA-minded adolescent son. "I can't wait to date girls," the boy told us, and we all chuckled at his dreams of future parties.

But the boy seemed confused. "Will it be hard to get a girlfriend?" he asked.

"No," said my friend Fredo. "They're easy."

I looked at Fredo, shocked. He shrugged. "It's true. Not you, but you know what I mean."

I did know.

But I had no reply. I also had nowhere to put my righteous resentment.

I partied hard, but I lacked Fredo's basic advantage. The only label that stuck to me was "girl." For a "girl" wildness was a risk. If it went wrong, built-in penalties lurked. No matter the high-minded achievements, independence, and parental support, a girl was vulnerable to built-in judgments from which boys (will be boys) were largely exempt.

I hated it then and I hate it now.

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