It was Labor Day weekend, and I was sitting on the back porch of my friend’s house on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. It had been a warm day, and four female friends and I had spent it napping on the rocky beach. When the sun dropped below the mountains, one friend went inside to get some sweatshirts, while another began to light mosquito-repelling candles.
We were all entering our senior year at Princeton, and the conversation turned from anticipating our final year to remembering our first. We talked about making friends, making the wrong friends, losing people, and gaining better ones in the process. We talked about how difficult the social scene was for us to navigate as freshmen, how planning a night out began at lunch the day before, worrying over which tenuous connection we would ask for a pass or list spot this week.
We entered Princeton in the fall of 2012, the first year that the ban on freshman rush took effect. Meeting older people, especially older girls, was extremely difficult for those of us not on sports teams or in performing groups. Often, the only way we could get passes was through older guys who had approached us on nights out. Over the course of our conversation, each of the five girls present described having an interaction or repeated interactions with these older males that ranged from unwanted advances to sexual assault.
Once we entered sophomore year, however, the sexual politics of going out either disappeared or diminished greatly. Either we joined a sorority or had friends who did. Suddenly, we had access to passes through older females, and the sexually charged exchanges that had characterized our freshman years all but disappeared.
When I got back to campus a week later, I was still thinking about this conversation. The stories I heard from my friends were disturbing, and I could not help but feel that by banning freshmen from Greek life, the administration had inadvertently put freshman women at greater risk. Over the course of the semester, I gathered stories from women and men on campus regarding their experience going to eating clubs their freshman year in order to understand the ways in which the rush ban has exacerbated the sexual power dynamics endemic to the pass and list system.*
“I’ve thought a lot about this, actually.” Caroline, a junior who did not rush a sorority, perches, bird-like on the edge of my sofa. “But every time I brought it up with people I would get this reaction like, ‘Really? Why do you care that much about getting passes?’ Or like, ‘It’s that hard for you to get passes?’ It adds this weird dimension of shame. Like maybe I should have more connections than I do.”
Late one night during her sophomore fall, an older guy approached Caroline at a party and started hitting on her. She ended up giving him her number, just to get him to leave her alone, and the following week he texted her, asking if she wanted a pass to his club.
“I thought, well, I don’t really want to see this dude again, but I really want the pass, so I kind of played along.” Caroline ended up getting a pass from him, a process that she remembers as highly uncomfortable. “I have this distinct memory of showing up to this random room and he and his friends were playing beer-pong, and he had his shirt off and was already pretty drunk. I had just come from the library so I’m there with my backpack. I felt like the nerdiest little underclassman ever.” This went on for a couple weeks. Sometimes he would text her and offer her a pass, and other times she would ask him for one. He even helped her get passes for another friend as well.
“I felt like he was pulling all these strings for me,” Caroline said, “and because of that he expected something from me.” When I asked if he had ever made any explicit reference to her owing him something, Caroline was quick to say no, clarifying that “it was an implicit thing.”
This sense of indebtedness was something I encountered again and again in my conversations with these women. It was never verbalized, but the implication was there: he gave you something, so you were obligated to give him something in return. This, after all, is how reciprocity works, and it is typically considered good practice to return favors that one receives. Given that these younger, as-yet-unaffiliated women have no passes to give in return. Over time, a sense of obligation builds, which can lead to some unsavory situations.
Caroline did her best to be polite to her benefactor without leading him on. When she saw him at his club, she was polite. But he was flirtatious, and he even tried to walk her home a couple times. Then one night, he asked her to dance. By her recollection, the guilt of favors unreturned had been building for several weeks, and so she accepted.
“I danced with him. It was really uncomfortable because it quickly became very intimate and I was not comfortable with that.” The next time he texted her, Caroline didn’t respond. After that, she could occasionally get passes through her sophomore friends who had joined sororities, but she hated feeling like she was always asking for favors. Without another channel to get passes, she went to his club very rarely.
Herein lies the really pernicious part of this problem. If there is an understanding among men and women on campus that giving someone a pass might lead to a sexual encounter, then ending a relationship like this comes with consequences. Ending a relationship with someone who is giving you passes, either by stating that you are not interested before it turns sexual or by ending an ongoing affair, means cutting off one’s access to certain social institutions. Without clear channels to meet older female friends—through teams, a performing arts group, or a Greek organization—underclassmen women are often placed in the position of either continuing a relationship that might make them uncomfortable, or sacrificing the ability to socialize with their friends at certain clubs.
“It was never like ‘I’m giving you so many passes, so you have to fuck me,’” Sandy, now a sophomore, tells me. “It was more like, ‘I’m being so nice and such a generous guy, why don’t you want to fuck me?’” Sandy and I sat outside of Frist on a windy fall day, and I listened while she recalled a relationship she had with an older male her freshman year.
“He was very happy to give me passes,” she remembers, “it was a share-the-wealth type thing.” But Sandy is not naïve, and she understood that their relationship was not entirely platonic. “There was always the underlying hope or expectation that, ultimately, it would lead to sexual relationship.”
Despite the acute social pressure of sophomore year, when both rush and bicker occur, Sandy is astonishingly self-assured. When I asked if she had ever ended up hooking up with this older guy, her answer took me somewhat by surprise.
“We did ultimately hook-up once or twice later in the semester,” she said, ambivalently. I asked if she felt this sexual encounter to be in some way the culmination of a semester’s worth of gifts, and Sandy nodded vigorously. “There were other gifts too,” she recalled, “he had a car and would take me out to dinner. He took me to formals and brought me flowers and chocolates.”
In this way, Sandy’s feeling that she owed him something in return can be likened to any number of romantic relationships in which one partner pays for the other’s meals, to take an obvious example. But Rebecca, a junior, thinks there is something different about the dynamics that are produced by the exchange of passes. “Because it’s not money,” Rebecca reasons, “ultimately, the question of what exactly you might owe someone is more subliminal.”
As a freshman, Rebecca was part of a performing arts group that “functioned sort of like a frat.” As soon as she joined, she received an email with a spreadsheet of which members were in which clubs, and was encouraged to reach out to older members for passes. Because of this network, Rebecca was not forced to “put [herself] in weird situations to get passes,” in the same way that Caroline and Sandy were. She had, however, had friends who had been in similar situations, who had gone to a stranger’s bedroom to pick up a pass, and was aware of the perceived suggestiveness of the pass-exchange.
“I think I was sort of aware of the ways in which passes—that transaction—could be used to put two people who might not otherwise have to share a space in a shared space.” She attempted to use this sexually charged transaction to her advantage when, as a freshman, she was interested in hooking up with a senior guy outside of her performing arts group. It was a big night at his club, and though there were people from her group she could have asked, she chose to ask him. But when she went to his room, he gave her the pass and then bluntly asked her to leave.
Rebecca left in a huff. “I was like, ‘I asked him for a pass, I thought he would understand that was the subtext of me going to his room.’” She found out later that he did, in fact, understand the implication of her asking him for a pass, but he was dating someone at the time and wanted to make sure she understood that he was not interested. Two years later, Rebecca finds it amusing how their roles had been inverted, freshman girl attempting to use the sexual undertones of a pass-exchange to move in on an unsuspecting senior boy. “I guess I just didn’t know as many situations in which a dude wouldn’t take advantage of that subtext.”
When there is an imbalance of power in a relationship—whether it be financial, professional or otherwise—it becomes more difficult for the less powerful partner to exercise true consent, fearful that something on which they are dependent (money, employment, etc.), might be taken away from them if they deny their partner something. This is true for Princeton as well, where social power is concentrated among the upperclassmen. Relationships between affiliated upperclassmen and unaffiliated underclassmen are inherently imbalanced when it comes to the possession of social capital in the form of passes or list spots. The way in which this disparity of power interferes with the freedom of consent is evidenced most explicitly by the experience of one particular woman with whom I spoke.
In the early days of her freshman year, Charlotte got passes from a freshman friend on her hall who had a cousin in one of the clubs, but that didn’t last long. “After a while he was like, Charlotte, can’t you get your own passes? So I was like okay, I have to start making those connections.”
These connections were most often older males that had approached her at parties. Looking at Charlotte, sitting across from me and fiddling with her salad, it is easy to see why these men had approached her. She is the kind of beautiful that makes you think of old movies, of Marilyn Monroe in full color. Despite the attention she got, Charlotte tells me that she was not interested in the hook-up scene. But when she asked these guys for passes, she could sense that there was some kind of expectation attached. “After all,” she admits, “that’s the reason they approached me in the first place.”
In order to take the suggestion of sexual favors off the table, Charlotte came up with other ways to show her gratitude. She baked cookies and cupcakes for men who had given her passes and list spots as an “alternative thank you,” a way to even the scales between them and remove the pressure of a favor unreciprocated. Despite all her efforts to maintain a platonic relationship with these guys, a couple still made moves on her when she came to their clubs. When this happened, she would tell them she was not interested, and after that, the passes stopped. These experiences taught her that explicitly taking sex off the table had consequences on her social life and made her more hesitant to do so in the future.
These things never go exactly how you think they will, and when Charlotte was sexually assaulted in the spring of her freshman year, it was by someone for whom she had never felt the need to bake cookies, someone she had considered a friend. She had been introduced to this boy—let’s call him Paul—by an older friend who had dated him. Because he was her friend’s ex-boyfriend, “he had always seemed like a safe person to ask,” since she believed there was an understanding that they would not hook up. Paul was a sophomore on a team, and Charlotte started getting list spots through him in the fall.
In the spring, he joined a bicker club, and it became “more of a direct exchange.” When she expressed interested in bickering his club, he was enthusiastic. He offered to take her to meals, introduce her to members, and since she had no other way to meet members of the club, she was happy and grateful that he wanted to help her. He put her on the list virtually every night out. Suddenly, Charlotte had an in to the notoriously exclusive Princeton social scene—she felt like she was finally finding her place.
One night, she ran into him as the club was closing. “It was late,” she remembers, “And I was pretty drunk.” All her friends had left, and she was hanging out with Paul when he suggested they go post-game with his friends. “He kept saying, I want you to meet these guys because they’re in [the club]. You should meet them, since you want to bicker.” She agreed, and they walked back toward campus, but when they reached his friends’ quad where the post-game was to take place, there was no one home. He had a single next door, and he suggested they wait for them in his room. Charlotte said she should probably head home. But Paul just kept saying how important it was that she meets these guys, so eventually she agreed to wait for them in his room.
He turned on the TV. They sat down on his couch. Paul started to kiss her. Charlotte told him to stop. “I said, we’re friends, you dated my friend, this is not going to happen.” But Paul didn’t see it that way. “He was like, come on Charlotte, you came home with me.” From there, things only got worse. “He was on top of me and a lot bigger than me.” He forced himself inside her, and when she woke up the next day, bruises covering her thighs, she walked herself to McCosh.
This experience “destroyed” the rest of her semester. She was depressed and withdrawn, far from the energetic and extroverted woman she was before and is again now. Looking back, not just on the incident itself, but everything that led up to it—the struggle to find passes, to feel like she belonged, the baking, the boys who stopped talking to her when she didn’t want to sleep with them, and then boy she had thought was safe—she can’t help feeling like things could have been different.
“All I can really think about,” she says, “looking back on that, is that if I had had a network of women—not just a senior girl who got me passes every once in a while, but women who had just been through the year that I was going through, and knew what I was going to face in terms of schoolwork, in terms of friends, in terms of boys, I can’t help but think that my freshman year would have gone extremely differently.”
When she joined a sorority in the fall of her sophomore year, she found this support network. She met girls that helped her choose her major, that looked out for her at parties, and helped her get passes to those parties every weekend. While she might have to bring these older girls coffee in the library, she “never had to worry about being inappropriately groped on the dance floor.” Her relationships with men changed too, as they were relationships that she wanted to have, “rather than relationships I felt I needed to foster in order to get into a club.”
“I felt safe,” she says, taking her first bite of food since we started speaking. “I had women who had my back.”
Reflecting on my conversations with these women, I had a hard time reconciling the image they conjured of older male students on campus as some vaguely predatory mass, with my own male friends, whom I consider kind and thoughtful individuals. But I remember my own freshman year. I remember the weight of an older boy’s hand on my ass, telling me in a beer-soaked whisper to text him “if I ever needed a pass…” As I got older, I rushed a sorority, bickered an eating club, and generally stopped dealing with trash boys who made me feel like I owed them sex. I also developed close friendships with the men in my own year, and now, as a senior, it is hard to imagine that these men might be perpetuating the same unsavory power dynamics that my friends and I were subjected to in our first year and that are clearly alive and well on campus.
Jackson, a senior, has been wrestling with the same issue in his personal life. For the last few months, he’s been in a casual relationship with a freshman girl, a relationship that he tries to keep quiet for fear of being labeled as the “creepy older dude.”
“Sometimes she asks me for passes, and that’s something that makes me really uncomfortable,” Jackson admits. “It’s like, is she hooking up with me so she can get passes? I like to think that she’s not, because that would be really shitty.” He says that he will give her a pass every other week, not to lord his power over her, but because he is uncomfortable with the idea that their relationship is based on some kind of exchange. As a member of a fraternity and an eating club, he is aware that he possesses a certain amount of social capital that she does not, and he understands that this can lead to an unhealthy dynamic. “I know I’m in a greater position of influence and power, and I don’t want to use that to make her do things she’s not into.”
There is another, more logistical reason that Jackson doesn’t give this young woman passes too often: “the vast majority of my passes go to the pledges. I only give a pass to this girl every five or so nights out because, like, pledges come first.”
Steve, a junior who is a member of both a fraternity and an eating club, agrees with Jackson, telling me that for most of his Greek affiliated male friends, “if you’re not giving passes to a pledge, you’re giving them to one of the brothers who’s in a different club or is unaffiliated.”
While he may not be giving passes to younger girls, he doesn’t see any issue with mentioning the possibility of him doing so when flirting with them. “It’s something I’ll bring up as a conversation piece. Like if I’m talking to a younger girl, I’ll find a way to work it in. Like, ‘Hey, what year are you? You’re a freshman? I’m a junior. Yes, I am in a club. If you ever need passes, let me know.’”
But he never follows up. He’s not interested in actually giving the young women passes, more in offering them, since it’s an easy way for him to announce his standing in the Princeton social scene. “Saying you’re in a club is a shorthand way of saying I have friends and I know people, like, I’m not a random person. At Princeton where everyone is status conscious, that’s important.”
After saying this, Steve finds himself thinking back on his own freshman year. “I know for a fact that freshman year me would have hated this idea,” he reflected, “because freshman year me didn’t have those affiliations that make someone who they are at Princeton.”
Freshman year, after all, is not easy for men either. Jackson and Steve both reported having a great deal of difficulty finding passes as freshman. Jackson almost exclusively went to PUID clubs his freshman year, and Steve said he joined a club sports team he was barely interested in to gain access to clubs. (He subsequently dropped this team when he joined a fraternity.) Jackson and Steve remember resenting the fact that the women in their year were able to gain access to the exclusive clubs more easily because older guys wanted to hook up with them. None of the men I spoke to reported being offered passes by older women in a suggestive way their freshman year—most felt that these women were simply not interested in meeting them. Now as seniors, Jackson and Steve both find the idea of giving passes to a younger girl unsavory in some way. The obvious imbalance of power in these relationships makes both parties more insecure, both fearful that the other might take advantage of them.
But the memory of freshman year still looms large for these men. They remember seeing older males wield their power to hook up with their female classmates and feeling like the lowest men on the totem pole, excluded from both Greek life and half of the Street. These unpleasant memories have led Steve in particular to feel more justified in using his social capital to get girls: “You don’t feel good about it, but it’s kind of like, I waited so long to get here, and I know everyone else was doing it.”
By providing a platonic bridge from freshmen to upperclassmen, the pre-Rush ban Greek system was capable of alleviating the pressure that the pass/list system places on freshman. Even women who did not rush said that getting passes was easier once they had peers in Greek organizations, the effects of opening the channels between freshmen and upperclassmen diffusing out beyond the Greek system proper.
Beth, a member of the class of 2015—the last class to experience freshman rush—chose not to rush a sorority her first year. While this limited her ability to go to certain clubs somewhat, most of Beth’s friends had rushed in the fall, and so she was able to get passes through them.
“As time went on,” she tells me over text, “I met and made friends with people in clubs and started reaching out to them for passes, but I didn’t want to be annoying and ask the same person every time. So a lot of the time I relied on friends in sororities.”
Having freshman friends in sororities made it easier for her to go out on a typical weekend, but they could not help her every night. For big nights, such as formal events, Beth remembers being unable to find a spot through a friend, and instead accepted invitations from “creepy senior guys.” After one such event, her senior date tried to pick her up and carry her back to her dorm room. “My RCA saw from across the street and shut it down,” she types, and I can almost see her shudder through my phone screen. “So bad.”
This is to say that it is not as if everything was perfect before the rush ban took effect—there were still creepy guys who attempted to use their membership in clubs to hook up with freshman girls, and the freshman girls who did not join a sorority were at a greater risk of getting into uncomfortable situations with these men. However, having classmates and friends who did join Greek organizations as freshman alleviated some of the pressure by creating a channel through which passes and list spots filtered down to the freshman class.
“Honestly,” Beth says, “it was sexual enough when I was an independent freshman and there were only a handful of us that were going to bicker clubs. I can’t even imagine what it’s like now.”
What I gathered in these interviews, only a handful of which have been quoted is here, is that the freshman rush ban, which took effect three years ago, has had a much more complicated and at times sinister impact on the undergraduate community than the administration may have originally anticipated. In a 2011 letter to the undergraduate community regarding the ban, then-President Shirley Tilghman said, “the decision to prohibit freshman-year affiliation and recruitment is driven primarily by a conviction that social and residential life at Princeton should continue to revolve around the residential colleges, the eating clubs, and the shared experience of essentially all undergraduates living and dining on campus.” With regards to the eating clubs, this has remained true. The Princeton social scene continues to revolve around the twelve clubs on the street, six of which are regularly on pass or list for nights out. But by removing freshmen from the Greek system, the administration has severed the ties that used to connect the freshman class to upperclassmen in eating clubs.
For freshman males, this typically means not going to the exclusive clubs, or going very infrequently. For freshman women, the story is more complicated. Given that freshman girls tend to be an object of desire for upperclassman males, they are often able to get passes and spots on lists through the men that approach them on nights out. But these relationships are fraught with sexual power dynamics, and the imbalance of social capital often leads to unwelcome advances that are tolerated due to a fear of social retribution.
After speaking to these students, it is impossible to ignore that the Princeton social scene, dominated by the eating clubs, is broken. Ultimately, it is the pass/list system that breeds these sexual power dynamics, but by instituting the freshman rush ban, the administration has inadvertently exacerbated the issues of a broken system and put freshman women at greater risk.
On December 4, 2015, I attended President Eisgruber’s office hours to ask him about his stance on the continuation of this inherited policy. After summarizing my findings and asking whether his administration would consider revisiting its policy, I received an emphatic no.
“There are very strong reasons,” President Eisgruber told me, “for having the prohibition in place that I don’t think have changed at all. One related to alcohol, which I think it more prominent among the fraternities, and one related to social exclusivity, which is more prominent with sororities.”
The problem with this logic is that, in an attempt to solve problems regarding alcohol and social exclusivity, the administration banned freshmen from the Greek system but it did not ban them from the eating clubs, where these issues are alive and well. This is understandable; the administration has very little power over the clubs, and so it flexed its muscle elsewhere. However, since the clubs are the primary social outlet on campus, it is naive to think that freshman will not seek out ways to participate in this system. Therefore, all the administration has truly done is make it more difficult, and often more dangerous, for freshman to gain entrance to certain clubs.
“So, if there are issues about sexual assault,” Eisgruber continued, “I would look for other ways to address those issues without reinstating harms that we think are significant. And I have to say, as universities do these surveys regarding sexual assault the idea that sororities and fraternities could be parts of the solution, strikes me as implausible.”
The stories I have reproduced here make it clear that this is not as implausible as one might think. So I conclude with a request to the administration: investigate the true impact of this policy. A University task force spent years reviewing the Greek System before instituting the freshman rush ban. It took me a semester to uncover some of the unsettling effects it has had on the undergraduate community. Imagine what the University could find, if only it would look.
Until then, many newly minted Princeton women will continue to navigate the social and sexual minefield that is their freshman year without the support or guidance of older female mentors. I can only advise them to tread carefully.
* All names have been changed. No eating clubs will be referred to by name to further ensure the anonymity of those interviewed. The stories I heard included every bicker club on Prospect.