HETRICK: A funny thing happened on the way to the sorority

July 21, 2012

I spent last weekend in a hotel with 950 sorority women learning about sex.

How’s that for an opening line? Are your fantasies afire? Curiosity aroused?

Conjured up a stereotype or two?

Likely so.

Now let’s do away with the titillation and talk truth and consequences.

I’m the last guy you should expect to find in a room full of Greeks—the fraternity and sorority type, at least.

When I began college back in the mid-1970s, a couple of fraternity guys invited me to go through “rush.”

Their sales pitch was all about drinking, parties and fornication. Mostly fornication.

“Bruce,” said one of the frat guys, “I joined [fraternity XXX] because my personal goal during the four years I’m here is to see how much pipeline I can lay.”

The best-quality “pipeline,” he said, was to be found in the sorority houses, and accessible exclusively to fraternity men.

Now, I’m no prude. But most of my friends were women. I’d grown up in an era when my parents and their friends attended encounter groups and discussed some newfangled notion called feminism. I’d even read enough Gloria Steinem to know these frat fellows weren’t my cup of role-model Darjeeling.

So based on that crude first impression, I walked away from Greek life with a sour taste in my mouth.

Fast-forward to 2007. I married Cheri O’Neill, a woman with 17 years of professional experience in higher education who was enrolled in a social work graduate program. She hoped to parlay the latter into a counseling practice for women.

One day, Cheri was prowling around for a volunteer opportunity when she landed on the national website of her college sorority, Indianapolis-based Alpha Chi Omega. An open job, the executive directorship, was posted on the home page.

Figuring she could serve one woman at a time as a therapist or 200,000 as CEO of a national women’s organization, Cheri went for it—and got it.

So for the last five years, Mr. Independent here—now a journalism school faculty member—has been learning all about sororities, fraternities, Panhellenics, inter-fraternity organizations and more.

At their conferences, I’ve learned about leadership and community service; trends in higher education and philanthropy; generational differences between baby boomers, gen Xers and millennials; and, yes, initiatives to prevent and address the binge drinking and hazing that have plagued our college campuses in general and Greek organizations in particular for as long as they’ve been in existence.

I’ve learned from university professors and administrators, lieutenant governors and White House officials, foundation executives and corporate leaders.

Last weekend, I attended my third national Alpha Chi Omega convention. To bring this tale full circle, I found myself one morning in a room filled with 950 sorority women—age 19 to 95—listening to Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

One subject of Heldman’s research is “sexual objectification.” She defines that as “the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another’s sexual pleasure.”

Think: fraternity guys referring to women as “pipeline.”

Only Heldman focuses on media, the folks I work with and teach about. And politics, which shaped my career. And advertising, which I’ve created for 30 years.

In other words, Heldman’s presentation hit close to home.

That afternoon, I watched a documentary called “Miss Representation.” Created by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It features Heldman, many other academics, and the likes of Katie Couric, Condoleezza Rice, Rachel Maddow, Geena Davis, Nancy Pelosi, Margaret Cho and, yes, Gloria Steinem.

The film explores how sexual objectification has, among many consequences, led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.

In her presentation, Heldman said sexual objectification also contributes to individual consequences: depression, eating disorders, body shame, body monitoring, sexual dysfunction, lower self-esteem, lower grade-point averages, and lower political efficacy among them.

And she backs up her arguments with data. Despite women being 51 percent of the U.S. population and 46 percent of the U.S. work force, they have a pithy percentage of CEO and executive roles, board seats, top wage earners, members of Congress, and other leadership roles.

On their website, the women of Alpha Chi Omega offer a “shared commitment.” In the marketing world, we’d call it a “brand positioning statement.”

Among the opening lines, it says: “Someone needs to change the language. Change the conversation. Change how women think and act about the idea of sorority.”

Having heard those fraternity guys 30 years ago, having heard Heldman’s lecture on sexual objectification, having seen the powerful examples in “Miss Representation,” and having seen as an outsider how Greek organizations can help address such issues on our college campuses and in our society, I’d say changing the conversation would be apt advice for all of us.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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