Harvard still has a boys' club problem: Exclusive all-male club claims the very presence of women would put them in danger

Harvard final club doesn’t want to admit women because it could increase “the potential for sexual misconduct”

Published April 13, 2016 5:09PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=2222733'>mjbs</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(mjbs via iStock)

In a letter to the Harvard Crimson about famed 225-year-old all-male final club The Porcellian Club, graduate club president Charles M. Storey protested what he sees as the university’s unfair linking of the club and the problem of sexual assault on campus. His letter read, in part, that the club’s policy of barring guests “greatly reduce[s] the potential for sexual assault” and that “Given our policies, we are mystified as to why the current administration feels that forcing our club to accept female members would reduce the incidence of sexual assault on campus. Forcing single gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct.”

The letter comes in response to a report issued in March by Harvard University addressing the widespread problem of sexual assault and unwanted sexual advances on campus, the culmination of a 2015 survey which found that 31 percent of senior female undergraduates at Harvard college had experienced “nonconsensual sexual misconduct.” The recent report found that “the survey results demonstrate that female Harvard College students participating in Final Club activities are more likely to be sexually assaulted than participants in any other of the student organizations we polled. Other than in dormitories, Final Clubs are the single most likely location for a student to experience a sexual assault (as identified from the list of locations given in the survey). One cannot uncouple the role of alcohol and sexual assault. In addition, the unmonitored nature of Final Club activities, including access to alcohol in settings that may encourage the abuse of alcohol, is undoubtedly an important factor that contributes to their attractiveness as a social option.”

An April 15 deadline has been set for such clubs, which are not officially part of Harvard, to tell school administrators whether they plan to remain single sex.

In response to the study, Vice President Joe Biden spoke out about the problem in an interview with Mic, saying, “Well, I think it indicates that there's a real problem at Harvard, and it's the responsibility of the president of Harvard University and the administration to go in and investigate it, and if it's occurring and they can show that, get rid of the — get rid of those fraternities on campus that are engaged in it.”

It’s hard not to read Storey’s words as an ominous harbinger: that by admitting women, they would be therefore causing so much temptation among their male members that harassment or worse would be inevitable. Far from a rousing defense of the all male clubs, it seems to be an admission that the atmosphere fostered inside them would in fact be hostile to women—and they aren’t prepared to take any steps to alter said atmosphere. Why would they, when they seem to believe it’s their right to close ranks and create whatever kind of lofty, entitled environment they want, regardless of the clear evidence detailed in the report?

The Porcellian Club’s response is in contrast with another all-male Harvard final club, The A.D. Club, which, while not opting to change its status regarding gender, announced that it would institute a sexual assault prevention training and would “liaise with the University to tailor our training program to ensure that we address this matter effectively.” Sure, they may just be paying lip service as a way of avoiding having to accept women, but they are at least admitting there’s a problem and offering their own proposed attempt at a solution. The Porcellian Club, by contrast, is thumbing its fancified nose at the findings.

Here’s how Harvard alum Mattie Kahn described the toxic scene based on her experience as a guest in one of the all-male Harvard final clubs that do admit women: “Even as a woman and an avowed feminist, I can't count how many times I stayed quiet when I saw this ambiguous collegiate dance in action: A girl stands in a corner. A guy faces her, resting one hand on her waist and pressing the other into the wall behind her. When I knew the girl, I tried to assess whether she really wanted to be there—Harvard girls know how to execute the subtlest of nods. When I didn't, I hoped for the best.” She quoted a Harvard senior who said “Men at Harvard aren’t forced to see women as equals.”

There’s a direct parallel between yesterday’s story of Erykah Badu saying schoolgirls’ uniforms should be knee-length to keep them safe and this club trying to work around its chauvinistic, exclusive male-bonding legacy by claiming it’s actually helping the problem of sexual misconduct. Is the logical conclusion of this way of thinking that women should pre-emptively remove themselves from any male-dominated environment in order to protect their safety? Or as one Twitter user suggested, is there a whiff of nostalgia for when women weren’t even on campus at all?

The damning Harvard report’s conclusions point to the fact that the very nature of these all-male clubs, and the corresponding attitudes about women that seem to go with them, are part of the larger problem of sexual misconduct on campus. It concluded, “We also heard reports of deeply misogynistic attitudes, reflected by the long-standing refusal of many Clubs to admit women as members; parties at which the only non-members in attendance were women selected mainly by virtue of their physical appearance; party themes depicting women as sexual objects; competition among members for sexual conquests. In our view, the very structure of the Clubs — men in positions of power engaging with women on unequal and too often on very sexual terms — speaks tellingly to the work ahead of us if we are to create an environment where all students, of all genders, can thrive.”

Given that reality, Storey’s statement is a seemingly canny way of addressing a very real problem, without, of course, actually addressing the root of it at all. It elides all responsibility for what the club, and its tradition of gender exclusion, represents, and offers no concrete suggestions on how to foster a healthier environment for all students. It’s more concerned with the club's legacy and than addressing what’s happening around it on campus and examining its own role. If the best they can offer is that their members are so unprepared to interact with women in the close confines of their tony club that they fear such troubling consequences, that should be reason enough to question why they’re clinging so dearly to tradition—and what kinds of attitudes toward women its members are exhibiting outside the club’s exclusive walls.

Storey went so far as to write “is being used as a scapegoat for the sexual assault problem at Harvard despite its policies to help avoid the potential for sexual assault.” If that were really the case, he may well have pointed to what the specifics of those policies and offered a more hearty explanation other than the “our members will be helpless to resist the proximity of female flesh” one he provided. This seems to be one example of a literal “old boys club” closing ranks and showing both an utter lack of understanding and total disregard for the reality of life on campus for women.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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Campus Sexual Assault Crisis Final Clubs Harvard Harvard University Ivy League Sexism Sexual Assault