6 P.M. My fixer, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Southern California, texts me saying she no longer feels "safe" or "comfortable" with our plan (to keep her anonymous, we'll call her "Cindy").
We were going to crash a frat party, hang out, and see what happens. Just a quick anthropological jaunt into the crude and increasingly vexing mating rites of college Greeks.
Getting access to frat parties as a young female is simple. The only requirements are a school ID card and a plucky attitude. All the USC frats and sororities are crammed on to a residential block so if we strike out getting into one house, we could easily scamper over to another.
But tonight, Cindy informs me, the parties are being held off the row. A few years ago, the University put a moratorium on parties during Rush Week in a bid to refurbish the University's image. There were too many students being transported to the local ER room for drinking and fighting; the legal liability of butt-chugging related deaths grew too high, and the extra security foot patrol on the row was getting costly. With Rush Week officially over, the parties could resume.
"The frats are chartering buses to pick women up from the houses and then they are driving them to a secret location," Cindy texts. "How can we leave if we don't know where we are? I don't even like to drink and I don't feel safe."
I tell Cindy that I have pepper spray and a stun-gun in my purse and we can take a taxi home the second we feel threatened.
It's a hard "no" from Cindy.
I'll have to get in on my own.
As I squeeze into a slightly tacky, form-fitting dress purchased from Guess for a failed hook-up back in 2009, I realize this is more than a bad idea—it's a dangerous one. I call a few people to tell them where I will spend the night, and then I head towards frat row, minor weapons stashed in my handbag.
7:30 P.M. I have never attended a frat party before. Even in the waning years of high school, when being invited to a college party was an enticing offer, frats were always unappealing. The testosterone and booze weren't the problem. As a "fast girl," I coveted liquor and older boys, but frat boys? What sort of man wanted to participate in a reactionary, retrograde institution during college—a time specifically defined by boundary busting and personal freedom? Why on earth would you willingly join an hierarchical apparatchik that involved hazing and paying dues? Simply to codify business relationships with former Greeks at the Chamber of Commerce? Tribalism, school pride, and sex in shitty bunk beds. No thanks.
7:45 P.M. I'm the most interested in tracking the goings-ons of Pi Kappa Alpha, also known as PIKE. Partly because of a short video clip that surfaced on social media in 2015. Shot on a smart phone, the clip shows a seemingly intoxicated woman performing oral sex on a man while he asks her, "What's the best fraternity at MSU?"
The woman in the video does not respond to the man's question. When asked again, mid-fellatio, she responds, "PIKE."
I hope I can spot a party bus and trail the vehicle to a secret location. Given the air of secrecy I'm half expecting venetian masks, Opera-based passwords, and well-built men in velvet capulets offering me molly. The evening is feeling very Kubrick-y so far, which shows you how little I know about frat boys.
I recalibrate my expectations from an Eyes Wide Shot orgy once I drive passed the Yoshinoya at the start of Greek Row. The row is crammed with creamy McMansions embellished with neon Greek letters and neoclassical porch columns; it looks like an upscale Daytona Beach; frothy with stoked coeds in BeBe dresses, Marciano halter tops, and toe smashing stilettos
All the houses are lit up with groups of young girls, beautiful with sticky frosted lips and glossy heels, congregating on the lawns for last minute selfies and "woooo"-ing. Some of the women were instructed to wear formal evening dresses while others are skipping down the row in teeny denim shorts, brick red flannel shirts and mangy Chucks. The buses, about 15 of them, are stationed around the block, instead of secrecy the mood is open, giddy and electric.
I find the PIKE house. The lights are out. No one is there. "PIKE is doing some next level shit tonight," I hear one girl titter to her friends.
8:30 P.M. Like a high-school fire drill, but hornier, the doors of various fraternity houses burst open and out pour giddy waves of co-eds. The air is frenetic. I am finally seeing the frat brothers emerge, the matadors set to conquer this impending sex fiesta.
The brothers largely resemble an army of zygotes outfitted in Express for Men slacks. While there are few powerfully built guys with strong jaw lines, most of the brothers are like changelings, caught trapped in a liminal state between puberty and a nascent adulthood. Many are downright elfin.
It's the girls who have started to seize on the dark power of sex. With plunging necklines and iridescent eye make up and clinging dresses just half and inch longer than that of a streetwalker, the girls appear more adult, possessed, some even achieve glamor.
9:00 P.M. I follow the frat whose clothes seem the most expensive, hoping that they will go to some swank location in the Hollywood hills where daddy's hush money could blot out any indiscretion.
Hanging out in line for the bus, hearing the excited chatter, watching the sexes split into curious but separate camps, surrounded by the volley of exuberant compliments "I love your dress!!!", and "so stoked, bro!!" I realize I have been here before.
This is all very familiar.
This is prom night.
The kids are all jazzed to dress fancy and go out in a metropolitan city without the looming presence of teachers or parents. Barely of legal age, going to a bar with overpriced drinks whilst wearing uncomfortable shoes is considered an exotic treat instead of the chore it becomes post-college.
The visage of a prickly testosterone gauntlet where a girl could get seriously hurt if she let her guard down started to melt into something, less nefarious—wholesome even.
My pepper spray now feels ridiculous.
But then again no one is drunk yet.
9:30 P.M. I tail the bus to the outer edge of Hollywood. We stop on Wilshire Blvd next to old art-deco buildings that used to be high end department stores in mid-century Los Angeles but are now home to Rite Aid and Baja Fresh. The bus lets out about 70 USC students in front of a mid-range sports bar that usually plays soccer games and hosts gay bingo. I get in line and no one seems to notice me except the doorman who shoots me a weird look when he checks my ID and sees I'm ten years older than my hyper compatriots.
When the drinking starts things get a little more boisterous. Couples are sucking down blue tinged liquid and doing tequila shots to 'Niggas in Paris'. Everyone here is very white. This does not prevent them from rapping, loudly. There's some sexually suggestive dancing but it's mostly done in the jolly spirit of YOLO. Whatever mood anthemic, over-orchestrated Black Eyed Peas songs are supposed to create, it is happening here tonight.
Throw your hands up.
9:45 P.M. There's a no camera, no tweeting, no phone policy tonight. The frat wants to keep the secret vibe going on. I don't want to blow my cover and get kicked out—or further isolated into a corner—by asking folks why they are here and what they think about Greek life overall.
No one has offered to buy me a drink or asked me to dance to "Party in the USA" by Miley Cyrus. I am something close to offended. I'm not even getting a lingering glance.
Feeling old and toad-like I slink into the bar and consider: why would girls would put themselves in this strange position? Going out with a group of young, horny guys who are going to spend a lot of money on a party with the hopes that they could have sex with you (or at least do tops and fingers). It seems like a lot of pressure. Then again, if I was in college and someone told me there a was a club of left-leaning writers who enjoy journalism, debate, politics, culture and there would be boys, booze, and fancy dress up parties—would you like to join? I would.
10:00 P.M. Here is a list of times and places I have felt in more sexual danger than I do at this frat party:
- An MMA match in Miami, when hog-shaped men dressed in deep-v shirts for date night with their lacquered girlfriends heckled fighters calling them fags and demanded one fighter be kicked in the balls. They chanted this in unison. Because, I assume, of my short haircut and visible notebook (I was covering the event) I was called a dyke twice. Once by a pig-man. Another by a leathery woman in Tory Birch sandals.
- A New York Subway platform at night.
- The raves I used to attend in the late 90s (I know, ok; I KNOW) where the shitty hardcore music was so loud that if you were to scream because one of the drooling men in billowing denim pants grabbed you, no one would be able to hear your or they would be to whacked out on cat tranquilizers to care.
I may have inadvertently chosen a place where the factors for sexual danger are mitigated. We are in public, the booze costs money and therefore does not flow as freely as it would at a house party, this is a fancy-themed night at the start of a new semester. I assume with frats in the deep South or wherever there is nothing else to do but drink and fail Chemistry, that these sort of occasions could take on a darker, more desperate edge but tonight it's all very polite. It helps that none of the boys are athletes. They are not physically intimidating and not associated with such a deeply corrupt racket such as college sports.
Well, this isn't entirely true.
A few of the boys here, some girls swoon, are swimmers.
11:30 P.M. Newly formed couples are now swaying and soft kissing to Big Sean jams. The are large dance circles where the frat brothers and their ladies are busting goofy dance moves in front of each other. The paper plates with buffalo wings have been picked over and the cheese left over from mini quesadilla hors d'oeuvres is coagulating on the platter. I'm not sure what I'm waiting around for. A racist chant to erupt? Or an act of dubious sexual consent? Some girl with rubbery legs upchucking while the brothers wait for her to collapse into their arms? A spontaneous orgy? I'm not sure what it would prove. Coming off of the UVA gang-rape that never happened and the mounting paranoia around campus sex, you might believe whatever I told you. I could tell you that the atmosphere was heady and malevolent; with the boys pushing for an advantage over each girl, waiting for the moment when their guard was down just enough. I could tell you that frats are calculated rape machines and I felt threatened and fearful while surrounded by them. I suppose it could have morphed into that later on in the night in a bunk bed, before consent was given, or when it was rescinded. But that could be the case whenever there is drinking and men and women. I can just tell you that this was a relatively endearing night of young folks groping at the edges of adulthood.
I try to sneak some pictures of the lip locked couples in the middle of the floor.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. A tall Asian boy with thick textured hair says, "Hey, that's not very nice."
I shrugged. He was right, so I left.