sex column

The Sexual Implications of Greek Life Formals

At bars, buying someone a drink carries a certain implication — at the very least it displays sexual interest, and at the most it can be an expectation of sexual interaction.   

But what about paying anywhere between $200 and $400 for transportation, dinner, drinks and a hotel room for one night of dancing in Chicago, Milwaukee or another short-distance location? After interviewing men and women from various UW sororities and fraternities, Indecent Exposure found out the sexual expectations are high when it comes to attending a fraternity formal.

Sororities and fraternities make up only a little more than 10 percent of UW-Madison’s student population — much lower than other Big 10 schools like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Michigan, each with just under 20 percent. However, there is still a strong shared culture within UW’s Greek community.

There are many differences in the rules between what sororities and fraternities are allowed to do. For example, sororities have a live-in “house mother” who makes sure sisters aren’t bringing boys to the house while fraternities have no such supervisor. Additionally, while the trademark of fraternities is their in-house parties, the governing body of the 26 major sororities in the U.S. — the National Panhellenic Conference — bans sororities from consuming alcohol in their houses.

Formals are no exception to the disparity in rules between sororities and fraternities.

The main difference between sorority and fraternity formals, at UW, boils down to location. While sororities typically rent out a local bar or event center, the majority of fraternities travel out of Madison and plan an entire overnight stay. The overnight aspect of a fraternity formal is usually where the sexual implications behind date choice come into play. For sorority formals, the dates vary significantly. You will find some girls with their boyfriends or hookups, while other girls bring their best girl friends from other houses and prioritize dancing all night and celebrating with each other. At a fraternity formal, you will never (correct me if I’m wrong) find a male member with a guy friend from another house. Their dates usually are a girlfriend, a girl from a sorority they socialize with or a girl they have been set up with by one of their good friend’s date. If you have the right date, fraternity formals are an absolute blast and formal season becomes the best time of the year for Greek life. However, if the lines are blurred and there is sexual pressure, fraternity formals can be very stressful for anyone involved.

One sorority sister felt men in Greek life sometimes prioritize the possibility of sex over sharing the experience with a good friend.

A fraternity member said, “I mean formal is a big expense and sometimes you kind of hope that you’re sharing it with someone who is more than just a friend. Like it’s nice to spend all this money on a girl you really care about or are hooking up with at the end of the night.”

One sorority sister shared, “There seems to be always an underlying expectation to hook up with your date — even if you are going as “just friends. There’s this notion that you should have known what you were getting yourself into by accepting the invitation to formal. Also, you’re considered a “tease” if you don’t.”

We asked women in sororities if they’ve ever hesitated or said no to going to a fraternity formal because of the expectation to engage sexually with the fraternity brother. The answer was resoundingly, “yes”.

“If a guy asks you to a formal or a date party or something there’s always that implication that you kind of owe something to them, even if you don’t at all — like obviously you don’t. But it can feel like that when they’re spending so much money on you to go somewhere with them,” one sorority sister said in an interview.

Another sorority member said, “I've been to multiple formals where the boy has showed us our room and I felt like I couldn't say that I wanted to sleep with my friends. Especially when they buy the alcohol for the night, you feel like you owe them something or are obligated to sleep with them.”

We asked several fraternity brothers if they expect a sexual interaction when they ask someone to formal one fraternity brother said, “Unless like it is predetermined that we are going as just friends I kind of hope that something does happen. Like when thinking about choosing a date it is nice to ask someone you have been interested in for a while.”

While others said they didn’t necessarily expect anything. Two other fraternity members clarified that they never expect anything sexual at their formals and don’t get upset if their date isn’t interested. They expressed that formal is more of a fun time to hang out with friends in a new location. However, when we asked if they do first consider asking girls they are sexually interested in to be their dates, they both answered with a quick, “yes."

We heard multiple accounts of fraternity brothers getting upset at the event itself because the girl they asked denied their advances.

“He was really upset and started yelling at me,” said one UW-Madison student after not wanting to sleep with the date she’d be set up with by a friend of a friend. She slept on the couch that night to avoid his advances. 

The pressure wasn’t just from her date, his friends later nagged her about the encounter and kept asking her “why not?” It is situations like these where we should be reminded of the power of friend groups to hold one another accountable - if we hear a friend pressuring someone to have sex when they don’t want to or are too drunk to hook up, we have the responsibility to step in and defend people’s right to say no. 

One sorority sister told us in an interview that her chapter recently had a discussion at their Monday night meeting about making a game-plan with another girl attending the same formal about sleeping arrangements. But even the best made plans go awry at the end of the night in foreign locations after several drinks. 

“I remember when I was a lower classman, one of the older girls in my house told me about the ‘rollover’ method,” one sorority member told us, “Basically, if you decide that you don’t want to hookup with your date at the end of the night, but feel bad denying him, you just pretend you’re drunk and exhausted and pass out in the bed before anything can happen.”

As a short-term solution, one sorority member suggested having a direct conversation about what’s expected as soon as the invitation is expected. Though some have found this tactic to not always be respected as one sorority sister recounted, “He insisted it would be casual and friendly, but that turned out to be completely untrue.”

While outlining expectations may be an effective strategy to try to nip assumptions in the butt, it’s on us all to respect people’s boundaries. And even when the intentions are sexual by both parties, it’s important to remember that consent may be revoked at any point and that should always be respected.

Multiple sorority members said they believed the expectation to have sex at formal would be far decreased if fraternities hosted their formals at local venues, rather than traveling, like their sorority counterparts do. However, some also said that would not be nearly as fun as traveling.

“As a member of Greek Life, I would hate if fraternity formals were switched to something more closely to a sorority formal. Going away with a group of friends and spending the night in a hotel is such a blast. Yeah, I did have a bad experience with a date who wouldn’t take no for an answer, however, I still wouldn’t want one guy’s poor judgment to reflect on all of Greek life. I have gone away to many formals with guys that I didn’t know before and had the absolute best nights. What it boils down to is clarifying consent and making your intentions clear before you are forced to spend the night in a hotel room with a person who is on a different page than you,” says one third of the Indecent Exposure team, Sydney Thomas.

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