Are the Sig Eps really Feminists

Brighton Fowler

I wrote an article last spring about the infamous and ever-changing acronyms of what is now known as the “Peace and Harmony” party. The article was mostly in response to the controversy surrounding the Saturday night event. I had the great opportunity to reflect and discuss this party with the president of SigEp – the man behind the mask – Ben Levine.
Ben and I had a calm and earnest hour-long talk about the implications of the former name(s) of the party – “Pimps and Hos, P & H” – last year’s poster spoof, the decade-long tradition behind this party, the image SigEp would like to portray to the Lawrence community and most exciting to me – of course – feminism. Yes, that’s right, this article is not a spoof, the SigEps, at least according to this source, are in fact feminists. Boo-yah!
I think the gist of my conversation with Ben can be broken down pretty simply. First of all, the SigEps felt a little raw about the whole poster controversy of last year. For those of you who don’t know, a member of the Lawrence campus posted flyers with the SigEp insignia that suggested the party encouraged racial stereotypes and an another that depicted an actual bruised and battered woman, suggesting the ugly realities of actual “pimping” and “ho-ing.” SigEp would like to both defend its party and clarify the party’s implications.
When asked directly about SigEp’s feelings about the controversy and the fraternity’s commitment to having a party whose tradition is rooted in sexual stereotype, Levine responded, “Yes, tradition does prevail in our institution, but we are willing to know when something like a name is really just getting in the way of us continuing our tradition, which is throwing a great spring party. This party is not called ‘pimps and hos’ and is not promoted that way by us at all. Yes, we would like to have our party be provocative and edgy, but in no way are we encouraging people to dress like “pimps or hos.” At this point the party is really just an open forum. It’s popular on campus; people outside the house are excited about it. It’s really the granddaddy for us.”
I probed him on some of the choice words from this statement, namely “granddaddy.” I thought it was an interesting way to describe this event in light of the fact that what some people, myself included, are resisting about the name is the hierarchy imbedded in a party whose theme inadvertently alludes to stereotypes about men and women that have some serious implications inside and outside of college campuses.
My friend and foremost feminist advisor Celeste Levitz-Jones alerted me to these haunting statistics: One in six women have been victims of attempted or complete rape. Even more chilling, college-age women are four more times as likely to be sexually assaulted, and two out of three times the rapist is someone familiar to the victim.
OK, so why I am I bringing up rape when the name of the party is no longer explicitly connected to the “pimps and hos” theme and the party hosts are actively trying to distance themselves from this type of negative association?
Besides the fact that the fraternity is legally responsible for any misconduct in its house, SigEp goes so far as to appoint “six [sober] men” to be on the lookout for any possible suspicious behavior happening in the house throughout the night.
Well, my friends and frenemies, there is something inherently problematic about a party that even alludes to this theme, because it triggers an association with male dominance and female victimization. That is to say, there are power relations imbedded in this theme, and the SigEps have no control over what may or may not happen behind closed doors after the party is over.
I think the SigEps, and Ben Levine in particular – since I have spoken exclusively to him on this subject – are aware that this is not the type of behavior or conduct that they want to endorse with even the allusion to this theme. They stated that they are committed as a whole to respecting women or really anyone who could be classified as “the other” – that is, not straight, white and male.
But, alas, as a feminist I have to agree with Celeste: there is a pretty clear difference between this party, and, say, a party that also was up to review for its illicit and provocative name, the party formerly known as “Nearly Naked.”
The difference is that the theme of the latter essentially levels the playing field by saying no one can wear clothing and it is up to the individual to decide how creatively to take this, while the former – whether intentionally or not – alludes to explicit gender differences in costume and conduct which are illicit, precisely because they are taboo and illegal in our culture.
I think if we could all keep in mind that even though this is really about having fun and hopefully everyone has the best intentions at heart, there still are real risks to reiterating these negative roles – even inadvertently – through this type of provocative masquerade. And the fact that this party was imagined and put on by a group of predominantly white heterosexual men begets the question of whether women and men can actually trust that this new theme, Peace and Harmony, which is trying to break free of these stereotypes and yet leave the name and the spirit of the party intact. Is the party truly as light-hearted or feminist as the SigEps claim?
With all that being said, I was genuinely impressed by how thoughtful, intelligent and understanding Ben was to some of the more radical feminist ideas and questions I was expressing and asking. I asked him point-blank if SigEps considered themselves feminist. “Absolutely. I can recall having a conversation with someone in our house about the posters. He said to me, ‘this is like someone calling me a misogynist when I consider myself a feminist.’ We all support women. No one in our house thinks that women are any lower than men.”
Right on SigEp, SigEp! And as for you skeptics, I swear when I asked I was neither staring him down nor holding a lighter to my bra.
I full-heartedly agree there is something appealing or at least exciting and strange about seeing your writing tutor in a push-up bra, and only a push-up bra, or, as Levine suggested, your male friend wearing a corset. This party, in my opinion, is spectacle sport. You go to be seen but most of all to see.
What I took issue with in a previous article and still believe to be true is that the looking seems mostly to be going in one direction – as it usually always does, toward the female body. What I got from my conversation with Ben is that SigEp intends to have a party that is open to anyone and to create a space where people can dress up however they please.
Women are not locked into wearing corsets – although sometimes they literally are – and men are not locked into gold-plated “grills” and canes.
Is the sentiment of this party really on par with brutality against women or racism? Should we just let Amy Uecke bury this Victoria’s-Secret-wearing-hatchet forever? Well, I guess if I see you there we can try to discuss it. That is, if we are able to stop staring at each other’s breasts long enough to form a coherent sentence.