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Pondering the Perplexing Nature of Sorority Rush

Ken Nesmith

Sorority recruitment is now at its conclusion. I’ve never been too closely involved with sorority rush, since I’m male and all, but I caught glimpses of parts of it in the course of walking back and forth past screaming girls in the Student Center (unfortunately, that’s not the usual response I get), and a few stories from both recruiters and recruited gave me a moment’s pause to appreciate the whole process and its contrast with fraternity rush. I don’t think I’ve worked out all the subtleties and universal truths about the differences between the sexes that can be derived from those contrasts, but that won’t stop me from speculating haphazardly.

First, a bit of history. The sororities collectively withdrew from the IFC to form the Panhellenic Association a couple of years ago. One theory is that key leaders found out what the letters stood for (Inter-Fraternity Council), got upset, stormed out, and haven’t called since, even though they still have the IFC’s favorite black t-shirt; others say Panhel just wanted a greater degree of self-governance and independence. Either way, it was good for the girls.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the organizations exist under different governments, as sororities and fraternities are different worlds at MIT. While there are scads of fraternities, there are only five sororities; these female greek organizations are a relatively recent development, thanks to remnants of historical patriarchal oppression here at MIT and in society in general. Sororities encompass more members than fraternities, and so are necessarily less tightly-knit communities. Males seem to have stronger allegiance to their fraternities than do females to their sororities. Nearly all members of a fraternity live together, while only a fraction of sorority members do. A houseful of guys seems to live together slightly more harmoniously than a houseful of girls, though determining who is messier depends on who you ask. These differences are all obvious to most MIT students.

Likewise, the processes of recruitment to sororities and fraternities are worlds apart. As heavily regulated as fraternity rush is, it’s an absolute free-for-all compared to the female version. Some girls associated with the organization of sorority recruitment aren’t allowed to speak to any affiliated woman during the days leading up to recruitment. The rest of the sorority members cannot speak to freshmen girls. While some believe that any restriction on female speech is a boon to life in general, I think that’s not an entirely accurate belief, and furthermore, that the restrictions on simple conversation are nothing short of absurd and too great a price to pay to eliminate a small window of potential abuse.

What’s really interesting is the contrast between the bid processes for sororities and fraternities. In fraternity recruitment, if members of a fraternity hold a prospective member in sufficiently high regard, they can offer him a chance to join their fraternity. He, in turn, can accept or decline that offer. There are a few restrictions on the timing of offers and acceptances, but in general, this seems like a fairly rational approach to recruitment. It can indeed produce disappointment; some prospective members devote their attention to getting a bid at one or two fraternities, and fail to do so. That can surely be an extraordinary letdown. Of course, receiving a bid brings a countervailing feeling of elation.

Sororities have a different system. Choices are ever more restricted as rush proceeds, and prospective members are regulated in how they use their time to investigate sororities. On the first night, for instance, they must spend equal time investigating each sorority. The crucial bit comes at the end of it all, when prospective members rank their top two sorority choices, and sororities rank the freshmen they’d like to receive as members. No offers are extended at this point, and no direct choices are made; these preferences are instead thrown into a computer, effectively surrendered to a central planner, and an algorithm is run to maximize some combination of recruit and recruiter happiness among these preferences. The prospective members have their offers, and they can take them or leave them.

The level of regulation and regimentation associated with sorority rush appears designed to minimize conflict, competition, and the potential for disappointment. I have to imagine that these regulations have been crafted and revised over the years in response to difficulties encountered during and after recruitment. I suppose the less disappointment, the better. But the implication here seems to be that guys can handle the important choice of where to live and what community to join, and can deal with the concomitant trials of competition, clash of preferences, and sharp disappointments, while girls cannot handle those things.

Let me be clear on this, and not sarcastic just for a moment. I have no reason to think that competing sororities will devolve into squadrons of street tough catfighters and/or emotional wrecks if they subjected themselves to a bit of open competition. But that seems to be the prominent implication of the excess of parenting involved in sorority recruitment.

So what’s the story? Is there a less insulting explanation that I’m missing, or is this the way it is? I have no reason to think girls couldn’t handle a less regulated rush or the conflicts and stresses associated with a more dynamic, open process, but the system, as it is established, discounts that notion. Consider again the restrictions and their implications: are girls not able to both converse with one another and maintain the faculty of rational, independent judgment? Are they not able to allocate their time between houses in which they’re interested? Not curious enough to explore sororities with which they’re unfamiliar?

Let’s imagine for a moment that administrators do not extend the “all freshmen on campus” policy into an “all people on campus” policy, as we can only assume they’re probably planning. Perhaps with enough time, as fraternities are slowly starved of recruits, a community of sororities more comparable to the community that exists among fraternities will develop, and some of these differences will become less prominent. That would certainly defuse my theory that these differences in recruitment reflect universal truths about men and women.

Or perhaps my analysis was just flawed from the beginning; please feel free to tell me as much and explain why. Or perhaps I’m an insensitive cad and shouldn’t talk impolitely about such unstated but widely accepted truths. Regardless, consider this speculation, haphazard as promised, complete for now.