For many members of the public, the flaws of Oxford University are epitomised by drinking societies. In the press, discussion of students is dominated by talk of the Bullingdon; more recently, the Black Cygnets at St Hugh’s were condemned in national newspapers for leading a “fox hunt” of freshers. But how true are the rumours of elitism, misogyny, and ‘lad culture’ which surround drinking societies? This week, C+ investigates the truth about drinking clubs across the University.
Drinking societies have long played a role in the lives of students at the University of Oxford, with the Bullingdon Club – probably the university’s most famous and most notorious, drinking society, founded in 1780. Drinking societies have proliferated since, with the majority of Oxford colleges today playing host to at least one group which terms itself a ‘drinking society’.
Respondents to a survey by C+ revealed 28 drinking societies across fifteen colleges. Much of the information used in this investigation was gathered from a survey with questions on drinking societies, and which attracted over 250 responses.
Many students noted that the breadth of the term “drinking society”, ranging from Exeter’s Topiary Team to university wide clubs like the Stoics. One comment on the survey read, “‘Drinking society’ is a broad term which encompasses the Bullingdon, Teddy Hall rowers, Regent’s Rabbits and weird OUCA ones. It’s not a one size fits all.”
Nevertheless, the term ‘drinking society’ is viewed in a negative light by many people. Several students said that college drinking societies and those affiliated with sports teams or political organisations seem to be viewed in the same way as university wide drinking societies, which are the most famous and the most notorious, despite major differences.
References to the Bullingdon Club often featured in the comments of students as collected by the Cherwell survey. Responses to the question, ‘Do you believe Oxford University’s reputation is affected by reports of drinking societies and the activities thereof?’ included one answer of “negatively”, which was elaborated simply with “The Bullingdon”, while another comment read, “Drinking societies fit right into the image of a Bullingdon Club member and this is not at all the image of Oxford we want to be painting.”
But whilst the Bullingdon might attract the most attention, it is not the only organisation which gives drinking societies a reputation of wealth and privilege. The Piers Gaveston society, notable for former members including Tom Parker Bowles, Ian Hislop and Hugh Grant, holds annual parties at secret locations, to which the members (limited to twelve students) invite hundreds of friends. These parties are supposedly held in large country houses and are rumoured to involve the consumption of champagne, caviar and illegal substances such as recreational drugs. The Piers Gaveston is, however, ostensibly a dining club, not a drinking society. It is called a drinking society by many and as such put into the same category as, for example, Regent’s Rabbits.
It is not surprising, then, that drinking societies, when referred to with that umbrella term, conjure up the image of wealth, privilege and decadence for which Oxford is famous. Many of those who responded to the survey made this point. One read, “Drinking societies are often nothing to do with people who like to drink/get drunk; they’re often just rich groups of friends”, while another said, “Drinking societies are a relic of an Oxford which is no longer. They are a chance for public school boys to maintain their sense of superiority, and for the more capricious of state educated students to have a go at playing with the ‘lads’. Drinking societies are misogynistic, exclusive and quite frankly repulsive.”
Many drinking society members tried to distance themselves from perceived elitist organisations. One member of the Somerville Ladies Ultimate Tequila Society, or SLUTS, said, “We have never been particularly outrageous. It really is all about getting together, seeing your friends, meeting some new people on a crew date and having a bit of fun. I think this is necessary given how stressful and intense Oxford can be at times.”
While the number of women’s drinking societies is growing, many students alleged that there are several misogynistic drinking societies. The Black Cygnets, a society based at St Hugh’s, courted controversy when they invited a group of female freshers to take part in a “fox hunt”, with the women dressed as foxes attempting to “evade mauling”. Last year, Teddy Hall’s society ‘The Syndicate’ was criticised for inviting female freshers to their ‘In Bed With The Syndicate’ event, asking them to dress up as schoolgirls.
Hannah Dickinson, the college’s current JCR welfare rep, attended an ‘In Bed’ event as a fresher in 2012. She commented, “I attended ‘In Bed’ as a fresher (Summer 2012) and I do believe that for the girls who are invited to the event there is a certain degree of pressure to attend, however I feel that much of that is peer pressure borne from within the girls and not necessarily from the members of the Syndicate.
“I personally feel uncomfortable with the event being named ‘In Bed With the Syndicate’ as I feel it promulgates an image which is inherently negative for the girls who attend the event. However, as I have previously stated the girls are not told what to wear, and as I said before, if the fresher girls chose to wear school uniform then they ultimately chose to subscribe to whatever ‘objectification’ comes as a corollary of dressing as a ‘school girl’. At essence I believe it is wrong for the boys to expect the girls to wear a ‘uniform’ of any kind, but obviously it is possible for the girls to subvert that request and choose to wear a uniform which is not typically seen as attractive.”
One person who responded to the survey commented, “I am so completely against the culture of some drinking societies at Oxford. I think the ‘lad culture’ which pervades many male drinking societies and rugby clubs (including my own college’s rugby club) must be stamped out. Oxford students are meant to be young and intelligent, it’s both sad and shocking that young men in our university think it’s OK to regard their female peers in a derogatory manner.”
Some students remain suspicious of drinking societies due to their secrecy. A Freedom of Information Request sent to all colleges and PPHs, suggests many colleges are unaware of drinking societies. Of sixteen responses from colleges and PPHs, all stated that from information available no disciplinary action had been taken against drinking societies or their activities.
Members of drinking societies are reluctant to talk about them. E-mails were sent to over sixty alleged members of drinking societies based in colleges across Oxford, yet only four responses were received. Three stated that they weren’t members of drinking societies, and only one gave information on a drinking society.
In the view of some students, drinking societies undermine the reputation of Oxford University. One student wrote, “The main male and female drinking societies are very narrow, since new members are ultimately decided by the president alone. Both societies consist of a large proportion of the people that everybody secretly dislikes, in college, resulting in a negative feeling towards the societies on a personal level.”
68% of students said that drinking societies had an effect Oxford’s reputation. Conversely, when asked whether drinking societies affect college reputations, only 35% said yes. One comment explained, “A highly misogynistic drinking society at my college is not known about outside of it.”
One student, who thought the university was affected negatively by drinking societies, said, “The image of Oxford as an elitist, isolated place in its own little bubble that is detached from reality is only enhanced by the survival of drinking societies which choose along lines (i.e. gender) which are no longer socially acceptable in the wider world.”
Despite all this, many Oxford students are ambivalent towards drinking societies. Of those who said they were not members of drinking societies, the most common reason was simply, “I don’t want to join one”.