by Sabrina Gharib Lee
While researching an article I wrote last year about male final clubs, I was struck by how much students wanted to see change in Harvard’s social scene, yet how little they were willing to publicly criticize final clubs. The students I interviewed expressed frustration with the final club scene, citing sexually aggressive behavior, hurtful door policies, and the use of hazing to initiate new members. But almost all of these students expressed these feelings off the record and in private spaces where they would not be overheard.
It is not easy to talk about male final clubs. Critics of these clubs often face accusations of bitterness and jealousy and find themselves at odds with many of their friends. We also live in a victim-blaming society in which reporting instances of sexual violence may entail being subjected to aggressive scrutiny. For a number of reasons, there has been only limited meaningful dialogue on our campus about the problematic aspects of our social scene and the ways in which it could become safer and more accessible.
For the last month and a half, I have been working with a coordinating team including Tara Venkatraman ’11, Seth Pearce ’12, Conor Walsh ’12, Camille Owens ’13, Jason Berkenfeld ’11, Elizabeth Pinto ‘12, and Ann Cheng ’12 on a campaign that seeks to create space for this dialogue and change in Harvard’s social scene. Our campaign, the Final Club Campaign, takes the stance that Harvard’s social scene, which is dominated by male final clubs, is often unsafe and exclusive. We envision a safe and inclusive Harvard campus in which all students have access to space in which they can safely socialize with their peers, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation and/or socio-economic background. We believe that there are three major steps we must take as a community to realize this vision. First, Harvard’s administration must provide meaningful alternative social spaces by restoring grants like the Party Fund, expanding initiatives like the Student Initiated Programming (SIP) fund and making house space open for student parties. Additionally, we ask that the University provide students with orientations and information specific to final clubs so that they can make informed decisions about where they socialize. Second, male final clubs must take measures to make their spaces safe, inclusive, and accountable to the wider community because, in the absence of alternative social spaces for Harvard students, male final club property currently functions as public space. Finally, all students, members and nonmembers, must, instead of going to or joining final clubs, establish safe and inclusive social spaces using the space and resources available to them.
Our request that the Harvard administration provide alternative social space stems from the belief that a major problem in our social scene is the lack of alternatives to final clubs. Our conversations with students have revealed, not too surprisingly, that non-members would rather not wait in line to party every Friday and Saturday night and that final club members would rather not take on the responsibilities associated with providing the main social space on campus. Another argument in favor of providing alternative social space is the concern that the harmful dynamics often associated with final clubs, such as sexual aggression and hurtful door policies, are in many ways related to the absence of alternative social spaces. We argue that final clubs’ stranglehold over Harvard social space not only places female students consistently in the dependent position of the guest when they attend parties, but also poses a safety issue in that members are pressured to invite more people into their clubs than they can realistically monitor. Furthermore, we argue that situations in which there is a limited space for a large number of people lead to exclusive practices that are hurtful to many students.
While reinstating grants like the Party Fund, expanding programming like the Student Initiated Programming (SIP) fund, and making house space open for student parties are positive steps toward a safer social scene, we believe that these alternative social spaces to final clubs become meaningful only if they are accompanied by University efforts to help students make informed decisions about where they go to socialize. We therefore ask that the administration take a public and critical stance on final clubs every fall during punch season and that they institute first-year and sophomore orientations by 2011 in which students can learn about final clubs’ general practices and characteristics as social spaces. These orientations should incorporate a discussion about final clubs into existing orientations such as Sex Signals, Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors (DAPA) workshops and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) discussions that take place in first-years’ dorms. We also ask that the administration release information about the level of sexual assault associated with final club parties. Last May, Sarah Rankin, Director of OSAPR, reported that 70% of sexual assaults occur off campus, but the College has declined to release data specific to final clubs (which are classified as off campus). With alternatives to final clubs and information specific to the final club social scene, we believe students will have access to a wider variety of options for their social space and will have the power to make informed decisions about where they choose to socialize.
Our campaign also recognizes that male final clubs can and should take steps to contribute to a safer and more accessible social scene. Although final club real estate is privately owned, clubs currently function as public space in the absence of significant alternative social spaces. Because they represent the major social space currently available to Harvard students, it is necessary that they take measures to make this space as safe as possible. Many clubs already complete trainings with OSAPR and have members who are involved in Harvard Men Against Rape (HMAR) and DAPA. We believe that such practices are helpful in clarifying issues surrounding consent and safe social practices. In that vein, we ask that final clubs publicly pledge to make their space safer by going through hour-long OSAPR and DAPA trainings every semester and that clubs incorporate training attendance into club members’ contracts by the fall of 2011. We also ask that clubs make the identities of their student leaders known to the public so that students with concerns can hold final club leaders accountable for the social environment created in their club social space. We make these requests with the knowledge that final clubs vary widely in the safety policies they implement and in their general environment as social spaces. We recognize too that our requests may entail institutionalizing and making public preexisting safety regulations in some clubs while, for other clubs, compliance with our requests may require major changes to club policy and practices. Furthermore, we hope that clubs that already prioritize safety in their social spaces can become leaders within the final club community and help other clubs to implement the same safety regulations.
The final and most important demand of our campaign asks all students—nonmembers and members alike– to create their own social spaces that are inclusive and safe instead of going to or joining final clubs. Students involved in our campaign are committed to providing safe alternatives to final clubs and, as such, will be using the spaces to which they have access to host parties and other social events. We urge other students to attend these events and also to use whatever space they have available to them to help establish alternatives to final clubs as the primary social space on campus. Additionally, we urge students to not join male final clubs and to instead commit to establishing alternative and safer spaces for socializing.
Our work so far has shown us that many people—members, nonmembers, and administrators—have been frustrated with and have wanted to see change in Harvard’s social scene for years. Our campaign provides a space to act on those feelings today. We believe that through the implementation of student orientations that discuss final clubs as social spaces, the dissemination of information about final club social space, the public institutionalization of safety regulations within final clubs, and widespread student commitment to the creation of safe and inclusive space, every member of this community can and must work to achieve a safer, more inclusive and more accessible social space at Harvard. While we believe that some of the problematic aspects of Harvard’s social scene can only be solved through long-term projects, such as the construction of a student center, we also believe that the student body’s need for a safe social space is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. We call on the entire undergraduate body and the administration to become leaders and allies in this campaign and to join us in our efforts to make Harvard’s campus a place that prioritizes safety, respect, and the well-being of all of our students.