A Rare Focus on All-Male Groups

Harvard singled out its final clubs as especially dangerous places for women. Victims’ advocates and researchers argue more colleges should take a similarly hard look at fraternities.

March 18, 2016
Delphic Club at Harvard University

Last week, Harvard University released a report of recommendations on preventing and dealing with sexual assaults on campus. The report is similar to many other sexual assault reports released in recent years, with recommendations that include creating more detailed policies and providing more prevention education and training to students.

Where the Harvard report differs is in its emphasis on the university’s final clubs -- wealthy, private, historically male-only organizations that often draw comparisons to fraternities. Few other college and university efforts to prevent sexual assault have so sharply focused on such male organizations.

A review of more than a dozen similar university reports released in recent months reveals that this focus on all-male organizations is unusual, even on campuses where many of the complaints about sexual assault and sexist treatment of female students focus on fraternities. Harvard, however, devoted three full pages of the 20-page report to final clubs, and included addressing “the distinctive problems presented” by the organizations as one of the task force’s six key recommendations.

“A woman’s physical appearance is often seen as the basis for entry to these spaces, and female students described a general expectation that entering final club spaces could be read as implicit agreement to have sexual encounters with members,” the report reads. “We understand that many of the clubs typically exclude nonmember men from parties, which gives an unambiguous frame to social events, eliminates nonmember male bystanders and enables a gender ratio that makes it easier for members to have a sexual encounter.”

Party themes and invitations have reflected “a misogynistic view of women,” the report continues, and “reinforced a sense of sexual entitlement.” Students interviewed for the report “pointed to competitive games between members where a man will ‘win’ a particular woman or compete for the most sexual triumphs.”

The same criticism is also frequently directed at fraternities. While the majority of fraternity members do not commit sexual assault, they are three times more likely to than nonmembers, according to a 2007 study authored by John Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and founder of the sexual assault prevention program One in Four.

A recent review by United Educators, a risk management and insurance firm, of 305 sexual assault reports on college campuses from 2011 to 2014 found that about 24 percent of repeat offenders of sexual assault were reported as fraternity members.

A study published in the NASPA Journal in 2009 found that 86 percent of fraternity house residents engaged in binge drinking, compared to 45 percent of nonfraternity men. Fraternity members were twice as likely as nonfraternity men to engage in unplanned sex. Another study published by NASPA Journal concluded that women involved in Greek organizations were 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women.

“With a pattern, it is incumbent on a university to take all steps they can to make the environment free from hostility toward women,” Foubert said. “My view is that if you have an organization or environment on campus with an ongoing issue of a hostile environment, that environment, to the degree possible, needs to be disbanded. So if there is a particular fraternity, pull the charter. A particular sports team, close it down.”

The Harvard report also addresses fraternities, comparing them to final clubs. Historically, fraternities have been largely absent at Harvard, but in recent years that has begun to change. The task force referred to the presence of Greek organizations at Harvard as “slowly growing.” Harvard students are now members of five fraternities and four sororities.

Last year’s Association of American Universities survey on campus sexual assault found that 40 percent of female Harvard seniors who participated in fraternities and sororities had been sexually assaulted.

“Given this experience, and the implications of gender-exclusionary social organizations in a campus working toward broad inclusivity, we recommend that any review of social spaces and final clubs include the role of fraternities, sororities and other unrecognized single-gender social organizations at the college,” the task force wrote.

Laura Dunn, executive director and founder of the victims’ advocacy organization SurvJustice, said that Harvard putting final clubs and fraternities on notice is significant.

“I don’t know of other colleges openly discussing fraternities or other student clubs that are creating significant issues, but I know it’s a known reality many colleges are dealing with,” she said. “I have had some off the record conversations about the powerful alumni support preventing schools from really tackling the sexual assault issues stemming from such organizations. I do think colleges should take a serious look at this.”

Dunn said Harvard’s focus on final clubs and other single-sex private organizations may stem from a discrimination complaint filed against the university in 2013. That complaint singled out final clubs, and in the ensuing years the clubs were pressured by the university to become coeducational. Harvard administrators have become increasingly vocal with their criticism of the organizations. Last year, Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, told The Harvard Crimson that “single-gendered organizations are not appropriate for the college.”

Members of Harvard’s final clubs argue that they’re being treated unfairly by administrators. A letter by one club to its members last year after it decided to become coed complained that “Harvard is unfairly scapegoating the final clubs for Harvard’s poor performance on sexual assault issues.”

Harvard's five all-male final clubs have a long history at the university, existing in some form for more than 200 years. Many of them began as campus chapters of fraternities before Harvard banned such organizations in the 1850s. Unlike fraternities, members do not live in the clubs, but their clubhouses are used for meals, parties and other events. The clubs’ recruitment process, known as “punching season,” is similar to pledging and rushing events at fraternities.

Since 1991, five all-female clubs have opened on campus and two clubs have become coeducational, an idea endorsed by the task force report. Members of the task force declined to be interviewed for this article.

“I believe it is a step in the right direction for Harvard's task force to acknowledge the danger that final clubs pose for our community,” Jessica Fournier, a Harvard student who was involved in filing the 2013 complaint, said. “I have heard these sentiments echoed by students over and over again, in Crimson narratives, at task force meetings and at every open forum that has been had about these issues. It is high time for Harvard to take these clubs seriously as a perpetrator of sexual violence and rape culture on campus.”

Harvard severed all official ties to final clubs in 1984, and, as is the case with some other colleges and fraternities, the clubs are located off campus and owned by their own organizations. The university has no rules against students joining the clubs or fraternities, however.

Amherst College disassociated from single-gender groups around the same time as Harvard, but 20 years later, in 2014, the college barred all students from joining the organizations. That same year, Wesleyan University announced that its fraternities must become coeducational or they would be forced to shut down. Only two fraternities still existed at the university at the time, and the move was widely seen as an attempt at forcing the remaining organizations off campus.

By the end of year, both fraternities were shut down. One of the fraternities, Delta Kappa Epsilon, sued the university, but a state judge dismissed the case in December.

Wesleyan would not confirm that the policy change was an attempt at curbing sexual assault specifically, but a spokeswoman did say that it was designed to “increase gender equity on campus.” For the Wesleyan Student Assembly, however, sexual assault prevention was the key reason it pushed for the integration.

“The culture of these houses contributes to the culture of sexual assault in a way we weren’t willing to stand for anymore,” Nicole Updegrove, the assembly's president at the time, said that May.

In a blog post earlier in the year, the university’s president, Michael Roth, wrote that it’s “clear that many students see fraternity houses as spaces where women enter with a different status than in any other building on campus, sometimes with terrible consequences.”

Brett Sokolow, president and CEO of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, said it is not surprising that when institutions seriously examine the culture of wealthy, all-male organizations, they conclude that sexual violence and harassment are especially prevalent.

“Sexual assaults will always cluster at the intersection of privilege and alcohol,” Sokolow said.


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