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Phoenix Resigning

By Timothy P. McCarthy

The following remarks were delivered at Morning Prayers at Memorial Church on Thursday, September 24, 2015:

In this season of atonement and new beginnings, amidst a visit from my Pope, I have a confession to make today: I am part of a problem.

Perhaps it all began my sophomore fall, 25 years ago, when I attended my first “punch” event at a final club. Such a peculiar word—“punch”—at once a term of belligerence and violence but also, at Harvard, of deliverance and privilege. To be “punched” is to be invited, chosen, distinguished from the rest. When I was an undergraduate here, it also meant you were a man.

I came to Harvard with a lot of baggage: I was a working class kid, an athlete and financial aid student, the product of public schools. I had a deep suspicion that I didn’t deserve to be here, that I would never fit in. My social and intellectual fears were deeply rooted in class anxiety, and this resulted in self-destructive behavior: worrying too much about what others thought of me, drinking too much on the weekends, silencing and sabotaging myself in the classroom.

Getting punched, I thought, would fix everything. This secret invitation was a sign of social acceptance, and I was all too eager to be accepted. Still, I was conflicted, in part, because so many of my friends, among them women and feminists, were opposed to my participation in this ancient patriarchal ritual.

It was because of this peer pressure that I dropped out of the punch process that year and worked to find other forms of community. But my desire for acceptance persisted, in part, because I had drunk too many beers in club basements, and spent too much time longing to go upstairs, envying those who could, and waiting in lines outside while friends whisked by me through those imposing doors. When I got a second chance my junior year, I jumped at the opportunity to become a member of the Phoenix. As absurd as it all seems now, at the time, I was relieved. I finally belonged here.

The truth of the matter is that I was now like David from today’s scripture (2 Samuel 11: 2-4), prowling atop the palace, leering at the lovely sights down below, sleeping with whomever was willing, then sending them home. Suddenly, the blue-collar boy who wanted to be someone—something—else had become a blue-blood pretender who could no longer recognize himself. Funny thing, privilege: It distorts even as it distinguishes.

This is what happens when younger men use older men’s mansions as private playgrounds, inoculated from accountability, free of the rules and regulations of both the College and the larger community. Now, women have some playgrounds of their own—and this fall, a handful of them have been invited to share the Spee.

It’s tempting to see the more recent examples of women getting access to this privilege as a sign of “progress,” but this week’s troubling revelations about the prevalence of sexual assault on Harvard’s campus offer a sobering reminder of our own incapacities. According to results from a 27-school sexual conduct climate survey released by the Association of American Universities on Monday, 29.2 percent of Harvard’s senior undergraduate women reported experiencing “non-consensual sexual contact” since coming to college (this includes attempted or completed penetration and sexual touching). Nearly three out of four—73 percent—of female undergraduates report having experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time at Harvard.

These are our students. To no one’s surprise, alcohol was cited as a “potent risk factor” in over 60 percent of instances that involved “force” and over 80 percent of those that involved “incapacitation.” 75 percent of sexual assault cases take place in residential dorms, while at least 15 percent of incidents occur at “single-sex organizations that are not fraternities or sororities.” In other words, final clubs are the second most common location for sexual assault at Harvard.

As my colleague David Laibson noted: “That result surprised me because I associate final clubs as non-residential spaces, and of course our students do not spend nearly as much time there as dormitories, and of course only a fraction of students have an affiliation. That number was an alarm bell for me.”

Equally alarming is students’ reported lack of faith in Harvard’s ability to deal with any of this. Only 16 percent of women surveyed said that the University is “very or extremely likely” to take action in sexual assault cases. This is a crisis of confidence that both comes from and compounds the crisis of violence. What’s more, Harvard students reported that they had failed, as bystanders, to intervene when they “witnessed a drunk person heading for a sexual encounter” (80 percent) or when they had “seen or heard someone who was acting in a sexually violent or harassing way” (54 percent). There is an unmistakable take-away from these findings: Harvard, we have a problem—and final clubs are part of the problem.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all members of final clubs are rapists. Far from it. Some of my best friends, and favorite students, are in final clubs. These are complicated institutions, full of contradictions, like Harvard itself. For example, the Spee is not the first club to contemplate changing its single-sex membership policy. We had this debate when I was in college, but the graduate boards made it clear that they would never allow this to happen.

Patriarchy played a big role in this, of course, but it wasn’t the whole story. For instance, I know that the all-male clubs provided a “safe space” for closeted gay men from a different era who did not or could not “come out.” In more recent years, I’ve witnessed more intentional, internal efforts to combat the institutionalized racism that has long plagued the clubs, which has resulted in some being more racially and ethnically diverse—and integrated—than many formally recognized student organizations. And it remains true that on a campus that struggles to create vibrant social spaces, the clubs continue to fill a void that the College hasn’t fully addressed.

But complexity should never exempt us from criticism. And that is why I refuse to let the final clubs and their members—past and present, myself included—off the hook. I’ve been at the parties and gone through the punch process. I’ve laughed at the jokes and listened to the rumors. I’ve stood idly by in the face of elitism and exclusion, and contributed to the toxic culture that creates the conditions for harassment and assault. I know that sex, both consensual and forced, has taken place in those spaces. And I know that sexual violence is the product of social violence. The final clubs are incubators of both.

That is why they must change. They must abolish the “punch” process, now underway, and become open to all genders and backgrounds—or they must cease to exist. We live in the 21st century. It is time for us to stop clinging to the past and start embracing the future.

I, too, must change. That’s why I’ve chosen this week to say that I am no longer a member of the Phoenix.

My prayer this morning is complicated: that you will accept my resignation from—rather than to—this particular Harvard problem. I will not, however, pray for your mercy or forgiveness, because I deserve neither. I know that some people will dismiss or deride what I’m doing here today, but I hope that they might see it for what it is: not an act of bravery—far from it—but rather a belated attempt to resolve a burning contradiction between my stated values and the cowardice and complicity that have compromised them ever since I first stepped foot on this campus a generation ago. May all of us respond to this week’s disturbing revelations by rising from the ashes of assault into a new awakening, where we work harder than ever to end the violences—and silences—that have destroyed too many lives for far too long in this beloved community.


Timothy P. McCarthy ‘93 is a lecturer in history, literature, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He directs the sexuality, gender, and human rights program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He is also a former vice president of the Harvard Alumni Association.

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