Sexual assault can happen anywhere. But, fairly or unfairly, when predatory sexual behavior at Harvard is discussed, the conversation often turns to the all-male final clubs, whose parties are known for their free-flowing alcohol and lack of administrative supervision.
Members of the Phoenix S.K. Club say they are struggling to overcome what some suggest is a less than sterling reputation.
“All it takes is one person, one story, one twisted account of a story to scar an entire group of people,” says Phoenix member Daniel A. Sack ’10.
While it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which male final clubs are associated with the cases of sexual assault that take place on Harvard’s campus, many students and administrators say that the conditions at club parties create an environment conducive to sexual assault.
Some of the clubs, including the Phoenix, have taken tangible steps to improve women’s safety, such as working with the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, or Harvard Men Against Rape. But many students and administrators say that more work remains to make the final clubs—which host a substantial share of the parties attended by Harvard undergraduates—safer spaces.
‘HAVE A DRINK WITH ME’
After a stressful week, many students who are looking to let loose and party head to final clubs.
Some partygoers are hoping to hook up, while others are just there to dance. But sometimes, what starts out as an innocent evening spent enjoying the company of one’s peers can take a turn for the worse.
One night, Laura—a Harvard undergraduate whose name has been changed to protect her privacy—attended a list-only party at the Spee Club.
Throughout the night, she says, she felt constant pressure to keep drinking. The party had an ice luge for shots, and attendees were playing drinking games.
“Guys were always saying to me, ‘Have a drink with me.’ ‘Take a shot with me,’” she says.
Though she never “blacked out,” Laura steadily became more intoxicated as the night progressed.
“I was really, really drunk and this guy was giving me drinks,” she says. “He ended up taking me upstairs. We ended up having sex.”
At the time, she says, she consented to having sex. But she adds, “It’s not something I would have done if I wasn’t drunk.”
In retrospect, Laura believes that she was more intoxicated than the club member appeared to be, and she is unsure how to label the incident.
“I’m not sure how much I should be bothered by it,” she says. “Honestly, my own conception of final clubs was this kind of thing happens all the time.”
Laura has not returned to the club since that night.
Regardless of whether what happened to her constitutes sexual assault, Laura says, the situation is representative of what she sees as a larger problem with the male-dominated social scene.
“They have control over the atmosphere of the party, they have control over the final club, they have control over the alcohol, and then they let in all of these drunk girls,” she says.
Because the members of all-male final clubs control not only the spaces where parties take place, but also the guests who are admitted and the distribution and consumption of alcohol, many women have expressed concern that clubs create an environment of misogyny that is a catalyst for sexual assault.
“The perception is that final clubs foster sexual assault through being environments where people drink a lot in unmonitored ways with little or no supervision of any kind, “ says Assistant Dean of Students Susan B. Marine, who is also the director of the Harvard College Women’s Center.
Marine, who was the founding director of OSAPR, says she has received few reports of sexual assault from final clubs.
It is difficult to accurately determine where sexual assaults take place on campus. Only one or two sexual assault cases go before the Administrative Board—the College’s primary disciplinary body—each year, but national statistics indicate that as many as 25 percent of women have been sexually assaulted by the time they graduate from college.
According to OSAPR Director Sarah A. Rankin, “recently gathered statistics” collected by her office show that 70 percent of sexual assaults occurred off campus, 20 percent took place on campus, and 10 percent happened at an unknown location.
“We consider ‘off campus’ to be any location outside of Harvard property, including but not limited to final clubs,” she writes in an e-mailed statement.
In an e-mail, former Dean of Harvard College Benedict H. Gross ’71 writes that it was impossible to detect any trend as to where sexual assaults occurred during his tenure.
“It’s what we call in math ‘the law of small numbers,’” he writes. “There weren’t enough cases to make any sensible statistics.”
Further adding to the difficulty, while sexual assaults may not take place at clubs, they may involve individuals leaving the clubs. And members of clubs say that each has different policies, cultures, and leadership, meaning that it is difficult to make sweeping statements about sexual assaults and final clubs.
While members of the Phoenix and a member of the Spee made themselves available to be interviewed for this story, members and presidents of most of Harvard’s remaining male final clubs—the Porcellian, the A.D., the Fly, the Fox, the Delphic, and the Owl—declined or did not respond to requests for comment.
Ad Board Secretary John “Jay” Ellison says he does not believe that final clubs are uniquely responsible for sexual assaults that happen on campus.
“I wouldn’t say the clubs, the fraternities or the sororities are the nexus of all our problems,” he says. “We’ve had problems from a Heaven and Hell party, from the Mather Lather, from the 80s dance.”
Instead, he says, places where students drink heavily may predict where sexual assaults will take place.
An average of 20 to 30 cases of sexual assault a year are reported to administrators, House officers, and specialists at OSAPR and University Health Services, and administrators say that the vast majority of them involve alcohol.
Phoenix president Byron T. Lichtenstein ’11 says he believes that the clubs are tied to the issue of sexual assault because the College depends on them to host parties for undergraduates.
“The clubs are a social space, and until Harvard has more social spaces there’s always going to be an association between the final clubs and being afraid of sexual assault,” he says.
OSAPR Prevention Specialist Seth D. Avakian, who spends much of his time training men to be aware of and responsive to sexual assault, says that many final club members have become actively involved in improving safety at their clubs.
“The overwhelming majority of the guys in final clubs want to be able to throw a fun party where people don’t get hurt,” Avakian writes in an e-mailed statement.
Lichtenstein says that the club generally keeps upstairs bedroom doors locked, in part to prevent members from having sex in them, and members are fined if they bring non-family members upstairs.
Lichtenstein, who works with OSAPR and conducts Sex Signals training for freshmen, says that the club mandates that all drinks be poured out in the open and into empty glasses. Two Phoenix members participate in DAPA, he says.
But Lichtenstein notes that there is little consistency in prevention efforts from club to club.
Unlike some other final clubs, the Spee does not bar women from certain parts of their multi-million dollar buildings, according to Undergraduate Council President Johnny F. Bowman ’11, a member of the club.
“Women in the club are allowed everywhere men are, so there are no secret spaces,” he writes in an e-mailed statement. “Other things like the culture of the club and our membership are the strongest preventative measures but are the least tangible.”
On a more concrete level, many club members have become involved with OSAPR and HMAR.
Lichtenstein says that five out of eight male final clubs participate in OSAPR’s final club advisory committee, but a club’s dedication may vary from year to year depending on membership and leadership.
Avakian writes that OSAPR is working on instituting sexual assault prevention training in every final club, but challenges remain in ensuring that every member is present for training. But some final clubs have agreed to make training mandatory for new members as of next year—a practice he hopes will become universal among the clubs.
“If we’re getting guys to talk about these issues, we’re on our way to success,” he writes.
The main way to involve men in the fight against sexual assault, Avakian says, is to engage them as active bystanders who will step in when they see a potentially risky situation.
Hugo Van Vuuren ’07, founder of the MenSpeakUp website and a leader of OSAPR training sessions, says that it can be challenging to inspire people who care but remain silent to feel comfortable about taking an active stance.
“We need to find out how to get people to commit to action,” he says. “When you intervene, it almost always has an impact and almost always no harm comes to you.”
Many women and administrators say that desegregating the final clubs would help to improve both the safety and the reputations of the clubs.
“I think they do need to allow women in them,” Ellison says. “I do think they need to become more diverse and allow more members of the community, but I don’t have any control over that.”
While Lichtenstein says he opposes allowing women to join the Phoenix, he says the change would make the clubs safer for women.
“Just the fact that there would be equal members who could push each other to be gender-conscious would definitely help out,” Lichtenstein says.
Eva B. Rosenberg ’10, chair emerita of the feminist group Radcliffe Union of Students, refers to final clubs as “the last vestige of a dying heterosexist patriarchal racist order that has dominated Harvard for most of its nearly 400-year history.”
“A male-dominated social space is inherently inequitable and poses a particular risk for women,” Rosenberg says.
Though Rosenberg is critical of final clubs as institutions, she says she is optimistic about the surge in member participation in efforts against sexual assault.
“I hope that at the very least men working from inside that system share my belief that creating safe, inclusive, and equitable social space is an urgent priority here at Harvard,” she says.
A FEW BAD MEN
Despite the perception that sexual assault is rampant in final clubs, many agree that only a small minority of men is likely to commit sexual assaults.
“It’s such a tiny minority of men who do this. It’s not like we have these big bad clubs,” says Tamar Holoshitz ’10, who used to work with OSAPR. “You want to educate your organization and create an environment where people step up and people notice something going on and say something.”
Lichtenstein echoes Holoshitz’s comments.
“It’s a very small percentage of guys who are actually capable of it, and an even smaller percentage who even do it,” Lichtenstein says. “Every single club I know has one to two guys who are more sketchy than the rest of them. The measures are there for those one or two guys.”
Members say that the Phoenix tries to eliminate threatening members during punch—the final clubs’ process for selecting members.
Sack says that members ask themselves during punch, “Is this a guy who is going to be overly aggressive with girls?” as they want to avoid inducting members who will be a “liability” or “reflect poorly on the club.”
To protect both the clubs’ reputation and female guests, many members already connected to OSAPR or HMAR are trying to involve their fellow members.
“They come to a sincere realization that...they have the responsibility to stand up and do something,” Van Vuuren says. “We’re doing this so Harvard can be a safer place, so our community will be more intact, to protect the integrity of individuals in our community.”
—Melody Y. Hu contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at email@example.com.