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The Price Of Sex At USC

Nathaniel Haas |
February 12, 2015 | 10:24 a.m. PST


(@USC / Twitter)
(@USC / Twitter)


I. The Problem

At the University of Southern California, sex has a price. In economic terms, it is much too low. In consequential terms, it can be much too high. 

Just north of campus is 28th Street, home to most of USC’s Greek System. It contains 4,611 individuals, organized into 21 fraternities and 12 sororities. The Greek system offers many benefits: lifelong friendships, a vast network of future professionals and millions of dollars raised each year for charities like St. Jude and the Red Cross. But, like most organizations, it is not without problems. In recent years, the sororities and fraternities who call the Row home have attracted controversy for alarmingly high rates of alcohol poisoning and sexual assault. In just under three years, the university administration or national chapters have removed three fraternities from USC, and sanctioned many more for various infractions. 

It is a serious mistake to think that a Greek system on any campus is the only place where students drink too much or are sexually assaulted, but three things make the Greek system, particularly at USC, a fitting case for examining problems and solutions to sexual assault. First, it is a well-defined and contained microcosm of broader social life (nearly one in four undergraduates at USC are Greek). Second, it organizes social events that are, at least partially, open to hundreds of non-Greek students to attend. Third, intoxication and sex are likely outcomes of those events. 

For a soon-to-be economist, the questions and answers began late one Friday night on the balcony of a frat house as he watched students stumble drunkenly home down 28th Street’s cracked sidewalks.

i. The Balcony Question

His name is Sean Hernandez, and he is a former frat boy who graduated from USC in May with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics through the Progressive Degree Program. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  

“There is a particular moment when I remember the idea went from zero to something,” Sean told me. “I was sitting on my balcony, and I took a moment to stand up and noticed the individuals walking on the sidewalks were all women.” 

He wondered why the genders were not equally distributed, and whether it was significant for understanding sexual interaction in the Greek system. 

“It gives an experimental window into the idea that women are the resource of the sexual economy,” he said. 

A year after his own late-night observation, Sean started brainstorming ideas for his master’s thesis. He decided to answer the balcony question.

Over 800 campuses across America host Greek letter organizations. Hernandez hypothesized their institutional status and funding from national organizations create sexual economies with a lower price of sex than at other social scenes or campuses without a Greek system. In other words, it is easier to have sex if you are in a system where fraternities pay for parties and where sex is expected. The price of sex includes the cost of booze, DJs and security; the women who come to fraternity parties are expected to return on the investment. Hernandez’s study suggests several insidious consequences of this system that, if unaddressed, can cause the entire structure to come crashing down.

(Hillary Jackson / Neon Tommy)
(Hillary Jackson / Neon Tommy)

Hernandez surveyed 477 members of USC’s Greek System about house rank and sexual habits, plugged their responses into an econometric model and produced a first-of-its-kind insight into the workings of the Greek system’s sexual economy. Though the field of sexual economics is not new, Hernandez’s 90-page thesis is the first comprehensive investigation of a University Greek system from the perspective of the price of sex.

While Hernandez did not examine sexual assault specifically, he did examine the institutions that make consensual sex more likely to occur, and noted that those institutions also reduce the effectiveness of measures taken to prevent nonconsensual sex (rape).

“It seems like those low sex price norms or those institutions are associated with relatively high probabilities of assaults,” he said.

Two assumptions in Hernandez’s study explain the dangerous potential of consensual hookups at Greek system parties to give way to an increased risk of sexual assault.

First, the absence of “sorority-operated gatherings” (except for a small amount of sorority invites at off-campus locations, that usually end up returning to fraternities anyway) makes fraternities the sole source of social events. This results in what Hernandez calls an “oligopolistic model of sexual competition,” and creates a “home turf advantage where men compete all the more vigorously to have sex with women in their fraternity houses.”

Kelly was the president of a sorority at USC from 2013-14, who requested that her name be changed because of her leadership position and the sensitivity of the issue. Over coffee, she tells me she is not surprised by Hernandez’s conclusion that the Greek system works to funnel women into fraternity houses and create a home turf advantage.

“We’re not allowed to have alcohol on our property and we’re not allowed to have boys upstairs in our rooms. So the only place that you can go drink if you live in a sorority house is outside of your house,” Kelly explains. “So where do you go? You go to a fraternity. If you can’t sleep with a boy in your own house, that makes you seek that out somewhere else.”

Sociological research corroborates the connection between male-dominated spaces and sexual assault, including an investigation published by The Harvard Crimson, discussing sexual assault within the infamous Harvard final clubs.

“This environment, in which men undoubtedly control social space, causes a power discrepancy that often plays out in sexual encounters,” wrote Kathleen Goodwin, a Harvard alum who now works as a global financial analyst. “Women, particularly lowerclassmen, recognize that being able to attend these parties and to access alcohol once within them is dependent on the favor of male members.”

Kelly said the same pressure exists at fraternity parties, where admission is controlled to allow more females to enter the party than males.

“When you know there is less guys than there are girls, you feel more like a target because the supply is being controlled,” she said. “You know that they are trying to get as many girls there as possible so they have the choice over who they can get, and not so you get the choice of who you want."

(Hillary Jackson / Neon Tommy)
(Hillary Jackson / Neon Tommy)

Hernandez’s study suggests what other research reveals: that when compared to the non-Greek population, women in sororities are more likely to be sexually assaulted, and fraternity members are more likely to commit assault. In fact, a 2008 study of USC students found that a higher percentage of Greek students experienced sexual touching, attempted penetration and penetration against their will in greater percentages than non-Greek students who lived in University Housing.

These findings were corroborated by a more comprehensive study at the University of Oregon in September 2014, which found that 48.1 percent of Greek females experienced nonconsensual sexual contact, compared to 33.1 percent of non-Greek females. Even more shocking was the study’s finding that Greek females (38 percent) were two times more likely than non-Greek females (15.3 percent) to experience rape or attempted rape.

Lauren is another former USC sorority president, also from 2013-14, who requested anonymity for the same reason as Kelly, and whose name has been changed as a result. As we talked outside her sorority, she told me that behind closed doors, some University officials view the Greek system as a small part of the problem.

“From speaking with administration officials, the Greek system in general is a small minority of the problem of sexual assaults that happen on campus,” she said. “They’re just more publicized because the Row is one big rumor mill.”

When I asked her to elaborate on where she or the administration officials she mentioned perceived the majority of non-row sexual assaults to occur, Lauren demurred. 

“The administration didn't specify where, and I definitely don't want to speculate what communities it is more prevalent in,” she said. 

When it comes to Row policies, Lauren also said the power of fraternities to control how many men enter their parties is so ingrained in Greek culture that some, like her, aren’t bothered by it.

“It’s just really part of it. I’ve never felt uncomfortable because of that reason,” she said.

But the sexual culture of fraternity parties goes beyond the number of men and women who walk through the doors each night. Hernandez’s second assumption in the study is that men want sex more than women, a theory backed up by a wealth of research on “social exchange theory,” the science of examining expectations in human relationships.

In the sexual economy, Hernandez postulated, men demand sex, and females supply it (called “female resource theory”). In other words, because women expect a man to provide something besides just sex (like companionship, or some other desirable trait), and men often don’t, men are more likely to want to get laid. This isn’t necessarily institutional—but speaks to a host of economic, sociological and biological reasons. For example, women are more likely to bear the costs of unplanned pregnancy, increasing the risk of sex and decreasing its appeal. A significant indicator of female resource theory, according to Hernandez, is the Greek system, where fraternities bear most of the cost of social events, which are non-sexual benefits that they expect women to accept in exchange for sex.

Lauren suggested that this conclusion is overly male-centric, and floated the idea that females may be more to blame for the hook-up culture than males.

“If a girl wants to shack than a girl wants to shack, and that is completely her decision and doesn’t have to do with the ratio,” she said. “I really think that it’s definitely taking a male-centric focus, and leaving out the fact that maybe there’s a strong hookup culture because the girls want to hook up a lot.”

But in a male-centric Greek culture, a male-centric focus is warranted. When Hernandez’s study answered the balcony question—why is everyone walking home female?—that is exactly what he found.

ii. The Balcony Question, Answered

According to the study, certain unintentionally created male structures allow sexual assault to happen, not because all members of the structure commit sexual assault, but because the structure makes it comparatively easier for a small number of bad people to succeed in doing bad things. Research suggests that 9 in 10 college rapists are serial in nature, and each offender in college commits six rapes on average. To be clear, these people don’t exist only in the Greek system—and they are certainly a small minority of fraternity populations, but the Greek system in its present state allows them an especially predatory environment to victimize fellow students.

To understand why, consider the three conclusions of Hernandez’s study:

1. The sexual economy is “aristocratic.”

In other words, Hernandez expected higher ranked fraternities to have more frequent sexual interactions with higher ranked sororities. He was right.

2. Fraternities, as leading demanders of sex, maximize sex and minimize expenditure.

This included purchasing parties and avoiding relationship commitments, which fraternities perceive to be negative. By contrast, sororities, as the sole suppliers of sex, seek to minimize sex and maximize fraternity expenditure on gifts, parties and relationships, which they perceive to be positive.

3. The sexual economy is unlike any other economy we are used to.

Hernandez theorized women in top houses should be able to have less sex for a higher price, but he was wrong. The study showed that a sorority’s social status is positively correlated with sexual activity: the better a house is peer-rated, the more “hookups” its members experience.

In plainer terms, it nullifies high-status women’s advantage. According to economic theory, this shouldn’t be the case, but the Greek System even defies conventional wisdom by creating a system of incentives where what should happen does not happen. Think back to the fundamental difference between men (who want sex) and women (who desire resource benefits like relationships).

“If there are many men in queue for a Greek woman’s attention, she should select the one with the highest willingness to pay. In equilibrium, this bidder offers resource like affection and commitment, which is exclusive with the hooking up.”

(Hillary Jackson, Neon Tommy)
(Hillary Jackson, Neon Tommy)
Hernandez says this presents an interesting question: given that status does not increase sex prices for women (women in top sororities hook up even more and get the same amount of welfare), why do women tolerate this?

In economic terms, the answer is nefariously simple: the market power of the demanding fraternities outweighs the market power of the supplying sororities. Not only is an economic system where price does not increase with demand a total anomaly, but a social system where men have more power over sexual decisions than women is discriminatory and reprehensible.

Given the current state of affairs, if the Greek system were an economy, it would be a totally warped one, a problem for several reasons. First, the supplier (a woman) and the good supplied (a woman’s body) are one and the same. The Greek system then becomes an issue more fundamental to sexual violence and women’s autonomy over their bodies than anyone understands. Two, the supply doesn’t “run out.” In the sexual economy, some men use sexual violence to obtain the product by force, a practice that has historically been condoned by society and continues to be condoned tacitly by our institutional failure to address the issue.

In essence, it is a problem we can’t afford to leave unsolved.

II. The Solution

ii. Current Policy: Rearranging The Titanic’s Deck Chairs

There is nothing objectively wrong with the sexual assault policy at USC, but only in the sense that the university is not making the problem worse. The results of Hernandez’s study, however, demonstrate that recent policy reforms merely rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. Where the Greek system is concerned, these reforms still do not scrutinize the system’s structure and its rules.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with fraternities,” Lauren tells me. “I think it has to do with the way we’re brought up. I don’t think it has to do with gender or fraternities or sororities.”

This opinion is not just held by Lauren: in fact, the belief that fraternity houses (and gender, for that matter) don’t deserve special attention is widely accepted, and reflected in USC’s sexual assault policy.

(USC Kappa Kappa Gamma / Facebook)
(USC Kappa Kappa Gamma / Facebook)
An Aug. 27 memorandum from USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett outlined the Fall 2014 “New Initiatives Against Sexual Misconduct.” The Greek-specific initiative, developed in conjunction with student leaders, includes the following three components: (1) education about consent; (2) bystander intervention; and (3) cultural change. Because most human behavior can be explained by incentives and choices, and because Hernandez’s study exposes problems with the big-picture organization of the Greek system, a solution that favors playing within that picture instead of questioning the picture entirely falls terribly short of its goal.

The first new policy, consent education, is a given: if people do not understand what consent is and how to obtain it, they are unlikely to respect it. But consent education only works if an individual intends to obtain it in the first place, and it ignores the rules and institutions that create situations where consent has to be given under dangerous circumstances. Remember the statistic that most rapists are serial in nature, meaning they commit multiple rapes? Regardless of their education, if the Greek System’s power imbalance, which conclusively lowers the price of sex and allows serial rapists a consistent home turf advantage, continues to go unexamined, the rate at which sexual assault occurs will never diminish fast enough to justify the continued existence of fraternities and sororities in the eyes of the administration.

Such a power imbalance can also easily explain the shortcomings of bystander education, the second new initiative. First, if parties are exclusively at fraternities (and parties that are at venues usually end up returning to fraternities, anyway), women experience the same power disadvantages as bystanders as they would as potential targets of sexual predators, meaning that they may not feel comfortable or safe intervening.

Social pressures also reduce bystander effectiveness.

“There is this whole concept that if you see a guy approaching a girl and you know that the girl isn’t necessarily 100 percent cognizant, there is this stigma,” one sorority woman told me. “If you are the girl to go up to the guy, people will assume that you’re a cock blocking bitch.”

When consent education and bystander education fail, current policy does not leave anyone holding the bag. As a corrective, the Greek System must create an environment where consent and bystander education can succeed.

It is for this reason that the borderline vacuous third principle—“cultural change,” represents a dangerously misguided yet popular mantra that has been thrown around by the sexual assault policy wonks: the idea that so-called campus “rape culture” can be fixed by broadly applied doctrine.

Lauren says she opposes Greek-specific reform because “Greeks aren’t the problem. The problem is a general societal rape culture.”

However, the belief that rape culture is equally pervasive across all institutions will prevent successful policies from ever being developed. Why? Culture is an output of particular institutions. A non-institutionalized group cannot have a culture; but rather, culture describes how people adapt to the institutions they are in. In the case of the Greek system, that’s exactly the problem.

It is the explicit thesis of Hernandez’s study that the sexual culture of USC’s Greek system is altered by Greek-specific rules and customs. Thus, any policy that attempts to radically lower sexual assault must deal with the lower price of sex that the Greek system specifically creates.

Lauren and Kelly also both emphasized the need for the university to create a safer space for students to report sexual assaults, so that they can be properly handled. Hernandez suggests another good reason to encourage reporting is the need for data. Evidence of the grossly warped market in favor of male-dominated spaces and a lower price of sex for females could shape policy recommendations.

“If anything, the most valuable part of what we do now is encourage reporting,” Hernandez said. “Forcing people to understand the Row in terms of a skewed market will encourage creative solutions.”

ii. “I Felt Like I Had No Choice.” 

Economists say most human behavior can be explained by incentives, and predicting sexual behavior in the Greek system is no different. It possesses a structure that creates incentives to make the price of sex lower, and that causes sexual assaults to happen at a higher rate than anywhere else.

“The perplexing question is, why do women agree to attend fraternity parties knowing that they are at a ‘sex-ratio disadvantage’?” Hernandez asks, “in other words, that they will, on average, give away more producer surplus?”

The answer is because women have to. To add another water-based metaphor, it is not the baby or the bathwater that is the problem—it’s the bathtub.

According to Hernandez’s study, the probability that a female student at USC hooks up with more than five partners in a semester is 7 percent – and the same for 20 fraternities. 

Consider the low price of sex in the Greek system from the perspective of the incentives offered by fraternities and sororities. One byproduct of these incentives, it seems, is a rise in inter-sorority competition for the limited expenditures that the demanders (fraternities) are willing to provide, and inter-fraternity competition to be the most efficient at attracting women to their parties.

One useful metric for measuring this competition is attractiveness. In sexual econometrics, Body Mass Index (BMI) and self-reported attractiveness were used to determine if high status Greek houses were more sexually-competitive or attractive than low status houses. Evidence for the sororities’ disempowerment appeared in these measurements. While the average BMI of fraternities did not vary between top houses and bottom houses, it did between top and bottom sororities, with top houses having a lower average BMI. While BMI is a major mechanism for competition among sororities, the lack of BMI competition among fraternities shows that they do not need to “compete as rigorously” to convert parties into sex.

The major mechanisms that do exist for fraternity competition are equally as disturbing as BMI imbalances. Hernandez found that fraternity competition is centered on production of many goods, but one in particular stands out: alcohol. Research reviewed by Hernandez demonstrated that alcoholic beverages are both a prominent predictor of hookups and a significant component of the variable costs of fraternity parties. Drunk students hooked up more than sober ones, and alcohol increases hookups not only by lowering inhibitions for sexual encounters but also by giving students an “anticipatory excuse” where they blame their behavior on alcohol.

Ironically, nowhere is the misguided nature of sexual assault policy more evident than in alcohol restrictions. USC regulations that debuted last year prohibited fraternities from serving hard alcohol at parties (now bars only feature beer and wine)—a measure that is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but also prone to backfire.

“They tried, but it didn’t really work,” Kelly said of the hard liquor ban. “It just takes the party into more dangerous areas. People will just pregame harder before, or instead of being in the common areas, everyone goes upstairs to people’s bedrooms to drink hard alcohol, and that’s where the sexual assaults happen.”

The alcohol failure also has a broader application. To target this problem, either we should ban alcohol entirely, a draconian and unrealistic measure, or restructure the Greek system so women can avoid situations where both alcohol and a ratio-skewed home turf advantage are present.

“As part of our ongoing process of improvement, each year I ask a sexual misconduct task force made up of USC representatives from a range of offices to comprehensively review our policies and practices,” outgoing Provost Garrett wrote in the memo announcing new initiatives.

Why then, has this supposed task force never examined these overarching Greek system rules? It is deeply ironic and troubling that while sexual assault is fundamentally about men denying women a choice, efforts to combat sexual assault still don’t alter the lack of macro-level choices in the Greek system: men can still choose who comes to their parties, and sororities still do not have a choice when it comes to having boys over, or having parties in their houses.

“The findings in this hit close to home,” said one member of a USC sorority. “There have been a number of times when I have had sexual relations in a time when I would by choice elect not to, but in a time where I felt like I had no choice.”

It is time to examine recommendations that give women a choice.

(USC Delta Gamma / Facebook)
(USC Delta Gamma / Facebook)

iii. A Way Forward?

For Kelly, part of the reform must come from the sororities.

“The funny thing is, I think the sororities, the international organizations, kind of do it to themselves,” she says.

Research conducted by Hernandez suggests that if sororities held more events, including parties at their houses, rates of sexual assault would be lower. Hernandez’s results indicate sororities could do more to raise the price of sex and reconstruct the already low barriers to hookups. To have parties, sororities should be allowed to have alcohol in their houses. A system that allows them to have men stay the night should be explored.

Such a policy change would also make existing measures like bystander education more effective, as sorority women would likely feel more empowered to stand up for their sisters at a party in their own house. A more thorough investigation of such a policy appeared in the New York Times, which explained that sororities remain hesitant because of “the voluntary policy of each of the 26 sororities in the National Panhellenic Conference to preserve more placid living environments with lower insurance premiums.”

It is darkly ironic that measures like this, which increase the cost of sex and potentially reduce the risk of sexual assault, are set aside on the basis of their expense. Kelly remains undeterred:

“It would equalize the playing field a little more because we could invite whoever we wanted to come here,” she said. “It’s funny that there is still this semi-sexist perception that we can’t even have a drink in our own house or have a boy in my own room. It’s worse than living at my parents’ house.”

Lauren pointed out that the real risk of sexual assault for women at USC leads many women to feel automatically unsafe in spaces where alcohol and strangers are involved. As a result, she said, the sorority house can serve as a safe haven where none of these things are allowed.

“It would take away the safety of being in a sorority house, and I think that’s part of why girls choose to live here,” she said. “You are surrounded by people you know.”

For fraternities, solutions are even more complicated.

“Research also indicates that if fraternities' parties were more open, women would be less prone to exploitation,” Hernandez said. “If the university were able to force fraternities to allow non-fraternity men into the party, this would reduce the ratio of men, increase price of sex and increase welfare,” he said.

Hernandez called such a policy “pretty draconian,” suggesting it would be difficult to enforce and justify. Perhaps, then, policies should be explored that allow fraternities total discretion over who enters their party, so long as they admit an equal number of men and women.

University policy designed to reduce the structural advantage of fraternities in sex pricing will be most successful in reducing sexual assault at fraternity parties. It is the overarching thesis of this article that while those student-enacted and student-focused policies are good, they should supplement policies that directly address the structures in which students exist and socialize.

For Kelly, current policy certainly isn’t working.

“In the Greek system I don’t think they get it—they just use us as a scapegoat, and instead of trying to help us with alcohol problems and sexual assault, they put it on us to deal with,” she said. “I’m the President of my sorority, but these girls are my peers. What gives me more authority than anyone else to deal with sexual assault issues? Because I sat through a DPS training for four hours?”

Too Long, Didn’t Read?

You should. Nothing in these last few words will ever capture the research, the interviews and the recommendations discussed above. With more and more fraternities getting the boot each year, it is mind-bendingly hard to accept the notion that with just some more education and alcohol restrictions, the Row will be here to stay. Every contribution to reform of the Greek system helps, because its current path is one that leads to extinction. 

In line with indicting status quo sexual assault policies, here’s another final thought to stick you with: if the problem is that the price of sex in the Greek system is too low, then kicking fraternities off the Row actually lowers the price even more because it reduces demand. Unless there is very good evidence along the lines of “these fraternities are seriously more sexual assault prone than the others,” might banning them do more harm than good?

To my friends and editors who worked tirelessly to produce the best version of this article, thank you. To those in the Greek system who I know, and those whom I don’t: It is your system to save, and this is my contribution.

Email Contributor Nathaniel Haas here; follow him here.

Editor's Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the number of Panhellenic sororities at USC as nine. This has been amended to reflect the actual number of 12 Panhellenic sororities.



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