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Take Back the Party

Campus feminists need to reinvent college nightlife

Erin Patrice O'Brien

At a glance, Princeton University seems like a welcoming place to be a female undergraduate. In 2007, the year I matriculated, Princeton boasted a record-breaking female enrollment (41 percent) in its School of Engineering. Shirley Tilghman reigned as Princeton’s first female president and the second female president in the Ivy League. Every semester, it seemed, another student was founding a group to promote gender equality and assault prevention. With a generous financial aid program and new cultural studies departments, 21st-century Princeton was shedding its image as an elitist, old-boys club.

But a late-night walk down Princeton’s Prospect Avenue would offer a different view. Here you’ll find the eating clubs, the heart of Princeton’s social life, a series of Colonial and Tudor-style mansions reeking of tradition and booze. The rooms are wood-paneled; the chairs are upholstered in leather; the air is redolent with the sour (yet not entirely unpleasant) stench of bad beer. For many freshman, walking into Ivy or Cottage or Cap and Gown confirms a sense belonging to a rarefied atmosphere: not only America’s highest academic echelons but, more coveted still, its highest social echelons. Here sat and ate and partied F. Scott Fitzgerald and John D. Rockefeller and—somewhat less eminently—Donald Rumsfeld and Eliot Spitzer.

The clubs operate, in essence, as co-ed fraternities. This makes them sound deceptively progressive. In fact, a current of casual, everyday sexism runs just beneath the surface of Princeton’s party culture. Last November, by way of example, an officer at the club Tiger Inn mass-emailed a sexually explicit photo of a female student. Another officer at the same club invited members to heckle the Princeton alumna whose 1991 Supreme Court lawsuit forced the club to admit women. “Ever wonder who we have to thank (blame) for gender equality?” the club’s treasurer wrote. “Looking for someone to blame for the influx of girls? Come tomorrow and help boo Sally Frank.”

This sort of behavior tends to escape wide scrutiny. When the public does notice, leaders issue a formal apology, maybe pull the offenders from their posts. After a widely publicized sexual assault in 2006, the same club stopped serving alcohol for two months and implemented a few safety measures. But the culture was unabated. As a Princeton student recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Before I even arrived on campus my freshman year, I heard the Tiger Inn stories: competitive projectile vomiting, harmonious chanting of ‘tits for beer,’ and naked guys standing on tables while strumming their ‘penis guitars.’” Beyond the clubs (indeed, beyond Princeton) there are the themed parties, like “pimps and hoes” night or one-article-of-clothing night. IvyGate, a popular Ivy League gossip website, routinely features lists like “hottest freshman girls” or “hottest virgins on campus,” in which men can not-so-discreetly render their appraisals. By day, Princeton girls lead seminar discussions, read Judith Butler, and organize eating disorder awareness groups. By night, they often encounter a primitive culture of objectification and degradation.

Casual misogyny is hardly restricted to the Ivies. Consider the University of Virginia's traditional fight song “Rugby Road,” with its lyrics about “ten thousand Pi Phi bitches who get down on their knees.” Or the email leaked last year from the Georgia Tech chapter of Phi Kappa Tau. It instructed members on how to lure “rapebait.”

Campus assaults don’t come from nowhere. They’re rooted in the vexed gender relations of America’s college party culture. Though women have made tremendous progress in many areas of university life, their status in the social scene lags noticeably behind. If we want to diminish the incidence of college rapes, we have to examine the larger social atmosphere in which they occur.

How do women fit into the party atmosphere? What are they for? Much of the college social scene is about young people—men and women—getting what they want sexually. Too often, this means a scene geared toward getting women drunk and making them compliant. Still, many girls love to participate in party culture. In 2012, for the first time, more women than men applied to join Tiger Inn. This hardly bespeaks gender equality. During my first foray into a Princeton club, a delighted male freshman gushed about how wonderful it was to be at a place that offered such long-standing traditions and beautiful women. He articulated the impression I always had at the clubs, which was that the girls weren’t really equal members but instead added perks for the guys’ amusement.

Princeton’s august eating clubs might seem a world apart from the average frat party, but in many ways they embody the contradictions and inequities that typify American college nightlife. Like fraternities, the clubs cultivate a deeply patriarchal sense of entitlement and power, conveyed in their masculine furnishings, their mottos (Tiger Inn: “Always in the Right”), their macho activities and rituals, their unofficial reputations (Cottage: the southern gentlemen’s club). Above all, they’re founded on a reverence for tradition. But women’s relationship to this tradition is ambivalent, to say the least. Though Princeton began admitting women in 1969, the clubs remained exclusively male until the '80s and '90s (some, like Tiger Inn, only caving under the compulsion of Sally Frank’s Supreme Court lawsuit).

“Tradition” is a troubling concept generally in this discussion, as it looks back, fondly, to a time when women were conspicuously absent or conspicuously powerless. At Princeton, women have tried to embrace tradition and change concurrently, taking on officer positions at some clubs (while other clubs remain very male-dominated). Still, one cannot help feeling that this patriarchal inheritance lends men an authority and ownership over the social environment that women simply don’t have. Like sorority girls at frat parties, there’s a sense in which they are still visitors, guests.

Surely, women should be able to drink alongside their male peers. (For many Princeton girls, this is the appeal of Tiger Inn, where they feel they can party like guys without being judged.) And, surely, their exercise of freedom includes the freedom to attend whatever parties they choose, including “pimps and hoes” nights that are obvious, campy ploys to get women to dress provocatively. The problem goes to the heart of sexual liberation and its fallout: Women’s liberation has become, at times, a source of exploitation. This is exacerbated by the reality that the college social scene is still basically dictated by male desire and interests. Would women throw a one-article-of-clothing party of their own accord? (Why, for that matter, do they put up with it at all? Maybe for male approval, maybe because their older sorority sisters encourage it, maybe just because of “tradition.”)

At Princeton, a small but vocal group of conservatives, the Anscombe Society, pushes back against these norms by advocating chastity, the sanctity of marriage, and “a conception of feminism that encourages motherhood.” Thirty-two Anscombe—or similar—societies stretch from California State University to Yale. They’re part of the Love and Fidelity Network, which held its seventh annual national conference on “sexual integrity” at Princeton in November. In effect, they want to undo the history of sexual liberation, to revert to the ethics of the 1950s, when gays were closeted and women were all either virgins or happy housewives.

Anscombe members see a link between contemporary “hookup culture” and the incidence of rape, and while their response is shockingly backwards, even misogynistic, it’s also symptomatic of a society looking for alternatives to the status quo. Sexual liberation has been a two-steps forward, one-step-back kind of progress. Women want to be free of the social and sexual mores that constrained previous generations, but they haven’t solved how to do that on their own terms, as agents rather than objects. At base, it’s a problem of power. (“Liberation means power,” Susan Sontag wrote, “or it hardly means anything at all.”) College women may be free to do as they like, but too often theirs remains a powerless freedom. The question is: How do women take back power? And what would a college social scene, in which men and women interact as equals, look like?

Some have suggested that the dynamic might shift if sororities could serve alcohol. This privilege has long belonged only to fraternities, which means that men control the environments at Greek parties: Guys watch the doors, make the drinks, know the entrances and exits. As one sorority sister told the New York Times, “The whole social scene is embedded in the fraternity house, and makes us dependent on them.” If sororities held their own parties, women could monitor the alcohol and decide which men to welcome and which to kick out. Since women who attend frat parties are significantly more likely than others to be sexually assaulted, changing something as basic as who hosts the party could have real consequences if it leads to more control for women. “That dynamic,” another sorority member argued, “is one of the key reasons fraternity members feel so entitled to women’s bodies, because women have no ownership of the social scene.”

The failings of the current party scene indicate, in some sense, a failure of imagination—the imagination of what truly liberated social relations could look like. But perhaps we are also seeing a failure of will. Have young women become too complacent? At Princeton I saw some girls eager to address “issues”—abortion, anorexia, women in the workplace—but slow to connect this “empowered” thinking to the lived experience of their own lives. College women should vote with their feet. Activism doesn’t only have to mean rallying in D.C. for equal pay. It can also mean taking back power through the choices you make on a Friday night. Women need to remake college culture in a way that reflects their arrival on the scene.