Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the author of “Girl Land.”
For the members of Harvard’s super-elite “final clubs,” perhaps nothing produces a more immediate shiver of Not Our Kind of Thing than comparison to fraternities of the Greek system, with their herds of suburban business majors and their abundance of chapters popping up at every benighted State U and third-rate Catholic college. In a sense, fraternities are the very opposite of what a final club represents, which is, first and foremost, a sui generis association with the single greatest university in the history of the world.
Yet most of Harvard’s all-male final clubs began as Greek letter societies , adopting their unique characteristics only after the university banned fraternities in the 1850s. These clubs emerged as a response to the aspects of higher education that young men found feminizing: the enforced chastity, study, prayer and self-discipline. And they’ve been fulfilling their mission to vex college administrators and delight male students ever since.
Just as frat row presents a constant, low-grade headache — and an occasional five-alarm migraine — to presidents of lesser universities, so have the final clubs been a source of increasing irritation to the Harvard administration. A recent, radioactive report by the university’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault revealed a familiar constellation of problems: The clubs dominate the social scene and are locations of binge drinking; their members throw parties with sexually offensive themes and compete with one another for sexual conquests. Most gravely, they were identified as sites of sexual assault.
The task force strongly urged that the clubs be required to admit members of “all genders” as a curative measure. The dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana — who has been trying to crack the clubs all year — began cajoling, threatening and all but begging them to admit women. An all-male club, he has said, is out of step with “the aspirations of the 21st century.” In private meetings, he has threatened sanctions for the members of uncooperative clubs, including making them ineligible for campus leadership roles (such as team captain) and fellowships.
In the long tradition of the fraternity system from which they sprang, the clubs said: No.
Independence is not a trivial or accidental feature of these clubs. By design, they are private societies, located off campus on privately held land. Unlike fraternity chapters of the Greek system — which usually have an affiliation with their host institutions — they have no official connection with Harvard, and they are under no compunction to change their membership policies to fulfill the university’s beau ideal of itself. If Harvard does enforce sanctions on the members, it will constitute one more step toward the erosion of college students’ constitutional rights (in this case, to the freedom of association), which is turning out to be another aspiration of the 21st century.
So what to do about the dire problem of sexual assaults in the clubs? The first thing is to acknowledge that the task force report burns with moral indignation that its evidence does not warrant. Consider a single statistic: 47 percent of female seniors who reported participating in final club events also reported having nonconsensual sexual contact during their years in college. But that act, we discover — if we track down the appendices and fall down a rabbit hole of illogic — could have happened at the hands of a nonmember, in a location unrelated to a final club and before the victim even participated in a club event. In fact, the club whose event she attended could have been an all-women’s final club. It would be almost impossible to concoct a more meaningless statistic. Moreover, the report casually mentions that the “vast majority” — 87 percent — of all sexual assaults against women occur in dorms. These are spaces over which the university has complete jurisdiction, so its failure to reduce assaults constitutes a far graver institutional error than its inability to police the final clubs.
All of this reflects a gathering national malaise regarding a phrase that once blazed with urgency: “college sexual assault.” If Harvard believed that a huge number of its students were being beaten up in their dorm rooms, for example, the official response would be swift and merciless. The police would be called, charges would be filed, culprits punished. But, in response to new federal guidelines, sexual assault has become a matter of climate surveys, training sessions, an adjudication process that everyone — victims and accused assailants — finds problematic, and moments of flashing but impotent invective about fraternities and other all-male campus clubs, which have emerged as low-hanging fruit that refuses to be picked.
The final clubs are playing hardball right now, and they are winning. They are not relying on the guidebook of a private university but rather on the law itself. What if young women did the same? If assault victims could be persuaded — with the right institutional and emotional support — to report assaults to the real-world system of law and order, instead of the Keystone Cop system of college professors and task forces, the tables would turn. Khurana’s blandishments about the 21st century may not get the attention of the club members, but — I guarantee you — the sight of a police car rolling up, and uniformed officers asking to interview a rape suspect, would sober them up, and quickly.