One of the first events I attended as a faculty fraternity and sorority adviser—a role that informs the research detailed in my new book, The Benefits of Friends: Inside the Complicated World of Today’s Sororities and Fraternities—was held at an Orlando nightclub. While circling the premises, I stumbled on what would become a familiar sight: a fraternity man and sorority woman making out in the bushes. A few days later, the woman, named Tatum, stopped by my office. (The students gave me permission to write about them; their names and identifying details have all been changed.) Tatum reported that her friends were teasing her for hooking up with the man, whom she described as someone who “is afflicted with the double curse of being unattractive and socially awkward.” If you aren’t interested in him, I asked, why kiss him? The woman sighed and chalked her decision up to desperation: “I wanted to hook up with someone, and he was all that was left.” Tatum’s insistence that her hookup partner literally constituted her only option for straight romance made me laugh, until I reviewed the guest list and saw that approximately two-thirds of the party guests were straight women. On one level, the party’s gender imbalance made sense, but on another, the math simply didn’t add up.
Wander around the grounds of many colleges and universities in America and you will encounter no shortage of women. Cisgender female students outnumber their cisgender male counterparts in nearly all sectors of undergraduate higher education today. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Colleges and universities opened their doors to women in stages, and some of the biggest dominoes to fall—Princeton, Yale, and the University of Virginia—were among the most recent. Many of the institutions that went coed during the first wave of integration had significantly higher male enrollments throughout most of the first half of the 20th century. During the 1930s at Cornell, for example, the ratio was 3 men to 1 woman. During the same period, the sex ratio at the University of Michigan was 2-to-1.
While the sex ratio imbalance was visible on all coed campuses, it was even more pronounced at then-rural institutions like Penn State, where male students outnumbered their female cohorts in the 1930s by a ratio of 6-to-1. While his colleagues debated the merits of coed classrooms, Penn State sociologist Willard Waller observed that the skewed sex ratio meant that men had to work hard for love at his university, regardless of how ideal the specimen.
Waller’s research methodology has since been called into question, but his observation that gender imbalance affects romance customs found solid theoretical grounding 40 years later in the Guttentag-Secord theory, which is named after the Harvard psychology professors who developed it. This theory holds that the gender that constitutes the numeric minority inherently has more partner options and thus controls the script of romantic and sexual relationships. Historically speaking, when women have held this position of power in dating culture, they have leveraged it to promote the formation of monogamous bonds.
Since sex ratio theory privileges the less populous gender, the first generation of female college students should have been overrun with male suitors. Proving that every rule has an exception, this largely wasn’t the case, as women were seen as intruders in male space whose presence in the classroom had a feminizing effect. Cultural change and increased educational and professional access for women spurred by the suffrage, women’s liberation, and civil rights movements helped push the campus sex ratio closer to equilibrium. The number of women attending college increased in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1994, the sex ratio was balanced at 50-50. In the almost 30 years since, the gap has widened in the opposite direction. Today there are about 40 men for every 60 women on many college campuses. This may not sound like a significant disparity until you frame the numbers in the way that economics and business journalist Jon Birger does. Specifically, when we convert ratio to a more familiar mathematical form, percent, we see that a 40-60 sex ratio means that there are 50 percent more women than men on today’s average campus. This number has an underrecognized but monumental effect on all facets of the college experience, including, and especially, students’ social lives.
My institution, Rollins College (a small, four-year liberal arts college in Winter Park, Florida), is on the same 40-60 sex ratio list as the University of Georgia, the University of California–Los Angeles, James Madison University, New York University, Boston University, the University of North Carolina−Chapel Hill, and a multitude of other campuses. The sex ratio imbalance across institutions of higher education in America is fundamentally changing the contours of the campus relationship dynamics for both women and men. If college men are not asking their female classmates to go out to dinner and a movie, what, might you ask, does a straight male student’s love life look like on today’s campus? That varies according to campus, social group, and individual, of course, but when asked to recount the details of their previous weekend’s social calendar, here is what three white Rollins fraternity members from different chapters professed to have been up to.
Tom, a tall and gregarious senior from New York City, accepted an invitation to attend a sorority semiformal with his close friend Molly, whom he’s known since his first year and with whom he engages in frequent noncommittal hookups. Once Tom arrived at the party, he was delighted to discover that instead of bringing men to the event as dates, many of Molly’s sorority sisters had either attended the event solo or brought a woman friend, making the sex ratio of the room approximately 1 man to 2 women. Once the alcohol started flowing and everyone had downed a few, Tom admitted that “things got pretty wild.” Reports differ on what exactly transpired. According to Molly, Tom “stuck his tongue down the throats of five or six of her friends.” Tom insists he only hooked up with three.
Ryan’s fraternity threw a small invite-only house party at the apartment of one of its members. Although the third-year business major from Miami wasn’t personally in the market for a random hookup, Ryan was committed to helping his roommate and fellow fraternity brother find love—or at least have sex. As the party got going, Ryan did a quick head count of attendees. What he discovered—that there were 20 fraternity men and over 30 women in the house—boded well for his roommate. The next morning, Ryan checked in on his friend via text. In response to his query about how things went, Ryan received a single-word text response: “Sexcess.”
Parker, a second-year student from Kansas City, had to get up early on Monday morning for his internship at a local insurance firm, so he made plans to spend Sunday afternoon hanging out with some of his buddies at a local sports bar with the intention of calling it an early night. At the bar, he ran into Madison, a communications major from Atlanta, who was part of his extended fraternity and sorority friend group. After chatting for a few minutes, the two made vague plans to “maybe hang out at some point in the future.” An hour after arriving home, Parker texted Madison and invited her over to his house to “Netflix and chill.” Madison promptly declined the coded offer for casual sex. Parker shrugged his shoulders and texted back, “np; mb next time” (no problem; maybe next time). He then scrolled through his phone’s contact list until he landed on another prospect. “Netflix and chill?” he typed.
If research tells us that most college students aren’t hooking up all that often, the self-reported nature of these stories draws their factual accuracy further into question. But whether the alleged romantic escapades played out exactly as the men described them doesn’t really matter; it’s precisely because any hookup story could be partially true that allows all hookup stories to be taken seriously.
While the landscape of college hookup culture has been fashioned into something of a straight male fantasy, according to a group of female students who run in the same crowd as Tom, Ryan, and Parker, this romantic terrain turns college men into so-called fuckboys.
Sociologists offer a less crude explanation of the situation. Using data from a survey of 1,000 straight, female American college students, professors Jeremy Uecker and Mark Regnerus showed that on campuses like Rollins, where women make up a higher proportion of the student body, women reported going on fewer traditional dates, were less likely to have boyfriends, and engaged in more hookups with more men.
My anecdotal account of the form that hookup culture takes at Rollins is buttressed by qualitative data compiled by researchers at Indiana University– Bloomington. Between 2004 and 2008, professors Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton tracked a cohort of 53 female students throughout the entirety of their undergraduate tenure. All the women in their study lived on the same floor of a campus residence hall during their first year, and to get a comprehensive and nuanced view of how their personal and academic lives unfolded, Hamilton moved in alongside them. One of the things that Armstrong and Hamilton discovered and wrote about in Paying for the Party was that many college women see men the same way that men see them—namely, as sexual objects, ephemeral playthings, and forms of entertainment and amusement.
Since the publication of Armstrong and Hamilton’s research in 2013, the buzz about women’s engagement in hookup culture has grown into a chorus of voices that catalog the ways that women are mobilizing hookup culture to serve their own ends. Indeed, one of the upsides of living in a society where women have autonomy over their sexual lives is that it opens up opportunities for women to pursue their own sexual desires. Specifically, when women and men are free to follow the same romantic script (i.e., hookup culture), researchers notice that they pursue similar lifestyle pathways after graduation in that they choose to privilege their careers over romantic relationships.
Although hookup culture has benefits and drawbacks for both genders, sociologists don’t see the embracing of hookup culture by today’s college women as a sign that sex ratio theory has been either rendered irrelevant or has gone off the rails. Rather, many, including sociologist Lisa Wade, see it as an adaptation to a social environment that women don’t have the power to control or change. While straight college women may not be looking to pair up with the intent of settling down at the rate they used to, sex ratio theory posits the uncomfortable hypothesis that some women are choosing this course, in part, because there aren’t other options. To put it bluntly: Even if a straight college woman on a 40-to-60 campus wants a serious boyfriend, there might not be a whole lot of men raising their hands to volunteer for the job. Women who attend universities with more equal sex ratios often don’t have it any easier because the population who controls the campus social scene systematically manipulates party demographics to create a hookup culture where numerically, there shouldn’t be one.
The gender imbalance at Rollins explains why there will be more women than men in attendance at all-campus functions. But the skewed ratio at the fraternity and sorority party Tatum and I both attended didn’t make sense when situated within the demographic context of the national Greek-letter community. According to the trade associations that white fraternities and sororities are members of—the North American Interfraternity Conference, or NIC, and the National Panhellenic Conference, or NPC—there were a combined 750,000 active fraternity and sorority members on North American campuses during the 2017–18 academic year. Out of this number, the number of men and women was roughly split down the middle. While the gender breakdown was basically even, how white fraternities and sororities structure themselves on college campuses differs in a small but enormously important way.
Before 2003, white sororities didn’t have enrollment caps and quotas. Each chapter could admit as many or few members from an applicant pool as its current members wanted, resulting in a campus Greek-letter community with chapter sizes all over the board. While there were certain benefits to this model—total control over one’s membership population being chief among them—the lack of an umbrella admissions policy threatened to breed divisiveness among the organizations by allowing the growth of a few supersize chapters that would consume competition while permitting the exclusion of individuals from the broader Greek community who wanted to join a fraternity or sorority but weren’t invited to join these specific groups. In a move designed to promote greater inclusivity, the 26 sororities belonging to the NPC switched to a supply-and-demand admissions model. In its most basic sense, what each campus sorority community does is take the number of women who sign up to participate in sorority recruitment that year and divide that number by the number of campus organizations. While a woman may not gain admission to her first-choice house, exceptional circumstances aside, this system greatly improves the odds that she will be placed in a house. This also means, by extension, that all the sorority chapters on any given campus have roughly the same number of members. In a phone conversation, then-NIC spokesperson Todd Shelton told me that NIC member fraternities didn’t actively reject the idea of adopting a similar membership quota system as much as they didn’t see a need to seriously consider it. As a result, it’s possible to have a fraternity chapter with as few as a dozen members on the same campus with one that has several hundred. The commitment to autonomy by white sororities and fraternities on this issue is strange, given the extent to which these groups intermingle and interact.
The unwillingness of the NPC and the NIC to consider the implications of having different membership models means that no one is paying attention to how uneven fraternity chapter sizes affect the nature of the fraternity and sorority social scene. Even while acknowledging that they are part of a larger Greek-letter community, the complete body of fraternity and sorority chapters rarely come together to do things as a group unless they are forced to. The primary form that interaction between groups takes is through mixers, a vague and amorphous term that refers to everything from pumpkin-carving contests and cupcake baking to pool parties and paddleboarding outings. In the spirit of avoiding cliquishness and promoting intergroup relations, many schools’ student-run NPC and Interfraternity Council, or IFC, governing boards require each sorority and fraternity chapter to socialize formally with each other at least once per school year. What this means for a community with uneven demographics is that every time a fraternity “mixes” or pairs up with a sorority for an event, there usually will be more women than men at the event. At a growing number of schools, the numeric difference between the genders is measured not in tens, but hundreds. The average IFC fraternity chapter size at the University of Texas at Austin during the spring 2022 semester, for example, was 101, while the average NPC sorority had a whopping 231 members. In 2019, there were 5,516 women spread across 19 NPC sororities and 2,726 men spread across 26 IFC fraternities at the University of Georgia, making the average number of women in each sorority 290, compared with 105 for each fraternity. While a mismatch of male and female partygoers doesn’t necessarily guarantee that hookups will occur, the sex ratio theory has taught us that it increases the odds that they will.
While white sororities’ well-meaning attempt to be fair to women creates a dating milieu that is markedly unfair to them, fraternities have a long history of engineering circumstances that tip the scale even further in men’s favor. In the 1930s, Waller observed a pervasive culture of “petting” (a mid-20th-century term that refers to sexualized kissing and touching that includes, in its most expansive form, nonpenetrative forms of sex) within the fraternity and sorority community at Penn State. This was strange because the college’s sex ratio at the time was 6-to-1, and because of this, it should have created a dating script that privileged monogamy over casual sex. After digging around a little bit, Waller discovered what was going on: Fraternity members were artificially manipulating the sex ratio to give men a numeric advantage. They did this by prohibiting first-year members from dating coeds, limiting nonmember male access to fraternity parties, and cultivating a culture of social ranking and prestige that made dating anyone other than a fraternity member a form of social suicide. Through blackballing their competition and making the social status of women contingent upon their association with a small group of men, fraternities successfully engineered a dating culture that rendered the sex ratio theory impotent.
The genius of this maneuver did not go unnoticed by subsequent generations of fraternity men, and long after the campus sex-ratio tide turned in their favor, they continued the practice. Not surprisingly, the current heirs of these strategies are more than a little reluctant to give them up. After all, evening out the playing field does nothing to benefit them but conversely creates an environment where they must exert more effort to generate a romantic encounter. This is opposed to now, where, in the words of Tatum, “the only thing a guy needs in order to get in a girl’s pants is a pulse.”
This is obviously an overstatement, but in some cases, not by much. The fraternity chapter I worked with at Rollins kicked off the spring semester every year by hosting a “darty” (day party) on the shores of an alligator-infested lake. Urban legend has it that when the developers of Disney World were building the theme park in the 1970s, they collected the reptilian residents living in the area’s boggy marshland and relocated them to said lake, which is just 20 miles up the road from the college. Even the biggest skeptic of the tale doesn’t have to venture far along Lake Jessup’s shoreline to transform into a believer. Alligators are everywhere: sunbathing on the beach, watching motionless with eyes just above the surface, and clustered in groups at the base of large trees with their heads tilted back and massive jaws gaping wide open toward the sky—especially in the spring, when the eggs of the various bird species that live in the trees begin to hatch and the newborn chicks embark upon their first flights. For the alligators, it’s almost too easy; the baby birds literally just drop into their mouths.
During the 2018 darty, a different form of opportunism took place. The event began when two buses arrived and expelled their contents—about 30 men from one fraternity and roughly 80 women from multiple sororities. The group spent the next few hours drinking, dancing, and being warned by bartenders to keep a safe distance from the gators. For Corbin, a portly and affable senior from New Hampshire, this event marked his fourth trip to the lake. The luster of the experience had started to wear off but not so much that it dampened the memory of his first time around: “Coming here for the first time, it’s just you, your fraternity brothers, and all of these women,” he told me. “So many that it’s almost overwhelming. And then you realize: They are all here for you.” Perhaps sensing that his last statement sounded bad, he quickly corrected himself. “They are all here because of you.”
Corbin’s tenure in his fraternity evolved from party attendee in year one to party organizer by years three and four. An avid golfer, Corbin found in the sport an apt metaphor for the overarching goal of the event: “You always aim to tee it up for yourself, you know? You want at least a 1-to-1, but obviously we prefer it to be higher.” For Corbin, having more women than men at the annual party is a win-win situation. Women, he claims, feel comfortable and thus safe when there are more of their kind around. Of course, perception does not always align with reality. Regardless of how things pan out for the women in attendance, the upside of their sheer number for the fraternity men is that the scenario significantly increases the chance that they will have sex. At the lake party, a guy’s odds of getting laid were, in Corbin’s words, “astronomical,” and not just because of the sex ratio disparity and implied sense of obligation, but also because of the bus ride home.
The sheer number of passengers crammed onto the buses made it necessary for women to sit on fraternity men’s laps during the 30-minute ride back to campus. The story that Corbin told me about his bus ride home—and the events that transpired afterward—follows the same rote plotline as the sexual tales told by other members of his fraternity community: college boy has his pick of romantic partners and, when given the opportunity, chooses them all. In this case, too, all the red flags (chief among them the fact that drunk fraternity members aren’t the most reliable of narrators) that signal that his story might not be wholly true are overshadowed by the possibility that parts of it might be. According to Corbin, he kissed and fondled the breasts of the woman who was seated on his lap (“Woman No. 1,” as he called her) on the bus ride back to campus. Unfortunately, the two were separated in the push-and-shove chaos that ensued upon arrival. Corbin made a half-hearted attempt to locate Woman No. 1 in the crowd, but, in the process, he fell into step with and started talking to “Woman No. 2.” He ended up walking this woman back to her apartment, “where one thing led to another.” In the awkward aftermath of the encounter, Corbin excused himself on the pretense that he had to attend to a prior commitment. That commitment was stopping by Woman No. 1’s place, where the couple “finished what they started.”
Schools with 40-60 sex ratios aren’t the only places where you will find fraternity members manipulating the law of supply and demand to serve their own interests. The same thing is happening at universities where male students far outnumber female students. Nicole and Elizabeth are second-year sorority members at 58-to-42 Purdue. They report that the men in fraternity chapters will routinely invite five to six sorority chapters to a function and then “want us to compete for them.” They attended the parties as first-year students because the social scene was new and exciting but have since stopped attending because after a while “it gets annoying.” Amanda is a third-year student at 65-to-35 Rochester Institute of Technology who told me that she arrived on campus feeling empowered by the knowledge that she had the upper hand in the romance department. “The boys all know that women have the ability to be more selective,” she told me. Although she attended fraternity parties with the confidence of knowing that she could have her pick of men, Amanda was all too aware of the ways that fraternity men tried to manipulate the sex ratio in their favor. In addition to barring entry to outside men, older fraternity members excluded younger members from socializing with female guests by making them serve as doormen, bartenders, bouncers, DJs, and designated drivers. Amanda’s view of the last group was mixed. While she appreciated the fraternity’s assistance in getting to and from their parties safely, she learned the hard way that giving her contact information to one fraternity member (by requesting a pickup/drop-off by text) was tantamount to giving it to all of them.
Rose was a rising senior at Duke (55-to-45) when I spoke to her about her experience in her university’s Greek system. When she was in her second year, she and a group of her sorority sisters attended a fraternity mixer. When they arrived, they were surprised to find a lot more men than women in the room. After a few minutes, Rose asked her friend, who was playing the part of DJ, if she could change the music. The man said sure and pointed her to the playlist on his cellphone. When she got on the phone, she discovered a bunch of messages in the fraternity’s group chat. One of the messages said, “The sex ratio is way off. We have to get more girls.” Rose confronted her friend about the comment, and his dismissive response—“You just saw something that you shouldn’t have seen”—infuriated her. Reenacting for me what happened next, Rose said she told her sorority sisters, “I’m going, because he acts like his fraternity is a sanctified space. I have no interest in being anyone’s ratio.” Rose reported that the fraternity men got upset when she and her friends left the party, but later “we got all these apology messages in an attempt to fix relations between the organizations.”
A few years ago, Sean Hernandez, an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, was people-watching from his fraternity house’s balcony and noticed something that struck him as strange: Despite being in the heart of fraternity row, all the individuals coming into and out of the fraternity houses were female. One explanation for this has to do with a controversial policy held by all Panhellenic sororities that prohibits alcohol consumption inside sorority houses. This rule—which chalks its necessity up to liability concerns and insurance regulations—means that any social get-together involving alcohol (which is pretty much all of them) is displaced to fraternity houses or third-party venues. The cost of renting an off-campus space to host parties (and shouldering the liability on their own) is what keeps sorority women from turning the tables and inviting five fraternities to their next mixer.
NIC fraternities have the same liability concerns, and until recently were content to accept the additional risk and added insurance costs to keep throwing parties. In an interview with the authors of The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses, Atlantic journalist Caitlin Flanagan noted that the second most common type of insurance claim against the fraternity industry is for rape. She continues: “The more you supervise the fraternities, the more you establish a legal duty of care. The national administrations of the fraternities don’t closely supervise the individual chapters for the same reason.” In 2018, in response to an ongoing pattern of alcohol-related deaths and skyrocketing insurance premiums, the NIC banned consumption of alcohol that is above 15 percent alcohol by volume, or just about everything except beer, wine, and malt beverages, in fraternity houses. While the NIC’s hard-liquor ban moves fraternity and sorority alcohol policies closer together, the NPC’s “no tolerance, no alcohol” rule keeps fraternity row as the de facto campus party headquarters. A 2021 research study revealed what we already knew: Underage college women who want to drink but don’t have fake IDs have very few options other than fraternity parties for where to get and consume alcohol without risking arrest or disciplinary action from their college or university.
At USC, the differences between the sorority and fraternity alcohol policies alone didn’t sufficiently explain to Hernandez why women were doing so much work to attract male attention when the script crafted by the university’s 52-48 sex ratio suggested that they shouldn’t have to. This prompted Sanchez to take up the question in his master’s thesis. The results from his survey of USC’s Greek-letter community substantiate what students have told me: Fraternities engineer sex ratio imbalances by instituting creative mechanisms of male population control. Like their peers at Purdue and RIT, fraternity men at USC restrict access to their social events for unaffiliated men. At the same time as they exclude potential competitors from their parties, fraternities also further manipulate the sex ratio in their favor by opening their party doors to unaffiliated women students and multiple groups of sorority women.
Even with the numbers stacked against them, women are not in such oversupply at USC that their individual stock should be devalued. This especially goes for the campus’s most desirable women—those who, by virtue of their membership in top-tier organizations, have accrued the most social capital and greatest number of partner options. While it would make sense that women from less prestigious sororities or those occupying lower rungs of the social ladder would hook up more often and with more partners to preserve their status and relationship with men, Hernandez didn’t find this to be true. A 2017 research study of hookup culture at an elite liberal arts university yielded the same results. Specifically, what Hernandez and the researchers discovered was that the most coveted women hook up at roughly the same rate as women lower down on the popularity totem pole. While many factors play into this, the numbers suggest that they have no other choice. The oversupply of women means that hooking up has become a requirement for preserving their relationship status with fraternity men. Put another way, the informal romantic code within USC’s fraternity and sorority social life is “hook up or get out.” By manipulating their guest lists so that women always outnumber men at their house parties, fraternity members try to make women disposable. But even the best ideas don’t always go as planned; in the rest of my book, The Benefits of Friends: Inside the Complicated World of Today’s Sororities and Fraternities, I reveal how some sorority women are fighting back by banding together and restructuring the campus social scene so that the sex ratio works in their favor.
From The Benefits of Friends: Inside the Complicated World of Today’s Sororities and Fraternities by Jana Mathews.