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Letter to the Editor: The power of bicker

Nationwide, the risk of an undergraduate woman experiencing sexual assault decreases from her freshman to senior year, with freshmen being about 50 percent more likely than seniors to experience such conduct. But the We Speak survey results released last month showed that at Princeton, sophomores are almost twice as likely to experience nonconsensual sexual contact as seniors, and this was the only significant difference among class years.

What distinguishes sophomore year at Princeton? Psychological theory suggests that situational power differentials facilitate sexual assault on college campuses. As sophomores across campus begin attending recruiting events at various eating clubs in the coming weeks, bicker becomes an increasingly obvious generator of such dynamics.


Psychological researcher Dacher Keltner defines “power” as “an individual’s relative capacity to modify others’ states by providing or withholding resources or administering punishments.” These resources can be material, like food, or social, like knowledge, affection, or membership in a selective eating club. High power tends to lower inhibitions and increase goal-oriented behavior, while low-power people tend to view themselves through the lens of how they can be used by others. It is not difficult to imagine how such a power differential could be conducive to sexual misconduct, especially in the context of a hookup culture where sexual “success” can increase status.

And indeed, a study showed that at fraternity parties, such power differentials between men and women facilitate sexual assault. The gender dynamics studied in the paper sound remarkably similar to those that exist between eating club members and bickerees: in these cultures “organized around status, belonging, and popularity,” rates of sexual assault are likely to be highest in situations where the dominant party (in their research, men) “have a home turf advantage, know each other better than the women present know each other… and control desired resources (such as alcohol or drugs),” and where “[s]ocial pressures to ‘have fun’ [or] prove one’s social competency” exist. While all of these factors exist on any party night on Prospect Avenue, they float closer to the surface during bicker — especially since many sophomores have just rushed fraternities or sororities (with mixed outcomes), another process that highlights social status and group belonging.

The We Speak survey found that for 45 percent of undergraduates who had experienced unwanted sexual contact, the worst incident occurred in an eating club — more than twice the next-most frequent location, a residential college — but only one percent of students reported that such an incident was associated with bicker. Why so few, if bicker is such a fertile ground for sexual misconduct?

Most students would be unlikely to intentionally take advantage of others when the power differential is so explicit as during the nights of bicker — such clear power abuse is widely regarded as unacceptable. What seems more probable is that incidents would peak in the weeks surrounding bicker, when the power dynamics are less salient, but still present. And indeed, February (when spring bicker occurs) is among the months with the highest frequencies of sexual assault as reported in the We Speak survey.

A student referendum to “hose bicker” failed to pass several years ago, making it clear that bicker is here to stay, at least for now. So if we can’t remove the generator of power differentials conducive to sexual misconduct, what can we do to reduce the risk for sophomores?

If people are less likely to exploit an obvious advantage immediately during bicker itself (as suggested by the one percent statistic), actively pointing out those power dynamics might be a good start. Perhaps the University should target the weeks surrounding bicker as a time for a refresher on sexual assault (as with the “Clarifying Consent” program sent out to juniors several weeks ago). Possibly even more effective: a message from the eating clubs to their members reminding them of the value of affirmative consent. Which specific interventions we take as a University community should be an ongoing conversation, but it certainly seems that targeting the power dynamics of bicker could have great impact in decreasing the prevalence of sexual assault at Princeton.


Isabel Cleff is a Mechanical and Aerospace engineering major from Doylestown, Pa. She can be reached at

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