For many people, college is a transformational time of making lifelong friendships, of exploring one's identity, and becoming a part of communities and causes that give a sense of purpose.
Some students find that sororities and fraternities provide these experiences in important ways, providing an unparalleled sense of camaraderie and volunteer opportunities.
However, uncritical acceptance of fraternity/sorority culture can have dangerous and life-threatening consequences.
The extent of the problem
The 2001 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study found that 75% of men in fraternities were heavy drinkers, compared with 49% of men in college who did not belong to a fraternity. Among women, 62% of sorority members were heavy drinkers, versus 41% of non-members.
Half of the student residents in these houses have reported poor academic performance on a test or project as a result of alcohol use; this rate is about twice that of all students. 70% of people living in Greek housing have missed a class as a result of drinking, versus 33% of students in general.
The unstructured use of alcohol has also led to more dangerous consequences, with a 2005 report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse revealing that drinking at Greek parties accounted for the majority of the 1,700 deaths and 500,000 injuries college students experience due to excessive drinking.
Greek houses offer liminal spaces where members may be encouraged to binge drinking or engage in irresponsible alcohol-related behavior. Through a combination of a lack of real supervision, and social pressure, binge drinking becomes not only condoned, but also actively encouraged as the preeminent method of forming friendships and having a good time.
The Harvard study found that leaders of fraternities and sororities often drink more then regular members, thus setting expectations of hard drinking, pressuring newer members. Frosh students in particular may have limited experience with alcohol, unaware of their limits, but expected to drink heavily in order to fit in, leaving them especially vulnerable to life-threatening levels of alcohol consumption.
Fraternities have long been a deeply entrenched part of the residential college system in the U.S., first established in 1825 as a "secret society" where the elite men could find ways to have fun and flaunt the strict rules of college administrators. The idea quickly spread to universities throughout the U.S., inexorably linked with college life.
At a time when college was considered a deeply serious endeavor, these fraternities suggested college could be fun, an opportunity to indulge in pleasures otherwise not normally socially acceptable, including heavy drinking.
In the 20th century, colleges stopping being something associated only with elite men, becoming instead an expectation for almost all members of society. This meant the recruitment and endowments rose in importance, as colleges needed to "market" themselves to potential students.
The system of fraternities and sororities were given tacit approval by colleges, a money making way college life could be seen as more "fun" and more likely to appeal to youth. Colleges largely dispensed with rules attempting to regulate "moral" behavior, allowing these Greek societies to define college social life as one in which people had total freedom.
The 1978 film Animal House did a great deal to cement the view of Greek houses creating a college atmosphere where people were totally free to "party" and not evaluate the consequences of their actions. Such a social atmosphere has led to an environment in which heavy drinking is celebrated, as part of what it means to truly have fun free of adult supervision.
What can be done:
Sororities and Fraternities should be encouraged to look for alternative ways of promoting brotherhood and sisterhood that do not depend on heavy drinking, having alcohol-free events and activities that can be truly fun and bonding. Campuses also have a responsibility to encourage responsible use of alcohol, and do more to prevent underage or problem drinking.
If you are in a sorority or fraternity and feel trapped, unable to stop drinking even when it has caused problems for you, know that help is available, and that your lifestyle is not inevitable or outside your control. Check out information from your campus health center, or other community resources that can help you in your path to recovery.