The Implications of Gender Controlled Social Space on Campus Sexual Assault

by Kathleen Goodwin

FaustIn recent months a spotlight, or rather a searchlight, has been shone on college campuses throughout the United States as both administrators and state and federal governments have finally been goaded into taking action to address the problem of campus sexual assault in a critical manner. This past May the White House called out 55 schools specifically for their gross negligence regarding a matter that is both endemic and archaic in its treatment. Overall, I find the attention to the subject to be laudable, and it appears that there are some examples of tangible progress in the way colleges are defining sexual assault and reacting to reports of assault by students. However, I fear that this will be too little too late—the structures that make women vulnerable to sexual assault should be evaluated and reformed with the same scrutiny that the aftermath of assault is receiving in recent months. It will take more dramatic change for college campuses to become safe spaces for women and free of the universal scourge of sexual assault, which undoubtedly negatively affects the experience of both men and women.

As a recent alum of Harvard College, one of the schools on the White House's list of institutions in need of sexual assault policy reform, I have reflected on the incidences of sexual assault that periodically occurred on campus, some of which were brought to the attention of authorities, but in many cases were not. One dorm room is empty in Harvard Yard this fall as the College rescinded its offer of admission to a 2014 graduate of St. Paul's, a boarding school in New Hampshire. Eighteen year old Owen Labrie is accused of raping a fifteen year old freshman girl two days before graduation this past May. The senior purportedly emailed the freshman girl and asked to see her as part of a St. Paul's tradition known as a “Senior Salute” where outgoing male seniors attempt to hook up with younger female students in the final days of the school year. Labrie was supposedly participating in a contest with his friends to see who could hook up with the highest number of female lowerclasmen by graduation. When I read about this case on the website of Harvard's student newspaper, the Crimson, I found myself shocked, not at Labrie's crime, but rather at the eerie sense of familiarity I had while reading about the details. What I find notable about this case, is that it is shocking not in its awfulness, but in its predictability. In fact, as I read this article and the coverage of the case by the Boston Globe, I was struck by the similarities between this situation and most cases I have heard about at Harvard and colleges of other friends. In most of the instances of sexual assault that have been retold to me, a man capitalizes on ingrained structures that give him perceived power over his female peers in order to sexually assault a woman, often younger than himself and thus further disempowered. In many cases the implied or literal support of his male friends is a contributing factor.

At the risk of sounding sensationalist, I am not trying to indict all men at St. Paul's, or Harvard or any other school as people who regularly take sexual advantage of women. And while I think sexual assault is far more common than any published statistics reflect, I have found most male college students to be entirely respectful of female students and appalled by the idea of sexual assault. Rape and assault are by no means normalized events on a college campus. However, I believe the Labrie case clearly highlights some of the most fundamental problems that allow sexual assault to be a systemic problem. The Globe corresponded with Carolyn Forrester, a 2011 graduate of St. Paul's:

“She said that much of the social hierarchy at the school, which began admitting girls in 1971, is controlled by boys, and one way girls established themselves was by hooking up with older guys. Many sexual encounters were based on power differentials, she said, and did not go as far as assault but ‘easily could have.'”

Forrester's description mirrors the situation on many college campuses, especially those that were historically male-only institutions. Even today, when women account for more than half of college undergraduates nation-wide, it appears that men still hold significantly more social power than women, and this dynamic affects sexual encounters in obvious and damaging ways.

Harvard, which didn't fully merge with its sister college, Radcliffe, until 1999, had a functionally co-ed campus and admissions process by 1975, even more recently than St. Paul's. In my own experience, Harvard is a place where the vestiges of male-only instruction are still abundantly clear. This is apparent among the faculty, where in 2013 only 23% of tenured professors were women.* And while many student organizations consistently elect female leaders, there are also examples of a gender discrepancy at the student level— only one woman has been elected president of the Undergraduate Council in the last five years and no woman has been president of the Crimson since 2007. While almost every woman I encountered at Harvard College was confident in her intelligence and competence in the classroom and generally did not appear intimidated by men, women are undoubtedly affected by the noticeable lack of women in positions of authority in their immediate environment. The obvious exception is Drew Faust, the first female university president in Harvard's history. Still, Faust herself observed of Harvard in a 2001 speech, “An institution that less than a century ago defined itself as an incubator for virility is still working out how fully to incorporate women”.

Particularly outside of the classroom, I noticed a considerable difference in the amount of social power held by men over women. One of the roots of this inequality is the final club system, which although no longer sanctioned by the University, still occupies a considerable role in the social scene. All eight of the male-only final clubs were established between 1791 and 1898 and thus have hundreds of years worth of alumni and appreciating real estate values maintaining the opulent Harvard Square residences each of them maintains. While five female-only final clubs have been created over the past 25 years, the differences in financial power and alumni networks between these and their male counterparts is absurdly stark. The male clubs own sufficient space to host regular parties** and at these parties, the male members, who are sophomores through seniors, control which non-member men and women are admitted through the front door in order to attend. Once inside, the members tend to control access to alcohol and there are usually far more female guests than men and members present.

This environment, in which men undoubtedly control social space, causes a power discrepancy that often plays out in sexual encounters. Women, particularly lowerclassmen, recognize that being able to attend these parties and to access alcohol once within them is dependent on the favor of male members. This creates an expressly dangerous dynamic, particularly for female lowerclassmen. This is not to suggest that all male final club members use these circumstances to sexually assault women, rather it enables a few to be able to do so with relative ease. To repeat Forrester's words, this time to describe Harvard instead of St. Paul's, “sexual encounters were based on power differentials,” and while they may not qualify as assault the majority of the time, the situations could devolve into such “easily”. Perhaps the most catastrophic detail of this unequal environment is the way it affects the aftermath of an assault, the aspect that most schools seem are focusing on in recent months. As a number of well-publicized articles (see here, here, and here) can attest, even when a student does report assault to her college, the process can be ultimately devoid of justice and expressly harrowing for the sexual assault victim.

It is more than worth noting that only a small percentage of Harvard's undergraduate population belongs to a final club and while a larger percentage participate in the social events hosted by the clubs with some degree of frequency, the decision to do so is entirely voluntary and there are many social alternatives on campus. Still, I find the sort of power dynamics present between male and female students within the lens of the final clubs to be illustrative of a larger problem that pervades Harvard's campus and campuses nationwide—where women are catching up in numbers and achievement but still find themselves lacking social power and vulnerable to sexual assault. In the Greek system that dominates the social scene on many campuses, most fraternities are permitted by their national governing boards to host parties and serve alcohol within their houses, while nationally affiliated sororities have dry houses for the most part. Thus frats tends to host the majority of parties, and similar to final clubs, brothers generally control attendance and access to alcohol to some extent.

While, I wouldn't posit that all cases of college sexual assault are directly caused by gendered control of social space, I believe that the literal and symbolic relevance of this discrepancy has far more of an effect than administrators and policy makers may realize. On many college campuses and, as the case at St. Paul's demonstrates, some high schools, women are still aware of their status as interlopers within a traditionally male domain. While it is very difficult for colleges to demand reform from social groups in order to make them more gender-equal spaces, I also call upon students themselves to recognize their ability to shift the dynamics that systematically oppress women and demonize men. To quote President Faust for a second time, “But you too must take advantage of this extraordinary moment at Harvard–must as both women and men affirm your equal right to be the norm, to define Harvard as being a woman's as much as a man's space.” Not just at Harvard, but on campuses nationwide, men and women must realize that there is still work to be done in order to make schools truly inclusionary spaces where all students are equally empowered.

First and foremost, I believe that social organizations should be restructured so that men no longer have exclusive access to real estate and financial resources that enable them to host the majority of social events. While this is not a call for the abolition of single-sex organizations, it is rather a suggestion for co-ed hosting of social gatherings. If both men and women control attendance and access to alcohol, it should both equalize the ratio of men and women present at any given event and cause an on overall shift in the gendered dichotomy in existence on many campuses where men control the social space and women require the favor of men in order to participate in social events. Of course, there are far more factors that contribute to sexual assault on campus and this reform alone would not end the problem. However, sexual assault fundamentally results from unequal power between men and women and I believe that dismantling the structures that maintain this inequality is an essential, and often neglected, part of the equation as campuses evaluate how to combat sexual assault.

*In fact, a recent study posits that sexual assault is a direct contributor to the so-called “leaky pipeline” among women on tenure track nationwide. See:

**The oldest of the five female final clubs (established in 1990) does rent a space from one of the male clubs large enough to host social events a few times each semester.