Crude fraternity e-mails reignite debate on gender issues

At 6:10 p.m. Saturday, an e-mail message landed in the inboxes of more than 300 Duke women inviting them to a fraternity’s Halloween party at an off-campus apartment.

“Hey Ladies,” the message to the Sigma Nu fraternity social listserv began, “Whether your [sic] dressing up as a slutty nurse, a slutty doctor, a slutty schoolgirl, or just a total slut, we invite you to find shelter in the confines of Partners D.”

According to several students interviewed for this story, on most nights that would have been the last anyone saw of the e-mail. The fraternity threw its party, students had a good time and everyone went home and fell asleep.

But when the sun rose the next morning, West Campus was plastered in bright yellow flyers printed with the full text of Sigma Nu’s invitation , as well as a similar e-mail sent by the unrecognized, off-campus fraternity Alpha Delta Phi. Someone had scrawled a handwritten message across the bottom of each sheet of paper before making copies: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” and,“Is this why you came to Duke?” The physical flyers soon disappeared, but scanned copies quickly circulated.

Many students noted that the e-mails are intended to be humorous. But just a month after a sexually explicit PowerPoint made by Karen Owen, Trinity ’10, became a viral internet sensation, Duke received another reminder of what can happen when a message sent via the Internet slips out of the control of its sender. And just three weeks after a Yale fraternity faced national scrutiny for a video of its pledges chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal,” the messages raised questions about gender and social culture on Duke’s campus.

“This e-mail was an isolated event,” said Sigma Nu President Sam Zakria, a junior. “It was a single individual who wrote it and it was a serious lapse in judgment on his part, but it is not representative of the views of our organization as a whole.”

He added that he has since sent apology e-mails to recipients and the wider greek community, and that disciplinary action is being taken against the author of the e-mail, both within the fraternity and through the Interfraternity Council. Representatives from the Sigma Nu national chapter and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life said no actions will be taken against the fraternity as a whole at this time.

Alpha Delta Phi President Tim Shaughnessy, a senior, Social Chair Will Geary, a junior, and the national chapter of the fraternity declined to comment on their organization’s e-mail, which joked, “Fear is riding the C1 with Helen Keller at the helm (not because shes [sic] deaf and blind, but because she is a woman).”

“To push the limits”

The e-mails stunned many on campus.

“I can’t even describe how angry I was when I read them,” senior Jessica MacFarlane said. “I thought they were incredibly degrading.”

MacFarlane said a friend forwarded her scanned copies of the e-mails Sunday afternoon, which she passed along to friends and members of the administration.

Clarybel Peguero, assistant dean of fraternity and sorority life, received copies of the e-mails Sunday, as did Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek.

“I found them deplorable,” Wasiolek said.

For many in the greek community, however, the only surprise was that the messages surprised anyone at all.

“Honestly, when I first received those e-mails [Saturday night] I didn’t think anything of it,” said senior Emily Fausch, secretary of Delta Delta Delta sorority. “This is the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from fraternities. In my heart, I know it’s a problem but I’ve really gotten used to it.”

Junior Isaac Mizrahi, who recently co-hosted a forum on gender and greek life and asked not be identified with his fraternity in this article, said the e-mails are products of an arms race among fraternities who use crude humor to catch the attention of their social circles.

“They want to send the funniest e-mails so they can have the best parties so they can get the quote unquote best girls so they can get the quote unquote best pledge class,” he said. “That competitiveness drives people to push the limits.”

These e-mails do not come only from the fraternities implicated in this weekend’s flyer campaign. Approximately 20 e-mails obtained by The Chronicle reveal party invitations of similar tone and content sent by several other Duke fraternities in the last year.

Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity used their organization’s social listserv Jan. 16 to invite a group of Duke women to a party titled “Culture Shock.”

“Thinking we should make that fence down south a little taller?” the message asked. “Pissed about a certain group of easterners f—ing up the curve in Econ 51?... Well it’s time to get over your fears and join the brothers of Pi Kappa Alpha for a truly unique tour of the world.”

“Sup BabyGurlz,” opened an e-mail from the Kappa Alpha Order March 17. “Do you want to get your eagle on Saturday March 27th? Do your loins pulsate and throb at the very mention of KA?... Does the idea of a day with the Order make you throw up a little bit in your mouth? If all of the above is not enough, we propose a contest. First to the ER WINS.”

Boys will be boys?

Although Pi Kappa Alpha eventually issued an apology to its invitees, many other crude fraternity party invitations fly under the radar, said Alice, a sorority member who requested anonymity because she feared losing friends in the greek community.

She added that women often shrug off these messages because the men who send them are their friends, and the jokes do not generally reflect how they interact with their female friends face-to-face.

“I don’t take it too seriously,” she said. “I think that college boys will be college boys.”

But separating the men from their message allows fraternities to get away with expressing distasteful sentiments without any fear of repercussions, said Pi Beta Phi sorority President Rose Filler, a senior. To the contrary, she said she has known greek women who were dis-invited to parties or shunned by close male friends after expressing anger over the way fraternity party invitations addressed women.

For Panhellenic Association President Bogna Brzezinska, a senior, the fact that women receive these e-mails but do not often complain is a major problem.

“Women get invitations that call them sluts and hos... and they still go to the parties,” she said.

To respond to issues of gender disparity, Panhel is working with the newly-formed Greek Women’s Initiative, which aims to create a space for dialogue about gender and includes representatives from all four fraternity and sorority governing councils.

As Filler and several others noted, gender issues on campus and the people who care about them are not limited to the greek community. One of the students who posted the flyers, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said their effort was not on behalf of any specific campus organization.

“If we remain anonymous, it could be any Duke student,” the individual said. “And with the power of that realization—that it’s many of us who are upset, and not just some of us—well, that’s a pretty powerful realization.”


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