'Punishing Us For Being Women': UVA Sorority Members Protest Frat Party Ban

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Spring Fraternity Rush
Potential new members wait to enter a sorority house during spring fraternity rush near the University of Virginia (UVA) campus in Charlottesville, Virginia on Jan. 16, 2015. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Sorority women at the University of Virginia were ordered to stay home on the biggest party night of the year to protect their “safety and well-being” -- and they are furious about it.

Members of the National Panhellenic Conference told 16 UVA sorority chapters last week not to participate in Boys’ Bid Night fraternity parties on Saturday. The revelry has led to allegations of sexual assault and excessive drinking in the past. Women who break the prohibition may face sanctions.

“They are treating us like children and punishing us for being women,” said Whitney Rosser, a senior from Lynchburg, Virginia, and a member of Alpha Phi. “We’re angry because we are being told we are not allowed to go out instead of addressing the deeper issue of why sexual assault happens.”

The movement to prevent assault is now dividing women on college campuses. The sorority protest in Charlottesville evokes the late 1960s, when women battled college administrators for social and sexual freedom. The women’s rights movement of that time helped end strict dorm curfews and curbs on interaction with men imposed to protect women’s virtue.

Students at UVA were placed at the center of a national debate about sexual assault and student drinking after a November Rolling Stone article that purported to detail the gang rape of a student at a fraternity house. The story was later discredited and the magazine apologized for it.

Online Petition

More than 2,000 supporters have signed the sororities’ online petition asking the national organization to reconsider their ban from Boys’ Bid Night, when fraternities celebrate the induction of new members. The sororities also wrote a letter to the committee, calling the directive unfair and sexist.

“Sorority women are being used as leverage to change the actions and behaviors of fraternity men,” they said in the letter. The “mandate plays into gender stereotyping around the issue of sexual assault.”

Banning women from events isn’t the way to solve social problems on campus, feminists and legal scholars said. In attempts to combat sexual misconduct, some say the Education Department and some schools have gone too far in creating rules that regulate women’s behavior.

‘Wrong Approach’

“This is the wrong approach to thinking about how to empower women,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor of civil rights and family law at Harvard Law School. “It’s not the right reaction to say we need to keep women away.”

Bartholet is one of 28 law professors who signed an open letter last year condemning Harvard’s sexual-misconduct policy, saying it “departs dramatically” from current law. The policy, drafted when the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based school was under investigation by the Education Department for alleged civil rights violations, establishes internal judicial procedures that are “overwhelmingly stacked against the accused.” It also holds only one party culpable when both are impaired by alcohol or drugs.

The Education Department has placed more than 90 colleges under investigation for their handling of sexual-assault complaints, forcing administrators to craft new policies and step up policing.

The order for UVA sororities came in a Jan. 20 letter from members of the National Panhellenic Conference asking them to stage alternative events on Saturday night “with expectations of full chapter participation.” The letter was signed by Tammie Pinkston, the international president of Alpha Delta Pi, who is affiliated with the conference based in Indianapolis.

‘Safety Concerns’

“We believe the activities on Men’s Bid Night present significant safety concerns for all of our members and we are united in our request that the sixteen NPC sororities not participate,” Pinkston wrote. She didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Michelle Bower, a spokeswoman for the national organization, said the decision was made collectively by the heads of the 16 national sororities.

“This directive is intended to help uphold an NPC unanimous agreement of women not participating in men’s recruitment and address safety and risk management concerns associated with this tradition,” Bower said in an e-mail.

Bid Night

Boys’ Bid Night is one of the biggest social events at UVA. Last year a number of campus groups asked the frats to designate brothers at each house to serve as active bystanders.

Bid Night also brings to a close the annual weeks-long rush when fraternities make a decision on new members. The event begins with the frat members tossing the inductees into the air outside their dorms and ends with parties at each of the more than 30 frat houses around campus.

In the wake of the Rolling Stone story, UVA put a temporary ban on events at Greek houses. President Teresa Sullivan reinstated fraternities earlier this month after a police investigation turned up no evidence. The university went ahead with new rules such as banning pre-mixed drinks at parties.

Sororities traditionally participate with members of each chapter, wearing tank tops with matching colors.

“It’s taking a step backwards rather than forwards for the university,” said Maura Riley, a senior and member of the Pi Beta Phi. “It’s essentially taking women out of the picture rather than holding men accountable for their actions.”