To the Editor:
As Shakespeare would say: what’s in a name? That which we call a handcuff party by any other name would still perpetuate unsafe power dynamics.
Sitting in my new seat of community-level sexual violence prevention work, I opened The Bowdoin Orient and was chagrined to see that “champagne shackles” has resurfaced. While I appreciate folks’ intentionality in how this particular event was planned, it is a great example of trying to fit a square peg of outdated party ideas into a round hole of the positive atmosphere you’re trying so hard to achieve. It’s particularly important to remember that social pressure to ‘consent’ to something is often actually ‘assent,’ and one must keep a critical eye on how power shows up and limits people’s agency to freely choose.
I encourage all of us to pause and question what we’ve been taught about party culture. Movies and shows, college alumni before you and other messages would have you believe that fun necessitates the discomfort of some partygoers, and that the good time of some should come at the expense of others. Those messages would try to silence those who worry how these ideas shape culture. There is an incredible opportunity to examine how sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism and other oppressions permeate event planning at each stage. Many of the social gathering expectations we’ve inherited are deeply steeped in maintaining inequity; so, rather than taking broken themes and trying to amend them, start with a blank slate. Consider how you want folks to experience the party, and plan from there.
I know that Bowdoin students care deeply about creating safety and comfort at their events. In my experience, students hope to create events that are memorable, encourage folks to talk to new people and allow people to relax and have fun. So start there, be creative and if you find yourself developing complicated measures to maintain safety, trust your gut that you might be in a square peg and round hole situation, and begin anew.
When you flip through the archives of old Bowdoin parties, you see Bowdoin men with local women on their arms—their presence on campus only welcome as dates to social functions—a notable absence of faces of color and overwhelming markers of class wealth. When some folks grumble that parties aren’t what they used to be, these are the parties of yore that they’re venerating. Now that you’re the ones planning events, what do you want them to be?
To really illustrate what I mean, I’d love to close with an analogy. Historically, many buildings were constructed without the needs of folks with mobility concerns in mind. When designing a new building, it would make little sense to construct stairs and then lay a ramp over them for wheelchair users. You would ideally take a universal design approach and create a flat, ground-level entrance that everyone can use. So the next time you’re planning a party, don’t think about what has been, think about what could be and what works for everyone. Simply put, when people don’t feel safe, they aren’t having fun. A universally fun design evenly distributes power and centers safety and respect from the initial planning stages.
Lisa Rävar was a member of the Class of 2007. She served as Director of Gender Violence Prevention and Education at Bowdoin from 2015 to 2021.