With Friends Like These

Inside a real college sorority

No, it didn't feel right, lying facedown on the floor wearing nothing but my underwear and the blindfold I'd tied myself. Weird? Sure. But weird I could handle. Weird is standard operating procedure for sorority initiations. Already that week, my pledge class had been forced to sing and dance on tables while fraternity guys let their eyes and hands crawl up our skirts. We'd been made to play mud football at 4 in the morning, even though we were all sick to the point of vomiting after having had booze poured down our throats. And just the night before, hung-over and exhausted, we were told to drink some more and then sent out to steal a statue from a fraternity house.

So I was used to weird. But now, lying there nearly naked, it all felt very wrong. And it had felt that way ever since I'd heard the men. Until that moment, if anyone was frightened, it came out as anxious excitement ("I can't wait to wear my letters!") that sometimes bordered on religious fervor ("Isn't it wonderful to bond with our sisters!"). My heart beat fast as I followed instructions in the sorority's second-floor "education room," beat faster as I put on my underwear, beat faster still when another pledge grabbed at me with a sweaty palm and gushed, Children of the Corn-like, "We'll be sisters after tonight."

We were led single file down to the first-floor living room. The room was white. The windows and doors had been covered with white sheets. So had the furniture. The sorority's active members were wearing white sheets tied into robes. We sat down in a circle on the floor. We received strips of ripped-up white sheets and were told to tie them around our eyes. We were instructed to lie down on our stomachs on the hardwood floor. Almost immediately, girls began to complain that they were cold. Some asked for robes. Our pledge educator only snapped, "Quiet!"

And that's when the men entered the room, whistling and howling, "We are going to have fun tonight, ladies!" And then silence. The absence of sound was disturbed only by palpable fear; the floor seemed to vibrate from the involuntary quiver of body parts. The chapter president attempted to calm us.

"The fraternity guys are here to help us all become better sisters," she said. "You need to hold still and be quiet."

But panic set in. "What's going on?" whisper-screamed the girl next to me. Whatever it was, I wanted out—I really did—but somehow not enough to actually get up and leave. I held still because another part of me felt it was impossible to walk out. If I showed the slightest glimmer of independence, I would not only be a laughingstock but I would also be shunned for the next four years of college. I remembered a friend who had deactivated from her sorority, disillusioned. Her sisters ridiculed her behind her back; her fraternity boyfriend broke up with her. I lay there quietly instead.

The men circled us. One of the girls screamed when someone stepped on her finger. I tried to remain calm, but I was becoming disoriented and felt nauseated. Something smelled toxic. Then something cold came in contact with my thigh. I gasped. "It's okay, baby," said one of the men. "I'm just helping to make you look good." The cold moved to my inner thigh.

"You missed a spot!" one of them said to another, and they laughed.

His friend said, "Yeah, that's a pretty nasty one, huh?"

It seemed forever before they left, but as the last man walked out, the mood eased. We'd done it! We had made it through! There was a sense of accomplishment as we were taken back upstairs, still blindfolded—a sense of victory, even though we still looked like hostages at a Victoria's Secret. Back in the education room, our blindfolds were removed and there we stood, each of us positioned in front of a mirror. There was a moment of confusion as each of us noticed that circles and "X's" had been drawn on our bodies in permanent marker. Our pledge master began to explain, but her voice was soon drowned out by the cries of pledges as they realized what had happened: the fraternity brothers had marked up the fatty areas of our bodies. These were areas "that needed some work," the pledge master said. Some of the girls began to sob, but if they were looking for compassion or consolation—or sanity—they were in the wrong place.

"Don't be a ninny," one of the members scolded. "It's just going to make you a better person."

Let me tell you a little about who I am by telling you who I am not: I am not Margaret J. Soos. I'm using a pseudonym because I'm afraid of the consequences if my identity were known. When I joined my sorority, I took an oath of sisterhood that implied I would never tell anyone about the inner workings of the group. So if anyone were to find out I wrote this, I might be blacklisted by the local or national organization. I'd probably lose friends. I would almost certainly lose my sorority badge, which would destroy some valuable connections for me in the corporate world, and these connections are the main reason I joined—and ultimately the only reason I stayed in—a sorority.

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