Last Friday night, we sat on a Harvard shuttle and checked our emails on our phones.
It was 12:30 a.m. Frankly, we don’t usually check our emails at 12:30 on weekends. But we had already left the party, and we were barely drunk.
To avoid being overheard, Leah texted Yuval.
“Kinda sad. I’m sad. At Yale I would be writhing on my rug right now.”
“I know! OMG. I’d be so drubj”
“So drunk that texts like that would be ok”
“But also it’s good cuz we go to Yale.”
* * *
The last time we had taken a road trip together, it was to a nudist resort. We couldn’t quite toss that experience from our minds as we drove into Cambridge. Back in the Indian summer of late September, we’d taken a collective gasp before driving up a hill where we stripped and frolicked. That day, we shook off not only our clothes, but also our preconceptions — instead of weirdness, we found a less-than-hippy, kind-of-yuppie sort of grace.
Now was different.
Now, as we snaked up I-84 towards Harvard, on what should have been an exhilarating mission to tap into the Crimson party scene, we caught ourselves yawning instead of gasping. We’d caffeinated before hitting the road, but the text messages flooding in were deflating our expectations for a good time. Every buzz on the smartphone announced yet another glum prophet of our Friday night. “Hopefully you find something fun to do, but it is Harvard so the odds are against you,” said one Facebook message from a Cantab friend.
We fashioned ourselves safari hunters, on the prowl for fun. (And, true to form, by the end of the night we would find ourselves at a jungle-themed frat party.)
But as we sped north, the message was clear: You won’t find fun at Harvard.
Let’s be fair. Fun means different things to different people. When Corey Mallone-Smola ’16 went to The Game at Harvard last year, she tapped into a vibrant nightlife — it just wasn’t to her taste. When she stepped into what seemed like a promising dorm party, she found herself face-to-face with a guy boldly reciting the periodic table of elements. He was just hitting Ununbium (Uub) as she walked towards the bar.
“I took a non-alcoholic Popsicle and walked out,” she said.
Okay, so maybe Harvard’s a little nerdy, a little needy — the place where some people go, and fail, to shed the mathlete varsity jackets of their high school years. Last summer, when a Philadelphia woman put up a Craigslist ad seeking a lover for her virginal freshman son, nobody feigned too much surprise at the fact that he was Harvard-bound.
So is Harvard’s problem self-selection? While Yale pulls in an artsier crowd, does Harvard just attract the weird, overambitious loners who don’t know how to let loose on a dance floor? Judging by the number of Harvard students dissatisfied with the scene, we realized the problem was the converse: Harvard just doesn’t provide a common dance floor.
“There’s no weekend, you know?” said Melanie*, a Harvard sophomore who spoke on the condition of anonymity she believed that given the insular nature of the Harvard social scene, she would be ostracized by the one strictly defined social group to which she belongs. “Even on a Friday night I’m just like, ‘It’s a Wednesday night.’ Nobody’s celebrating together.”
There’s a scene in “The Social Network” when Mark Zuckerberg resists going to another Caribbean Night at the Jewish frat AEPi — he wants more options. We wanted more options, too — more than just the one Sigma Chi event going on. At Yale the previous weekend, we’d swirled at ease from bash to bash, with layovers at G-Heav. At Harvard, Yuval was nearly barred from the one frat party we could find. Furtively hiding his electronic cigarette, the bouncer explained: The name Yuval Ben-David just wasn’t on the list.
Leah Motzkin wasn’t on the list, either. But being a girl, she had no trouble getting into the party. And that’s the crux of the matter: an accessible, inclusive Harvard social scene doesn’t exist.
“There isn’t a Harvard,” Melanie said. “There’s just a place with a bunch of people.”
* * *
The week before in New Haven, Yuval had found himself at a naked party.
It felt like a nudity factory, with a three-step assembly line. You stepped in on the first floor, stripped on the second, partied on the third.
The beauty of this party was that it felt structured. Participating was as easy as showing up. Docents even helped you put your clothes aside in plastic bags. Just the night before, Yuval had stumbled into a more grassroots naked party in a dorm room. The clumsy intentionality of the party, the awkwardness of reaching a consensus among friends on when to undress — and how much — made for lots of giggling and ended with two guys picking up their clothes and bolting out the door.
There’s an unwritten code for naked parties. No touching. No standing on high surfaces, so that your genitals don’t make eye contact with people. No signs of arousal. Operating on the collective agreement to not gawk at one another’s junk, and persuaded by the awkwardness of doing so, people at naked parties often find themselves deep in conversation with each other.
Maybe naked parties are a metaphor for party life at Yale. Yuval went with one friend, but ended up running into other friends at the party, friends from class or the radio station or his residential college — all the overlapping rings that form his life here.
When Melanie laid out Harvard party life, she explained that every party took place within a fixed group setting. Because Harvard has a large student population — with about 6,700 students in the College — there’s a greater degree of separation between students there than at Yale. In other words, you’re only welcome if you know the host. If you’re going to a party organized by a club or an athletic team, she said, the feel is also exclusive. And at finals clubs or fraternities, there’s often a list at the door. Harvard sophomore Danielle Lee offered advice on tapping into the school’s closed social niches.
“Some people definitely have difficulty,” she said. “You kind of have to just put yourself out there.”
Yale’s scene is a bit more fluid, a bit more open.
While Yuval was baring it all, Leah was at the Oxford Apartments, where she doesn’t live, for a party she technically should not have been invited to. She had received an email the week before — a tasteful Paperless Post invitation adorned by three strokes of paint — requesting her presence at Theta Fall Crush at the Alchemy Lounge. She had RSVP’d yes, looking forward to the several-hour open bar that the event would surely provide. Though not a sister of any of Yale’s three sororities, Leah spent her Saturday night as one of the many girls in heels. The fact that she wasn’t actually in Theta was not an issue. One of her friends wanted her there, so she was.
* * *
We’ll admit that we didn’t have the typical Harvard experience.
We went to a frat party. And even that, just barely.
There are only three fraternities at Harvard (SAE, AEPi and Sig Chi), and the first two are far from campus. So we ended up at Sig Chi on the heels of a pack of junior girls who had taken pity on our party-less plight. We assumed they knew the local hotspots. They were on the list. We were not. Leah squeezed through the door, but finagling an entrance for Yuval was a tedious diplomatic undertaking. It was only after one friendly junior girl from inside mobilized her Sig Chi connections that they grudgingly allowed entry to the male member of our duo.
Once inside, the scene we found was reminiscent of SAE late night at Yale. Girls and brothers were playing games of pong, red solo cups in hand. We needed to be drunker than we were, so we followed the sticky red trail down a set of narrow stairs. Entering the dark basement, our bodies slammed against a sea of men in Hawaiian shirts and girls in bikinis.
We slid into a circle of Harvard girls dancing in the corner. Wallflowers that we were, we took in the scene. The girl-to-guy ratio was high; when we asked one of our new Harvard friends about the demographics of the neon basement, she said dismissively, “They’re from Wellesley or [Boston University].”
The scene at Harvard’s finals clubs is perhaps the more gilded manifestation of this gender disparity. The single-sex groups (there are eight all-male clubs and five all-female ones) function as the campus’s core social hives.
Nicole Bassoff, a sophomore at Harvard, tries to avoid them. She thinks their parties are over-glorified and rarely enjoyable. Some nights, the clubs are a sea of girls with only a few club members walking in their midst. Other nights, the parties consist of an awkward, predatory expanse of guys surrounding only a handful of girls. Every night at a finals club, she said, involves “slopping around.”
At The Game last year, Leah experienced a night like the first Bassoff described. She and a group of girl friends had left their male friends behind on the steps of the Owl Club, an all-male Harvard finals club. Laughing at the image of her friends pouting outside, Leah stopped short inside a dark, wood-paneled room. Scantily clad women packed the space while a few guys danced around them, exuding an air of entitlement. Danielle Ellison ’15 summed up Leah’s feelings perfectly when, reflecting on her own experience at last year’s Game, she said, “You feel like you’re at a country club turned into a strip club.”
Many Harvard students interviewed declined to comment on the record for fear of being removed from the lists that have come to dictate their social lives. One Harvard junior, Jennifer*, remarked that any betrayal of her identity would endanger both her social standing and that of her sorority. She recounted a conversation she once overheard between partygoers at finals clubs — most of whom, she noted, are not Harvard students. “I have actually walked in behind them saying to one another ‘Okay, ladies, find a place to sleep tonight, or find your future husbands’,” she said. In Boston, a city home to dozens of undergraduate institutions, the opportunities for sexual encounters are plentiful — and the movement of partiers from school to school can sometimes resemble a game of musical chairs. For many female college students, Harvard is a prime destination, resulting in a campus social scene that seems to revolve around males. Ellison articulated one difference she perceived between Yale and Harvard’s party cultures.
“[In Cambridge] nobody cared who you are, whether you were from Harvard or Yale or BU,” she recalled. “At Yale, you enter parties as groups of friends, you don’t enter a party as a girl — at Harvard, you’re girls being brought in as opposed to friends being welcomed.”
* * *
As we walked towards our car at the weekend’s end, a male student with his chest taped to a tree called out at Leah, asking for her phone number. It was the Harvard equivalent to Yale’s senior society tap night, combined with elements of a fraternity rush. The “punch process,” as it is called, is a two- to four-week period in which sophomore “neophytes” earn their coveted spots in Harvard’s vaunted finals clubs. The process is shrouded in secrecy. Only after securing anonymity did one Harvard student divulge some of the tasks required of students during this period. For the Phoenix, she said, one friend was called on to catch a fish in the Charles River. For the Porcellian, another purchased a pig and let it loose in one of the freshmen houses.
But however distasteful these tasks, Harvard freshmen await them as a necessary evil — perhaps even a rite of passage.
“The Harvard social scene is very hierarchical,” Harvard freshman Kennedy Edmonds said, “and freshman boys are at the very bottom.” He was initially dissatisfied by the role Harvard forced him to play in their social culture, but he has since begun to view it in a more positive light. Edmonds said the common experience has allowed him to form close friendships with other freshmen boys. If nothing else, he is excited for the years to come.
“Social life at Harvard gets better every year for boys and worse every year for girls,” Becky said. In their first week, freshmen rely on the finals club scene. Freshmen girls, that is. According to Bassoff, life for freshmen boys is “kind of miserable.” Their social lives consist of waiting to rush a frat or to be punched by a finals club in their sophomore year.
For freshmen girls, the scene is less exclusive. While Moni Awolesi said she does not go out often, she has never felt unwelcome at a party. Still, what the Cantabs are lacking did not escape her. Looking up at us from her table at Veggie Planet, she asked, “Harvard-Yale is better when it’s at Yale, right?”
* * *
Back on Yale’s campus the following night, we found one another again, this time on the steps of Sigma Nu. Yuval was arriving from a feminist zine release party, and Leah was coming back from the Oaxaca bar, where she had shared margaritas with her suitemates. We embraced and were happy to wait our turn in line, secure in the knowledge that we would both be let in and be able to toast the end of our adventure together.