A fantasy world where frat formals aren’t scary

| Senior Scene Editor

Dear Katy,

A guy I know invited me to his fraternity’s out-of-town formal next weekend. I want to go with him, but I feel like there’s an expectation to sleep with him if I do, and I’m not comfortable with that. What should I do?

—Dubious Date

Dear Double D,

‘Tis the season, baby. The time of year when some fraternities have out-of-town formals in places like Chicago and Nashville, Tenn., and non-fraternity members are generally asked to come with. It’s a weekend of sight-seeing, drinking, dancing and fun times, or so I’ve been told. There’s an issue that keeps coming up with out-of-town fraternity formals, though—one that Student Life even commented on in 2010. The main idea is that out-of-town fraternity formals are—by nature—accompanied by pressuring expectations.

I’d like to briefly explore this idea of “expectations” because I think it’s important to discuss the reasons behind them to effectively and preemptively deter them. And, just be clear, none of these expectations are guaranteed to go away, even if you do everything in your power to remedy them.

Fraternity formals are expensive. The total cost for one individual fraternity member to go to formal can sometimes deter their attendance alone completely. And in most cases, bringing a date doubles the burden. That’s not to say that formal dates haven’t paid for their portion of the cost in the past, but I, personally, have never heard of that occurring. It’s incredibly feasible to pay for your portion of expenses, but it’s not common enough of an occurrence to eliminate the expectation that is associated with it.

By having the norm be that the “date” attends for free, this date has found themselves in an unequal power dynamic. It is so much harder to say no to someone who has just paid for you to go on a mini vacation, rather than to say no to someone you just happen to be on a date with. This concept of “owing” them—and then, them using this “debt” to pressure you—is a form of coercing someone into favors (or sex) after not being explicit that this “gift” of an invitation has some strings attached. This is inherently nonconsensual. If the expectation is that you go to Nashville with this person, and on this trip you share a bed and have sex, it’s in everyone’s best interest that the date knows, and is comfortable with that, beforehand. If paying for formal is your way of trying to get me into bed with you, it’s in my best interest to know that you’re doing that—instead of just inviting me on a friendly trip where we platonically get away for the weekend with our close, mutual friends. That way, both parties know what they want out of the weekend and can act and react appropriately, whether that be accepting or refusing an invitation or having a good and healthy clarifying conversation. Not to say that this means consent doesn’t need to happen that night, nor that it can’t be taken away, but that there’s a greater chance of consensual interactions if both partners understand the expectations of the other before getting to the hotel where they are in most cases sharing a bed, or at least, a room.

This leads to the second expectation of sharing a bed. Dates are generally assigned to a bed with their formal date. To have this changed—or to find a way to not sleep with your date—requires reorganization, conversations and sometimes just dumb luck that the other people sharing the other bed in your room also don’t want to share a bed, and you are comfortable sleeping with one of them instead of the person who invited you. It requires a level of involvement in room organization—something that is in control of the fraternity. Yes, it’s possible, but it requires confrontation and involvement that would be easily avoided if dates were simply involved in the rooming assignment. A Google Sheet shared with all parties where you got to pick your roommates that prompts a conversation prior to filling it out? Seems simple enough to me. Or let’s even say some formal organization, where dates ALWAYS paid for their portion and if they didn’t want to do that—for whatever reason—they had to privately reimburse each other; roommates were picked as a collective (requiting) conversations; setups were discouraged or even prohibited unless mandatory expectation-setting conversations were facilitated; and these conversations were not only expected for set-ups.

Screen Shot 2018-03-21 at 11.45.33 PMIllustration by Josh Zucker

That’s just what I think, though.

To (finally) answer your question, I think a conversation is 100 percent needed in your case, before you say yes. It sucks that you may have to be the one to initiate it, and there are definitely things that can be changed to make this easier for you. But regardless, it needs to occur. Offer to pay for your portion, find someone else going who you would be comfortable sharing a bed with (if that person exists), ask them about rooming and express wanting to sleep with someone you’re comfortable with on the trip (It’s an easy way to say “I don’t want to have sex with you” rather than saying, “I don’t want to have sex with you”). Make it clear that you’re doing this, and asking these questions, for both of y’all’s benefit. If they respond with, “Of course, thank you for talking to me. I love those ideas; I’m just so excited to spend a weekend with you regardless of where we sleep. Thanks for offering to pay; that takes a lot off my shoulders”, then I think you can be comfortable with saying yes.

If they don’t pass this test with flying colors, consider not going. If this person can’t understand where you’re coming from—or can’t accept that you’re not into them in that way—then they don’t deserve to take you as their formal date. Yes, you’re missing out on a bomb weekend, but remember that it won’t be nearly as fun if you’re not comfortable, and you can easily create a weekend like this with people you do trust, if you plan it yourself.

Try not to think of it as a free trip you’re turning down. Think of it as a trip that might not have monetary costs but has potential emotional and mental costs that are not worth the reward of simply going out of town. Seeing the Bean in Chicago is not a worthy trade-off for feeling pressured and uncomfortable with someone who already knows full well what you are comfortable with. If they can’t respect your requests and can’t have a conversation, go to Nashville bars with your best friends or participate in a ludicrous Chicago Bean Facebook invitation. Formal is not the only way to do these fun things.

I know it’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. But having this conversation, and forcing the question beforehand, will potentially make this trip what you want it to be: fun, carefree and an escape from the soul-crushing academic life of Washington University. If you expect the expectations, destroy them. This doesn’t mean something romantic can’t happen while you’re there, but it means that if it does, BOTH of you can be on an equal playing field, and BOTH of you can feel comfortable.

You are strong. You are independent. You are worth a conversation. Have it.