In the context of popular culture, drinking is somewhat synonymous with the existence of Greek life. From ABC Family’s TV show Greek to classic movies like Animal House, partying is often depicted as a key part of participation in America’s fraternities and sororities. This is further supported by news stories linking hazing with alcohol, like the tragic death of Timothy Piazza at Penn State in 2017. Four of Piazza’s brothers in Beta Theta Pi were convicted of crimes surrounding his death, with sentences including jail time, house arrest, and years of probation.
Binge drinking isn’t necessarily problematic in every fraternity nationwide, but it does play a role in both college life and fraternity life on most campuses. And, unfortunately, the role of alcohol in Greek organizations can be a contributing factor to ongoing alcohol abuse long after graduation day.
Greek Life in America
The existence of fraternities and sororities, more colloquially known as “Greek life,” plays a key role on campuses of all shapes and sizes. These groups exist on a national level, like those groups overseen by the North American Interfraternity Conference, National Panhellenic Conference, National Pan-Hellenic Council, and National Multicultural Greek Council, as well as in local forms. These organizations can be professional, honorary, or social in nature, with the latter group making up the bulk of the problematic connections between Greek life and alcohol.
Despite the name and the use of Greek letters, there are no true connections between Greek life and authentic Greek culture. The presence of Greek symbols in naming secret societies dates back to the study of ancient Latin and Greek in academia hundreds of years ago. The first known Greek letter organization, Phi Beta Kappa, was initially a social group and still exists today as an honors fraternity. Founded December 5, 1776 at the College of William and Mary, Phi Beta Kappa’s letters are thought to come from the letters of the group’s original motto: “Philosophía Bíou Kybernḗtēs,” or “Philosophy is the Guide of Life.” Other groups followed suit, eventually culminating in the robust Greek system that dominates campus life today.
Today, an estimated 800,000 American undergraduates are members of fraternities and sororities. On some campuses, only around 10 percent of students are engaged in Greek life, while at other schools, this number can be 70 percent or higher. Not all Greek members join organizations to party—bonding, making friends, and the benefits of future networking are common reasons to join Greek groups—but many men and women pursue membership with partying as an objective on some level.
Drinking in Greek Life
While drinking heavily in college is common for many young people, regardless of whether they belong to Greek life or not, society shines a particular spotlight on fraternal organizations and the well-publicized history of hazing and abuse among members.
Many college students drink, but use appears more prevalent among those in the Greek system. One study that surveyed 3,400 fraternity members found that 97 percent drink alcohol and 67 percent participate in binge drinking. In this kind of environment, particularly for groups that have housing in which members live in a communal area, fraternity drinking becomes normalized. Over time, consuming alcohol may start to feel like an obligation rather than an option— an alarming trend that can lay the foundation for a lifetime of alcohol abuse problems.
Alcohol and Hazing
Hazing, while illegal, has been and, on some level, still continues to be a part of fraternity life. Unlike clubs that open membership to all interested parties, fraternities restrict membership to those who are selected based on personal and academic traits. Most schools use some sort of rush system, in which prospective new members visit organizations, meet the brothers, and vie for a bid.
Those who receive bids are invited to join, while those who do not are left out. This exclusive culture fosters a need to make members earn their standing, usually through a process known colloquially as pledging. During this time, new members are subjected to tasks that help them learn about the organization and prove their worth before being formally initiated. And, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for pledging and hazing to go hand in hand. Around 80 percent of fraternity members report some sort of hazing, which can include any harassment or abusive activity designed to cause humiliation or harm.
Not all organizations haze their members, and not all forms of hazing involve alcohol abuse, but when hazing and binge drinking area combined, the results can be deadly. Take, for example, the story of Timothy Piazza, as mentioned above. Timothy was forced to binge drink heavily during a hazing ritual— a story that is not unique. Many fraternity members have admitted to the presence of peer pressure drinking as a weapon during pledging, including Marquise Braham, an 18-year-old who killed himself after being subjected to horrifying hazing rituals by his Phi Sigma Kappa brothers. This binge drinking pressure can be very influential, making students feel as though fraternity drinking is essential to being a member.
The Long-Term Ramifications of Fraternal Drinkings
Drinking and partying are a big part of regular life for many college students, but for those in fraternities, it can be even more prevalent. When the pledging process involves heavy drinking and regular parties are a key part of the social calendar, alcohol starts to feel more essential and less like a choice. As such, many fraternity members graduate from college with the makings of an alcohol use disorder.
Research has come to the same conclusion, too: one study found that around half of residential fraternity members demonstrate symptoms of an alcohol use disorder by the age of 35. Further, living in Greek housing also increases the likelihood of binge drinking and marijuana use into middle age as well.
Addressing the Problem
The looming problem surrounding alcohol abuse for members of fraternities is quite evident. However, there’s currently no good way to address the issue on an overarching level. The North-American Interfraternity Conference has made some efforts, including banning hard alcohol at events that don’t have a licensed bartender, but this doesn’t stem the use of alcohol to any meaningful extent. Some of advocated abolishing the Greek housing system, forcing members to live in standard dormitory or off-campus housing rather than in bona fide mansions with cleaning staff and cooks. While this isn’t the norm on all campuses, the residential nature is a big draw to Greek life for those at schools with a prominent Greek system.
Unfortunately, without strict oversight, whether by colleges and universities or the organizing bodies of fraternities, there’s not a whole lot to be done. College students, particularly those who join Greek organizations to party, whether as a major or minor priority, aren’t likely to listen to advice about potential problems decades in the future. Living in the here and now, enjoying the benefits of fraternity life, will likely remain a priority.
Looking back on the potential cause of an alcohol use disorder is never easy, particularly when fraternity memories are generally happy. However, millions of Americans will find themselves struggling with alcohol use at some point in life, and for many, college drinking habits are a contributing factor.
For those affected by an alcohol use disorder stemming from regular binge drinking while in a fraternity, FHE Health can help. Contact us today to learn more about our alcohol addiction treatment programming and see what we can do to inspire healthy and lasting recovery.