By Sabrina Gharib Lee
Once again, the final club punching process is drawing to a close. Within the next few weeks, the entire membership of Harvard’s eight male final clubs will begin selecting their new members and will then initiate a class of approximately twenty, mostly sophomore, young men to each club. This final selection generally comes after four official punch rounds, which often include a gathering at the club, a daylong outing to an alumni residence, a date event and a final dinner. Over the course of these four rounds, a pool of roughly 100-150 sophomores per club is narrowed down to the final class.
Male final clubs have a long history at Harvard. The first club, the Porcellian, was established in 1791. Over the course of the next century, the AD Club for Gentlemen, the Fly Club, the Delphic Club, the Spee Club, the Owl Club, the Phoenix S.K. and the Fox Club were founded as well. The clubs were started by various wealthy male undergraduates, such as J.P. Morgan, who founded the Delphic. The relative influence of final clubs has waxed and waned over the years. One Harvard alumni from the class of 1974 remembered in a Crimson article that final clubs were not as culturally important among undergraduates in the ‘70s and were, in fact, widely criticized for their exclusiveness. By the ‘80s, however, the clubs’ social prominence was again on the rise. In 1984 the University severed ties with them due to the clubs’ refusal to admit women. Today, Harvard has no jurisdiction over the male final clubs and has a similar relationship with the female final clubs, of which the first, the Bee Club, was established in 1991.
The issues and controversy surrounding final clubs have only intensified since the clubs’ separation from Harvard in 1984. Sarah Rankin, director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR), reports that, on the whole, faculty and administrators view final clubs as a serious social problem in dire need of a solution. This view is shared by many members of the student community: one student, who wished to remain anonymous, remarked that although women have a whole range of experiences, she felt that, at final clubs, the social scene becomes “a lot more sexually aggressive” than in other social spaces on campus. She asserts that girls who wish to attend final club parties without an invitation must wear skimpy clothes in order to gain admission. Furthermore, she calls the Delphic basement “the scariest, darkest place in the world,” remarking that guests are often groped by people they cannot even see, due to the extremely low lighting. Other anonymous sources report that some final clubs play porn on large-screen televisions during their parties, which contributes a hyper-sexualized atmosphere.
As a community, we need to acknowledge, confront and mobilize around these horrifying accounts of final clubs. Interviewees for this article often requested that we meet in private rooms where they would not be overheard. Others, although they expressed an interest in the topic, declined to speak at all. Despite the fact that a large number of Harvard students—members and nonmembers alike—are critical of final clubs, there is a prevalent culture of silence around this topic.
The lack of free-flowing public discourse about the clubs has been largely responsible for the long history of unsuccessful movements to address problematic aspects of final clubs: the 1987 – 1990 initiative, Stop Withholding Access Today (SWAT), led by Perspective founder Lisa Schkolnick ’88; the Women Appealing for Change movement of 1995; and the humorously named Students Against Super Sexist Institutions-We Oppose Oppressive Finals Clubs (SASSI-WOOFCLUBS) of 2004 are all examples of efforts abandoned due to lack of public support and commitment. As a progressive community, we need to resurrect and lend our support to these movements. We need to overcome our fear of confrontation, our fear of openly criticizing other students, and, above all, our fear of not being welcomed into the clubs themselves and recognize that final clubs need to change. There is a critical mass of people at Harvard who recognize or at least have begun to perceive that final clubs can be sexually dangerous, heteronormative and exclusive spaces. It is critical that these individuals, whether or not they think final clubs must be abolished completely, take a visible stand on this issue by voicing their opinion, talking to each other and to publications and, above all, not going to or joining final clubs. Only by taking these actions will we ever address the myriad social problems created by the clubs.
The rest of this piece will discuss how final clubs encourage notions of male-dominance, promote sexual aggression and create an atmosphere of misogyny and heteronormativity. But, in the interest of being clear and transparent, I will begin by discussing my research methods. First, it is worth noting that I focus on male final clubs largely because there is more information about them, but also because I see the problematic aspects of female final clubs as having their roots in the original male final clubs. Furthermore, I rely heavily on research completed by Alicia Menendez, who conducted her senior thesis research on final clubs in 2005 by interviewing roughly 40 anonymous members of male and female final clubs, and who was also president of the Bee in 2005. Finally, in describing the social problems that are prevalent among final clubs, I seek to address social dynamics that arise in gender-exclusive spaces rather than the moral fiber of final club members. This is an article about social phenomena, not individuals.
One response to final club opposition is that the clubs are merely groups of guys who are friends. As Mrs. John W. Appel wrote to Schkolnick in 1988, “Let the boys alone… You can’t legislate friendship.” But as Professor Daphne Spain of the University of Virginia observes, choices relating to friendship are often “consequences of each individual’s location in the social structure… [as a result,] friendships are more likely to develop within (rather than across) categories of age, race, sex, education or income.” Therefore, large groups of “friends,” such as those that make up final clubs, often produce homosocial environments— environments in which people with similar social backgrounds interact, learn from each other, and compete.
Although final clubs have made efforts in recent years to diversify their membership, members continue to share socially important characteristics. While Menendez notes, “There are many members who identify themselves as ethnic or racial minorities… They [the clubs] also have policies that accommodate members who cannot afford them,” one anonymous female source observes that final clubs continue to represent the image of wealth and prestige, despite this diversification. One reason for this continued image of wealth is the fact that final club-owned real estate has a combined value of $15,537,900. Thus, although members of final clubs now come from increasingly varied backgrounds, they are still exclusively male and, furthermore, much of the diversity in social class is counterbalanced by the privilege of access to resources that only a small group of people could ever dream of enjoying.
These two very important similarities work to create a prevalent homosocial environment among members in final clubs. According to Professor Kathryn Farr of Portland State University, the real danger of homosocial relationships is that collective male alliances result in “dominance bonding,” a process in which the fraternizing of individuals who belong to historically dominant demographic groups breeds a heightened sense of superiority in relation to other groups—in this case, non-male students. This sense of superiority is therefore directly linked to what becomes an increasingly derogatory conception of members of less dominant groups.
Interviews with students reveal that Farr’s theory is applicable to final club culture and the club social scenes. It is obvious from interviews with female students that final clubs create an environment that many women perceive as uniquely misogynistic. After overhearing a conversation among final club members about freshmen girls, one female informant in Menendez’s study reflects, “Who knew boys could talk this much sh**??… [homosocial bonding] isn’t always healthy…, it’s like, right from wrong doesn’t seem to factor in as much. Or good from bad.” Sarah Rankin, director of OSAPR, corroborates the interviewee’s observation, arguing that the final clubs environment often empowers men to act upon pre-existing latent misogynistic and sexually aggressive impulses. The experience of Perspective’s source who revealed that certain clubs play porn during their parties on large screens also suggests that some final clubs promote a pattern of male sexual dominance at their parties.
The misogynistic atmosphere that stems from dominance bonding is exacerbated by an atmosphere of hyper-heterosexuality resulting from what Professor Sharon Bird of Iowa State University calls “hegemonic masculinity.” According to Bird, the competition that takes place between males in a homosocial environment often takes the form of a heterosexual competition. Professor Joseph Pleck of the University of Illinois also acknowledges this dynamic and argues, “Our society sees the male heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy as a central symbol for all the rankings for masculinity, for the division on any grounds between males who are ‘real men’ and have power and males who are not.” Both Bird and Pleck call our attention to an incredibly problematic pressure on males in homosocial environments to prove their masculinity to each other through heterosexual encounters and other behaviors associated with traditional conceptions of masculinity. Primarily, the social value placed on heterosexual conquests in all-male environments both configures women as objects that function as status symbols for males and engenders a heteronormative environment within clubs. Furthermore, as Menendez argues, this competition frequently results in the promotion of qualities such as aggression, independence, strength, and the diminishment of other potential qualities of masculinity such as sensitivity and dependence. Indeed these last two qualities are deemed “effeminate” and therefore often are pushed to the periphery of the male final club members’ identity. Dominance bonding in final clubs therefore not only promotes a chauvinistic and aggressive form of masculinity, but also creates an environment that is both heteronormative and degrading to women.
This manipulation of members’ conceptions of masculinity, sexuality and women are all major problems stemming from final clubs and their exclusivity. However, perhaps the most dangerous social problem created by final clubs is the challenges members face in thinking critically and independently about the activities in which they are participating. Relevant to this issue is the concept that many social scientists and psychologists call groupthink, which is, according to the late Dr. Irving Janis, a “mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group.” Professor Ronald R. Sims of the College of William and Mary argues that in situations where groupthink prevails, “small groups develop shared illusions and related norms that interfere with critical thinking and reality testing.” This deterioration of independent ethical evaluation is noticeable particularly in the interview of one male informant in Mendendez’ study. In response to a question about his reservations about joining the club, he remarks, “At one point, there comes a time where you need to make the decision to believe rather than to rationalize. That’s what they tell you when you go to church—believe and understand later. For a while, I tried to rationalize that it’s single sex, that it’s elitist, and I couldn’t. But now, I can justify that I spend that much time, that much money, because I believe in the club.”
This male interviewee seems to have given up critically assessing his behavior in favor of simply “believing” in the club to which he belongs. The failure to assess individual behavior is also apparent in club members’ attitudes toward confrontation with other members. Interviews with a number of women revealed that their ex or current male partners who are in final clubs have explicitly remarked that they feel unwilling to confront other members whose behavior they do not like for fear of causing tension or marring the image of the club. The evidence of members’ blind faith in their institutions and of their unwillingness to express personal belief suggests that final clubs are extremely prone to the effects of groupthink. As the interviews with members’ girlfriends suggests, the emphasis placed on loyalty and collective image may work to deteriorate individual ethical assessment mechanisms, leading to an inability to resist participation in or to confront dangerous or offensive behavior.
The final club problem, then, is not necessarily a problem of the members themselves. Final clubs, as inherently exclusive institutions, foster a homosocial environment that creates a whole host of social problems, including intensified notions of male superiority, heightened sexual aggression, heteronormativity, and the inability to ethically evaluate one’s own actions. Under these circumstances, few individuals would be able to act in a way that is respectful of others or themselves. On a practical level, these pressures also create an incredibly unsafe and uncontrolled social space at Harvard. Particularly disturbing in my research about male final clubs was the unwillingness of members to confront the ethical implications of social exclusion and gender-exclusive space. It appears that final clubs not only encourage sexually aggressive and exclusive behavior, but also discourage introspection or questioning of norms that develop in the club community.
In light of these pressures that are inherently part of any community resembling a male final club, I urge the men of 2012 to walk away from final clubs this November. The privilege of being part of a male final club is causally linked to disadvantages associated with the female experience: in accepting the privilege of access to expensive real estate and powerful alumni not available to women due to club policy, you perpetuate the disparity in power across gender prevalent at Harvard and elsewhere. Beyond this conceptual argument against final clubs, on a practical level, final clubs do not cultivate socially beneficial qualities. Membership in any all-male environment does not encourage respect for women and it often does not foster critical thinking and introspection. Don’t become part of the problem: walk away from final clubs this fall and become part of effort to make Harvard a safer and more socially just educational institution.