Cap and Gown Club looks like it could be some wealthy family’s mansion in Westchester or Fairfield County—or perhaps a Normandy chateau, a comparison once suggested by its architect, Raleigh Gildersleeve. The stately, three-story, brick-faced clubhouse, completed in 1908, sits back from tree-lined Prospect Avenue, where you can find most of Princeton University’s famous “eating clubs.” A young man of 18, strolling down Prospect for the first time, unaccustomed to such trappings of wealth and power, might easily be dumbstruck with awe.
I was that 18-year-old once, a small-town boy who knew nothing of Westchester or Fairfield Counties, or Philadelphia’s Main Line, or prep schools, or social registers. Secretly envious of the Princeton students who came from such backgrounds, I made fun of them to my friends back home. But time and familiarity have a way of smoothing out the rough edges of social awkwardness, and by sophomore year I was liked and accepted enough to find myself welcomed into Cap and Gown, one of several “selective” clubs where admittance of new sophomores is determined by junior and senior members voting in closed sessions.
What a thrill it was to enter the club on initiation night, the heavy wooden door held open for me by an upperclassman, and to walk across to foyer to the wide staircase leading to the second floor. Up there, new members gathered for the initiation rites. I remember being led into a small candlelit room, where the president, his voice hushed and solemn, formally welcomed me into the club, wrote my name into an important-looking book, shook my hand, and sent me back out into the hallway. There I was handed a tall glass of beer, and someone dropped a shot of whisky into it. Once I had drained the entire contents of the glass, I was hoisted into the air by the junior and senior men who now filled the wide staircase, and passed down to the first floor on their hands. When I landed, a female club officer slipped an official club tie around my neck. Let the party begin.
The membership of Cap and Gown Club was mostly male in those days, but Cap was the first selective club to go coed, and at that time admitted about 30 women each year. I never gave much thought to the fact that none of the women were on that staircase passing down the new members, but then, women shouldn’t be expected to do the heavy lifting, right?
But lifting wasn’t the only thing going on that evening on that wide staircase. Before I got lost in the party, I happened to see I sophomore woman I knew (I’ll call her Mary) emerge from the candlelit room, chug her boilermaker, and begin her descent on the arms of the upperclassmen. Only they didn’t just pass her down the stairs and let her down at the bottom. When she got close to the bottom, they reversed her course and pushed her back up toward the top. This went on for a few minutes: up, down, up, down, until they finally set her down at the foot of the stairs—at which point she walked straight to the front door and left Cap and Gown, never to return.
Amid all the loud music and shouting and laughter, I didn’t quite grasp what was going on, but I later heard that Mary had been groped on her way up and down the stairs. I never learned how many men, or how few, participated in the groping. I don’t recall the incident being talked about openly, nor do I recall any statement being issued by the club president, or any apology being offered to Mary. Not that an apology would have tidied up the reality that some number of men that night decided it was perfectly okay to grope a defenseless young woman. But the silence afterward underscored the way such incidents were swept under the rug, and tacitly condoned even by the nonparticipants who chose not to speak up.
Who is teaching our sons to respect women, to treat them as equals and not objects, and to understand the meaning and the imperative of consent? Or maybe a better question is, who is teaching them something altogether different?
Donald Trump is more brazen and cartoonish than most, but he is hardly an anomaly, as others have pointed out since the recording of Trump’s vulgar conversation with Billy Bush surfaced on Friday. Many women will tell you that demeaning language, sexual objectification, and general lack of respect are an almost daily reality. And there are plenty of men who reject this behavior, who grew out of the adolescent urge to prove their manhood by participating in crude locker-room conversation, who now find it offensive—and who can assure you they hear it all the time.
In fact, men sometimes hear things women aren’t supposed to hear, from men who know better than to speak so coarsely in front of women, but show their true colors behind the closed doors of the boys club. I have been in countless situations in which men assume that, like Billy Bush, I’ll chuckle along with the piggish talk because it’s just us guys in the room. A few that come to mind: a former roommate’s business-school friends making crude and disparaging comments about their female classmates; the total stranger at the bus stop who confided in me what he’d like to do to the girl riding by on a bike; and the businessman, meeting with me privately in his office, belittling his female employees with the c-word.
Now, lewd talk is not the same as sexual assault, but in a society whose institutions have condoned sexist attitudes for so long, one wonders how easy that line is to cross. Some don’t wonder; many believe that generations of social and institutional acceptance of sexual assault have created a “rape culture” in which violence toward women is normalized, excused (look at how she was dressed), quieted by victims’ shame, and ignored by law enforcement. Colleges and universities have finally made some progress toward addressing the problem, but why did it take so long? And even as I write, millions of women are responding to Canadian writer Kelly Oxford’s invitation to submit their “first sexual assaults” on Twitter.
I’m pretty sure we aren’t going to elect a “Groper-in-Chief” this November. But until more men grow up and take a stand against this culture (and if I could turn back time and say something about the incident on the stairs, I would), then Trump’s pig face will still be grinning at us from the corner of the mirror.
Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon