The Right to Party

New comedy Neighbors 2 highlights longstanding rules that bar sororities from having alcohol, a rule that some women say is sexist and possibly dangerous.

May 25, 2016
Universal Pictures
Free from rules banning alcohol, members of a new independent sorority throw a party in the film 'Neighbors 2.'

There’s an early scene in the new film Neighbors 2 where three characters -- all freshman women who are rushing with a sorority -- attend a fraternity party. The women are disgusted by the sexist behavior of the fraternity members and the predatory atmosphere of the house. The décor includes a flashing neon arrow pointing female guests upstairs to the men’s bedrooms.

The three women would rather party back at the sorority house and on their own terms. The problem: they can’t. “In the United States, sororities are not allowed to throw parties in their own houses,” a sorority leader tells them. “Only frats can.”

Then, as if talking to the film’s audience, she stresses that the rule is real and encourages people to "look it up.”

While there’s not a law banning sororities from partying (a common, though untrue, sorority legend claims that having alcohol in a house where several women live would legally make the place a brothel), it’s true that sororities are generally not allowed to drink or serve alcohol. The National Panhellenic Conference, the organization that governs the majority of the country's sororities, says that its not an official conference policy, but rather an arrangement that all of its members voluntarily agree to.

"For our member organizations that provide housing, they’ve each made a commitment to provide substance free spaces primarily because they are academic spaces," Dani Weatherford, executive director of the National Panhellenic Conference, said. “But the reality is that our organizations do host social functions. They simply do so elsewhere on campus or at other venues off-campus. And they provide third-party vendors as at least one way to make sure guests that drink do so in a safe environment.”

The rule is also a way of keeping down insurance costs. Fraternity insurance costs are notoriously high, thanks, in part, to many of the risks that come with their parties. Fraternity members may spend nearly $200 per member on insurance policies, according to the Washington Post, while sorority members typically pay around $50.

No matter the origins of the rule, some women have long decried it as sexist.

“Because sororities are prohibited from serving alcohol, they can’t host their own parties,” Jessica Bennet, a columnist who writes about gender issues for Time, wrote in 2014. “They must also abide by strict decorum rules. So night after night, women line up, in tube tops and high heels, vying for entrance. Even their clothes are a signifier of where the power lies.”

If women aren’t allowed to throw their own parties, the argument goes, then those hoping to socialize with other sorority and fraternity members on campus are forced to attend fraternity parties. In a widely criticized decision that highlighted the lopsided nature of the relationship, the National Panhellenic Conference urged University of Virginia sorority members last year to avoid attending a major fraternity party, saying the event could be dangerous.

“This is gender discrimination,” sorority members said in a petition against the decision. “Instead of addressing rape and sexual assault at U.Va., this mandate perpetuates the idea that women are inferior, sexual objects.”

In Neighbors 2, the rules against partying lead the three freshmen to start their own independent sorority off campus, starting an escalating prank war between the house and the sorority’s new neighbors. “This is a sexist and restrictive system,” one of the women says. “We’re going to start a sorority where we can party the way that we want to.”

The plot line has generated a fair amount of positive reviews for the film, with critics surprised by the raunchy comedy’s feminist tilt. The arguments made by the movie’s characters echo those made by some real-life sorority members.

In 1988, Dartmouth College’s Sigma Delta split from its national sorority because of “irreconcilable differences.” Those differences included disagreeing with the organization’s “emphasis on men in national songs and overall attitudes.” And, yes, the now independent Sigma Delta throws parties.

“Fraternity members feel so entitled to women’s bodies, because women have no ownership of the social scene,” Molly Reckford, the sorority’s social chair, told The New York Times last year. “You can’t kick a guy out of his own house.”

That imbalance has led some sexual assault prevention advocates to argue that sorority women would be safer if they could throw -- and be in control of -- their own parties.

A recent review by United Educators, a risk management and insurance firm, of 305 sexual assault reports on college campuses from 2011 to 2014 found that about 24 percent of repeat offenders of sexual assault were reported as fraternity members.

A study published in the NASPA Journal in 2009 found that 86 percent of fraternity house residents engaged in binge drinking, compared to 45 percent of nonfraternity men. Fraternity members were twice as likely as nonfraternity men to engage in unplanned sex. Another study published by NASPA Journal concluded that women involved in Greek organizations were 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women.

While the majority of fraternity members do not commit sexual assault, they are three times more likely to than nonmembers, found a 2007 study authored by John Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and founder of the sexual assault prevention program One in Four.

Foubert, however, said he is not sure serving alcohol at sororities would be the best way to combat the problem.

“I believe it is delusional to think that hosting a party with alcohol could lead to fewer sexual assaults, no matter who it is that hosts,” he said. “If a sorority were to host an alcohol party on their own turf, it would be especially difficult to police the activities of intoxicated men. In a fraternity house, such men can be policed by their brothers, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. In a female-controlled space, drunk, sexist men are unlikely to respect the authority of women hosting an event.”


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