The Greater of Two Evils

The outrage against final clubs is misdirected

Harvard College is home to some of the most brilliant students in the world, who should, and usually do, devote themselves to righting the world’s greatest wrongs. But living in the privileged environment of Harvard Square can make trivial problems appear more important than they are. One such problem is the exclusion of women from final clubs, a so-called atrocity that has taken precedence over genuine injustices on this campus and in the broader community.

As every undergraduate knows, the eight all-male final clubs, Harvard’s elite, private-propertied social organizations, gladly allow women to attend their parties but do not accept them as members. This is undoubtedly unfair: It puts female students at the mercy of their male counterparts when it comes to their social lives, and denies them access to the prestige and alumni relationships the clubs offer. Harvard disowned the clubs in 1984, and their alleged sexism is a topic of perennial finger wagging among students and faculty.

But the exclusivity of these glorified frat houses is minor league compared to the serious crimes committed against women at this university. Administrators at the Harvard Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response noted in an interview that about eighty students sought help at their facilities during the 2009-2010 academic year after experiencing rape, sexual assault, or relationship violence, though such incidents are known to be severely underreported. With this sort of thing going on, it’s puzzling why one would notice the admissions practices of final clubs at all.

Some have charged that the clubs are the principal venues of sexual assault on Harvard’s campus, and that this is directly related to the fact that men control them; any such behavior would obviously be grounds for intervention. Final clubs strongly dispute this accusation, but to the extent that it may be true, it seems to ignore the reality that sexual abuse occurs on a massive scale at colleges across the country: U.S. Department of Justice statistics indicate that 20 to 25 percent of female students nationwide are victims of an attempted or completed rape during college. Although no one would deny that whatever sexual assault occurs in final clubs warrants some type of reform, the prevalence of rape elsewhere demands a more fundamental solution than accepting women as members. And it should be primarily sexual misconduct—not the inability of women to enjoy the rights of membership—that motivates calls for reform.

In that sense, it’s troubling to hear Harvard women say that their exclusion from final clubs makes them “second-class citizens,” as one student put it in an interview for a Crimson piece last spring. The same article referred to female final clubs as a “separate but equal” remedy, and argued that the all-male clubs should integrate right away since “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Travel less than two miles east of Harvard Square and you’ll find Transition House, which provides a critical service for people with far greater worries than whether to party at the Fox or the Spee. Since 1975 Transition House has provided emergency shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence. It’s a service in high demand: The 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey reports that about a quarter of American women experience domestic violence during their lives, which may include anything from physical abuse to sexual assault to homicide. Massachusetts is no exception. The National Network to End Domestic Violence reports that during a 24-hour survey last year, battered women’s shelters in the commonwealth served 2,018 victims, including 683 who received housing.

Fortunately, there is government and charitable aid to fund care for many of the victims, but Craig Norberg-Bohm of Jane Doe, Inc., an umbrella organization for battered women’s shelters throughout the state, explained in an interview that “there’s a waiting list everywhere.” During the same 24-hour survey, shelters in Massachusetts denied 301 requests for services due to lack of funds and staff. Resources have been particularly strained in the past two years as a result of the recession. Cambridge’s Transition House reports a thirty percent surge in demand since 2008, which far exceeds its capacity.

The criticism of final clubs isn’t unjustified per se, but it is small minded in light of the genuine abuse women routinely suffer in this very city. A serious discussion of women’s rights in this community—and in this country—would focus on ways to prevent atrocities like domestic violence and sexual assault, not to mention more serious crimes like commercial sex trafficking, rather than how privileged college students spend their Saturday evenings. Unlike the patrons of Transition House, Harvard women have the benefit of the finest education in the world and the potential to succeed beyond most people’s wildest dreams. For them, the all-male clubs are nothing more than a four-year inconvenience.

It would be nice if the final clubs were integrated; it would make the lives of female students a little easier and serve as a prominent symbol of gender equality. But our energies would be better spent finding concrete ways to prevent sexual abuse on college campuses like ours and to improve the living standard of women in abusive relationships who fear for their lives—the real second-class citizens.

Peyton R. Miller ’12 is a government concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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