Harvard senior Julia Lewandoski paints a bleak picture of a weekend night in Cambridge.

“What happens on a Friday night at Harvard is that a lot of groups of drunk people wander around looking for places to go,” she said.

There are sometimes room parties, she said, but they get old. There are sometimes house parties, she said, but they get old, too. Harvard has few frats — only one with a house — so they cannot accommodate the wandering drunk people, and the bars in gentrified Cambridge, which serve $10 cheeseburgers and $12 cocktails, are usually not an option for students.

“There’s really not a lot of social space here,” she said. “That turns final clubs into places where a surprising amount of people go.”

Like Princeton’s eating clubs, Harvard’s final clubs play an important role in the social lives of at least some students. The clubs — which, like Yale’s secret societies, are old, exclusive and moneyed, but unlike Yale societies, are sex-segregated — often throw invite-only parties in their houses, which are dispersed throughout the center of Harvard’s campus. This puts the final clubs at the center of the debate surrounding campus social life: what Harvard can do to offer its students a better Friday night.

The Harvard final clubs were established in the late 1800s as social clubs for wealthy students. The term “final club” comes from the original process Harvard students underwent in joining clubs. Harvard freshmen joined the Hasty Pudding club; the club they joined in their sophomore year was their final club. Today, eight all-male final clubs — The Porcellian, The Phoenix, The Spee, The Delphic, The Owl, The Fly, The A.D. and The Fox — operate out of houses on or near the Harvard campus. Two all-female final clubs — The Bee and The Isis — and one all-female service organization, The Seneca, have also sprung up in the past 20 years.

Students gain membership to a final club through the “punch” process, which occurs each year in September and October. In contrast to Princeton’s eating clubs, which accept applications, students cannot apply to be punched, but are identified through networks of friends. Each club initially punches 100 to 150 students, usually sophomores, and through a series of events narrows the pool down to 15 or 20. The Harvard Crimson estimated that about 10 percent of male Harvard students are members of final clubs.

Sophomore Arlo Hill was punched for the Porcellian Club this fall. The punch events, he said, included a trip to an estate and to the house of a Porcellian Club alum. Hill said he was not seriously interested in joining a final club but attended the punch events out of curiosity.

“Final clubs in general, at least among the people I spend a lot of time with, have a kind of bad rap,” he said. “There’s a lot of controversy about them. I was very interested in just going and seeing what they’re about.”

The controversy surrounding final clubs, Hill said, boils down to two main aspects of the organizations: They are single-sex, and they are exclusive. Harvard’s final clubs are unique among the “HYP” elite organizations in remaining single-sex, as both the secret societies and the eating clubs were co-ed by the early 1990s. Though the final clubs were always private, they became completely dissociated from the university in 1984 when Harvard said the clubs could either go co-ed or dissociate.

Zachary Corker, a 2004 Harvard graduate and special assistant to the university’s dean of undergraduate students, confirmed that the administration has no relationship with the final clubs.

“The university does not recognize them,” he said. “The official stance is sort of that they don’t exist.”

But many undergraduates said that despite the university’s official separation from the final clubs, the clubs play a large role in the experience of Harvard students, even those who are not members. Dan Sachs, a junior who is not a member of a club, said the final clubs are a prominent part of social life at Harvard.

“At Harvard, freshmen don’t have much freedom to do much partying at all in their own rooms,” he said. “For a lot of freshman girls, the final clubs are kind of a big scene.”

Alicia Menendez, a 2005 graduate of the college, wrote her senior thesis on the issue of final clubs and gender. For the thesis, which was titled “To Whom Many Doors Are Still Locked: Gender, Space, and Power in Harvard Final Clubs,” Menendez interviewed more than 40 final club members to examine how the single-sex status of the clubs affects gender relationships at Harvard. She argued that the entrenchment of the all-male final clubs, which own a large portion of the social space in Harvard Square, gives the members of the clubs a distinct advantage both while they are at Harvard and after they graduate.

Menendez’s conclusion is worrisome to many Harvard students. Last year, Lewandoski started an anti-final club organization called Students Against Super Sexist Institutions — We Oppose Oppressive Final Clubs.

“The university doesn’t take responsibility for them,” she said. “But obviously it affects the power dynamic between women and men here.”

On Friday nights at Harvard, Lewandowski said, final clubs are easily identifiable by the male members smoking cigarettes on their stoops and the “dressed-up” girls lining up to get in. She said she worries about the freshmen and other girls who see final clubs as their main social outlet.

“If you’re a freshman girl, these older guys you don’t know are controlling your access to alcohol, and they’re controlling your access to the space very literally,” she said.

Students said many final clubs have rooms that restrict access to members even during parties where non-members are present. Final club members and officers declined to comment on their activities or the gender controversy.

Despite the concern regarding gender, Menendez said women are not in fact the members of the Harvard population most disadvantaged by the clubs.

“Really, the people who are at the biggest loss are freshman men and non-member males,” she said. “If you are a male, but you are not a member of a final club, you really don’t have access to that space.”

But Sachs said Harvard men have other options besides final clubs.

“There are plenty of available women for guys to find in this area,” he said. “There are tens of thousands of people our age. They’re more than willing to hang out with a Harvard guy, even if he’s not in a final club.”

Women, Menendez said, can only gain “superficial” entrance to the clubs, either at parties or through their boyfriends.

“For the duration of the relationship, you are in many ways treated as a member,” she said. “But as soon as that bond is broken, so is your relationship to the club.”

Menendez said the problem with final clubs is simply part of the larger problem of social space at Harvard. The university, she said, needs to take “active steps” towards having more recreational space on campus. Though she does not think there is an absolute solution to the issues created by final clubs, Menendez said giving students social options outside of the clubs would be a step in the right direction.

“I think there are ways to level the playing field,” she said. “But the real answer is that it’s not an easily solved problem.”

Corker, dubbed Harvard’s “Fun Czar” after he was hired last year to address problems in Harvard’s social life, said the administration is taking several steps to provide new social space to students. Next February, Harvard will open a campus pub in the basement of Memorial Hall, a building that also houses the school’s main dining hall. The pub will include a full bar and restaurant, a dance floor and a stage, and will be accessible by all students with a Harvard ID.

Corker said he expects the pub to be an important development for Harvard’s social life.

“Harvard isn’t unique in having a campus pub, but I think it’s a pretty progressive statement by the university,” he said.

But even with more social space, students said they think the final clubs will remain an important part of Harvard’s culture.

“It’s hard for universities like Yale and Harvard not to have that culture,” Hill said. “People get upset that only certain people can get admitted to final clubs, but of course only certain people can get admitted to Harvard or Yale.”