Sociology Prof. Elizabeth Armstrong said Whitney, a pretty sorority girl, snubbed her. This incident was not during Armstrong’s college years, but 10 years ago when she was studying peer culture among freshman girls at an unnamed university.
“I always said, ‘I feel like the biggest loser around Whitney,’ ” Armstrong said with a smile. “In general I felt totally over feeling intimidated by the popular girl I never was, but she is something else. It was very disconcerting for me to feel like I was right back in that space.”
If Armstrong, then an assistant professor at Indiana University, felt ostracized by the pretty rich girls during the course of her research, it is hardly a shock that her study’s findings reflected how social status in college drives student choices on partying. Status even plays a role in sexual assault on campus, she said.
Armstrong’s talk in a small room in the LSA Building Monday concerned the influence of “status anxiety” on drinking, hooking up and sexual assault among undergraduates.
Her study took place at an unnamed large Midwestern college with a tradition of sports and Greek life. She and her research partner, Laura Hamilton, studied interactions at a women’s hall in a freshmen dorm. They observed the young women study together, talk and drink before parties, and conducted interviews with many of these women in the four years following their dorm experience.
What she found is detailed in her 2013 book, “Paying for the Party.” Wealthy freshman women were able to rush Greek life and pursue academic success; after college, they could thrive without the threat of student debt. Lower class students could not find institutional support, and they struggled academically and socially.
Monday’s lecture focused on the social component of Armstrong’s study.
Armstrong’s talk began by building a thesis that the freshman girls were consumed by their social status. The girls who were popular in high school used their homecoming-queen tactics to maneuver their way into top sororities. Young women sniffed out who was cool and associated with only those chosen few.
LSA sophomore Shannon Stone, who attended the event Monday, said the research echoed her experience in Bursley Residence Hall. In her hall, almost all of the girls rushed sororities. Stone currently lives in a co-op, which she said she enjoys.
“They would all have dinner at the dining hall together and they would all sit at one of the circle tables,” Stone said. “Then they would like walk by and make eye contact and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, hi!’ But they would never invite you to sit down. And that was weird.”
According to Armstrong’s research, the obsession with status, in turn, reflected the choice to drink, who they had sexual relations with and how sex occurred — with or without consent, with or without protection.
A freshman named Linda in Armstrong’s study did not drink. Armstrong said this choice, along with her lack of social savvy, eliminated her from the hall’s social scene.
“There is a group on this side of the hall that goes to dinner together, parties together, my roommate included. I have never hung out with them once,” Armstrong said Linda told her. “It kind of sucks.”
Stone said drinking habits among Greek life members in her dorm were risky. She recounted one time where her hall’s bathroom was covered in vomit and caution tape — the latter from a “construction worker”-themed mixer.
Sexual relations were held especially at the mercy of social status tied to Greek life, she said. Armstrong discussed a senior honors thesis conducted by University alum Dana Benyas in 2014. Benyas drew ties between Greek life and relationship autonomy.
One female college student Benyas interviewed said her friends were once astounded that she passed on the opportunity to hook up with a member of a high-ranking fraternity.
“The next morning my friend was like, ‘Did you ever hook up with that kid?’ and I was like, ‘No’ and she was like, ‘But he was in (that fraternity)!’ ” the interviewee said.
Another girl said the sexual behaviors of higher-tier Greek life members are contingent on status.
“It’s a hierarchy, so the (people) in the higher tiers have more power,” the interviewee said. “They would think that they can just not use a condom if they don’t want to, especially if it’s a girl from a lower tier. It’s like her opinion doesn’t matter as much.”
Stone relayed a similar experience in her hall among her peers.
“I think Greek life encourages such a dangerous environment because of the huge emphasis on social status,” Stone said. “It’s basically — it seems to me at least — this elitist system where you have the top-tier frats and sororities and that gives them this insane sense of power over people below them both in the same-sex interactions and in terms of sexual assault.”
The interviews strongly suggested a link between Greek life status and control of sex, Armstrong said.
Armstrong said many top-tier sorority members, described as “beautiful, wealthy,” claimed to have had no experience with sexual harassment. She said this suggests how assault, too, is contingent on status. She added that women in lower-ranking sororities or unaffiliated with Greek life are more prone to sexual assault and considered lower status.
“Everyone is vulnerable, but not everyone is equally vulnerable,” Armstrong said. “The women who got into higher status sororities were more safe because the men knew that if they were disrespected, they could tell the rest of their sorority sisters and that that could have major consequences for the fraternity guys.”
But the root of sexual assault at parties comprises more than social dynamics. Armstrong explained how universities create environments where fraternities — areas which young men, rather than universities, wield control — are one of the few places that freshmen can drink.
Sororities are banned from hosting parties by national chapters, and drinking is banned in dorms. For many freshman women who want to drink, fraternities are a key place to do it. This puts men and women alike at the risk of sexual assault.
“Students are having the most dangerous aspects of their social life in a place that university does not control, but they are university-sponsored organizations,” Armstrong said.
Fraternities can also provide transportation to parties, set party themes and, most importantly, control the door and access to alcohol. That means young women come in and unaffiliated men stay out.
To fulfill the expectation of consuming alcohol, sex and drugs in college, freshmen must comply with fraternities’ desires, she said. Their high status, Armstrong said, provides them “the opportunity to victimize,” though she said most men do not do this.
“In terms of where the university is actually dumping resources onto a group of men and saying, ‘Hey, let’s give you the means and the opportunity. Let’s kind of give you a loaded gun, but don’t use it.’ ”
Eliminating fraternities is not an option in the opinion of many students and universities. One student mentioned she did not believe eliminating fraternities would eliminate sexual assault, and Armstrong agreed. Others brought up how Greek alumni are often the biggest donors.
Nevertheless, Armstrong said fear of losing social status discourages women from reporting sexual assault when it does occur. One young woman in a sorority said she woke up in a fraternity bunk one day naked after a night of heavy drinking. She does not know who assaulted her, and never reported it.
“I just got to school,” the young woman told Armstrong. “I didn’t want to start off on a bad note with anyone.”