Social spaces can impact College gender dynamics
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series that examines gender dynamics at Dartmouth. This first part is about engendered social spaces at the College.
For many students, Friday night means a game of "beer pong" on fraternity row followed by a dance party in one of the College's 12 other fraternities. This emphasis on male-dominated social spaces contributes to unequal gender relations on campus, some argue.
While there are 13 fraternities on campus, there are currently seven sororities, which some feel limits female influence on social interaction at Dartmouth.
"With the dominant number of fraternities, that would make it seem like the men are in control. They get to choose how we have fun, where we have fun. We need more sororities." Femi Omotunde '09 said.
Because there are fewer sororities, they are generally much larger than fraternities, with several having as many as 150 members.
"Relative to the fraternities who have around 50 members, my sorority has 120 members. In some ways that has a lot of perks, but in other ways I feel it's a lot harder to get to know people right away," Kristin Lieske '07, president of Alpha Xi Delta sorority, said.
With the lifting of the Student Life Initiative's effective moratorium on the formation of new Greek organizations, frustrated students hoped that bringing new sororities to campus would address their concerns about a dearth of female-controlled social spaces. The addition of Alpha Phi sorority last spring increases women's choices during the rush process and reduces the size of each sorority, members of other sororities said.
However, many women were disappointed when the College allowed only national organizations to form because they felt a national sorority would not impact the social environment as much as a local sorority would. The College, however, cited the greater resources offered by national Greek organizations as essential to their success at Dartmouth.
While Alpha Phi provides additional social space, national regulations restrict it, and the three other national sororities, from throwing open parties that serve alcohol. There are no such restrictions on national fraternities.
"My lens is that when we look at 'social' space, alcohol is dominant [in student perceptions]. Alcohol's the trump card. It's the default; it controls the power," said Megan Johnson, the assistant director of Coed, Fraternity, Sorority, Undergraduate and Senior Society Administration. "The reality is we have coed organizations, and we have fraternities and sororities that have alcohol-free dance parties throughout the year, but they're not as common as three kegs in the basement."
Some believe that this discrepancy between male and female social spaces has translated into an unequal gender dynamic on campus.
"I think the social scene often reifies expectations around masculinity and femininity. I think there's certain gendered expectations that people feel when they're out at certain places," Student Body President Tim Andreadis '07 said. "There's a culture within the social scene that often overlooks and even expects sexism."
Andreadis ran a vocal campaign last spring that focused, in part, on sexual assault at Dartmouth.
Fraternity members acknowledge that Dartmouth's social scene is largely male-dominated, but emphasize that they try to create a welcoming environment for both genders.
"We strive to make women feel comfortable in our space. One thing that's part of what we try to be at [Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity] is 'the home of the true gentlemen.' That's our motto. While we don't live up to that every time, each and every member strives to live up to that, and part of that is showing respect for women," SAE president Michael Greene '07 said. "It's not in the interest of any fraternity on campus to have women feel uncomfortable. I, as president of my fraternity, would prefer women to come forward and say they are uncomfortable if they are uncomfortable."
Some who said they feel comfortable in fraternities also complained that they contribute to a "hook-up" culture.
"It makes it difficult to have dates because it seems like most of the stuff that goes on is in frats. You can't really say, 'Let's go on a date to SAE,'" Emily Porter '10 said.
Despite this, many women said they enjoy going to fraternities, largely because they provide an attractive forum to talk to friends and meet new people.
"I have friends in both fraternities and sororities so at this point I feel really comfortable at both. I primarily go to the houses where I have friends anyways," Lieske said.
Others said that the atmosphere in fraternities makes them feel uncomfortable or compelled to act differently than they would normally, asserting that they would be more at ease in a gender neutral or female-controlled space.
"I think in a fraternity basement women feel like they're in unfamiliar territory, so they might change their behavior to seem more attractive. And in a sorority, since it's their own space, females feel not only that they can be themselves, but also feel physically safer," Ione Curva '07 said.
While fraternities throw most of Dartmouth's parties, women said the sororities on campus, both national and local, provide social opportunities for women by giving them a set community of women and a means of meeting women whom they might not otherwise get to know.
"The fraternities are a lot more visible, but the sororities play just as essential a role as the fraternities do. They provide a wonderful environment for a really diverse group of Dartmouth women to form lasting friendships and to get the chance to share their Dartmouth experience," Lieske said.
Coed fraternity houses maintain that fraternities and sororities will inherently favor one gender, but coeds can offer a truly gender neutral social space because they have both male and female members. There are three coed fraternities on campus.
According to Alpha Theta coed fraternity president Charles Cunningham '07, these coed fraternities host one-third of registered parties.
"I think [coed houses' social] role is much more influential than people realize," Cunningham said. "I would like to see our recognition increased. You can have males and females coming together and working together to have a joint social space that is not only safe, but effective and popular."
Cunningham emphasized that the coed houses have been especially prevalent this year since a large number of fraternities were on probation at the beginning of the term, enticing many freshmen who might have otherwise gone to fraternities into the coed houses. Many freshmen continue to view these houses as attractive social alternatives to male-dominated fraternities even after probation has ended, he said.