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A Shot In The Dark

Now that Harvard has buckled down and set its bureaucratic wheels whirring to take rape seriously, the administration is ready to eliminate whatever causes it can identify. Casting its eyes over the usual suspects, it has quickly settled on alcohol as the source of trouble.

Sorry, fellows, but I must ask you to try again. Alcohol contributes to a lot of problems, but it’s also the stuff they use to pack red herrings. If only booze were to blame, we could bottle up a host of social ills by restricting its use. But sexual assault is not something that comes out of kegs. Stupidity is, along with poor vision and reduced physical strength, but these are not things which in themselves lead to rape. Alcohol is a poor excuse, and a prevention plan centered on it will make a poor policy.

No, as any dope knows, the real problem is misogyny—a big word for the ed page, and a hard one to spell. Unlike beer, misogyny is something some people can’t see, and most would prefer not to look for. How can you create a plan to root out something of which there’s a little lurking in every soul? If you thought a dry campus was an impossible goal, try a misogyny-free one. It’s needless to say which I’d prefer, since the choice isn’t likely to come down to these two. When the problem is one of “culture,” I see the administration throwing up its hands and looking for something tangible it can catch between them. But to say it’s cultural is not the same as saying it’s immaterial.

By now it is a truth universally acknowledged—indeed, almost a platitude—that rape and the conditions for its persistence are found within final clubs. Amidst the wood paneling, overstuffed armchairs and dead animals, under the framed letters from presidents and buried in the plush of Persian carpets, it multiplies and thrives. Everybody knows it, and some of those who choose to enter instinctively hold their breath to avoid breathing it in. But pity the fools who expose themselves every day, thinking they are immune.

The attitudes that lead to rape don’t start in college, but it’s here that they spread and come to fruition. The boys in the club mutually reinforce these attitudes—they’re institutionalized by initiation rights and the traditions enshrined in club memory. It starts with male privilege, a phenomenon produced and reproduced by men who feel profoundly alienated from women; it spreads through human contact. Boys come in and pick up the mores. Maybe they’re not all bad kids to begin with—I know they’re not, as some of them were friends of mine, and plenty of them still are. But it only gets worse.

Membership in such a club changes you. How can it not? You’ve been selected out of the Harvard mob to join with a group of boys who self-segregate, preferring each other to the company of women and the non-elite—and you accept. You join their ranks, and share their club-house; you turn a blind eye to the fundamental absurdity—let alone the offensiveness—of it all. This explains the enormous size of the chips on their shoulders.

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The jerks I understand well enough—they knew they were vulnerable, and felt as if they had no choice. But how to explain the good ones, the ones I like and am friends with? Surely some awful mistake early on, around October of sophomore year. One minute these boys were normal kids walking through the Yard in a co-ed pack, and the next thing they knew an envelope had been slipped under their door, which would pave the way for their fall. I hope each one got a kiss goodbye before he joined the Society for Oppressive Anachronisms and caught the bug.

The above is just a hypothetical scenario—any resemblance to actual people or events being, of course, entirely coincidental. I offer it to help you relate to someone who found himself in a similar situation, and didn’t have the strength to resist.

Final clubs are easy enough to identify, but—as the administration knows well—quite hard to eliminate. They own their own property, and even though they are not Harvard-affiliated on account of their obvious conflict with Title IX, the Development Office doesn’t want them to disappear. Somehow the list of Harvard’s most influential alumni overlaps with final club members to a remarkable degree. Aha! There’s something we forgot to consider when scratching our heads about these clubs’ appeal: they make kids rich, even if they weren’t to begin with, through the connections—and perhaps the culture—they offer their members.

This column has been very mean, but it’s not going to get rid of final clubs. I can’t do that, and neither can Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68—although being the mensch he is, I’m sure he’s tried.

If final clubs are to die—as I know they will, be it in ten years or a hundred—they will have to be strangled by the community. To the poor boys—no matter how rich—who find themselves still in them, I have this well-intentioned advice: get out before it’s too late!

Here’s where the administration can be of help: it can put out a manual and set up a rehab program for wayward boys looking to rejoin the world outside the oak paneling. The battle to lead a normal social life is an uphill one—requiring a modicum of decency and openness to others. But we’ve all been through it, and we know you can too. Let’s drink to that.

Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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