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Sober at Oxford: Teetotalers discuss Freshers’ week and beyond

Selina Chen explores the sobering reality of the student taste for a pint (or two...)

When I imagined “freshers’ week” before coming to Oxford, I conjured images of booming music and swaying bodies, of stumbling home at 2am, of laughing wildly with friends and strangers and anyone in between, night after night, luxuriating in newfound freedoms.

The substance central to these images? Alcohol. Seemingly a staple of Oxford life, drinking loosens up library-dwelling nerds, makes even the worst DJ tolerable, and – we’ve all seen it – contributes some unwanted splashes on our cobblestone streets, come morning.

Sober(-ish) by day and pissed by night is not representative of everyone’s experience, however. A 2022 Guardian article reports that about 26% of British people aged 16-24 are teetotalers.

But knowing the statistics did little to assuage my worries as an American teetotaler coming into a culture where alcohol is not only legal but also omnipresent. I worried that, by saying no to alcohol, I would alienate myself from potential friends and bar myself from the best experiences. I worried that the fun images I dreamt up are not for me.

This story is an exploration of whether teetotalers can have fun at Oxford. It is my search for similar experiences in hopes of showing beyond statistics that no teetotaler is alone in their choice. The overwhelming number of responses I got from the interview invitation I posted on Instagram story testifies to the size of this community.

But at the same time, this story presents hard truths from sources who speak of boredom and exclusion. In reckoning with a drinking-heavy culture’s ugly underbelly, I hope to present a picture that is sobering (pun intended).

The majority of teetotalers I spoke to are Muslim students, for whom the Islamic Society offers a vibrant non-drinking community. Fresher Tareef Ahmed, for example, enjoyed the brothers’ “freshers’ fortnight”, during which there was a non-drinking event each day.

Just because someone doesn’t drink doesn’t mean they can’t hang out with drinking friends. On the first night of freshers’ week, Ahmed went clubbing with people from his college, St Catherine’s. He told me that most people actually have quite a lot of respect for non-drinkers, with no judgement.

Like my college, St Catz’s offers non-alcoholic drinks and alternative events, but that’s not always the case everywhere. Rafal Faraj, a third year student, was involved in planning non-drinking events at Merton College.

Faraj told me that two years ago, many freshers at his college felt that “99% of entz [entertainments] was alcohol-focused and led by entz reps who, whilst well meaning, were tone deaf to the enjoyment of some students who couldn’t just ‘enjoy’ the existing events without alcohol.”

Then came last year when the new JCR committee was headed by a Muslim president. The welfare team of Shivanii Arun and Kieran Dewalt, with the input of other reps including Faraj, put together alternative non-drinkers events every night at times coinciding with drinkers’ ones. These included ice hockey, mini golf, and games nights.

Given the events’ success, the schedule was brought back at Merton for freshers this year, Faraj said.

College-organised non-drinker events also provide opportunities for students who abstain from alcohol for reasons other than Islam. 

Fresher Azriel Farlam told me that they never really saw the appeal of drinking, so they don’t want to spend money on something with a taste they dislike. To Farlam, whether a student drinks or not doesn’t really impact their social circles. Having gone to the BOP (big organised party) and the freshers’ formal, they found that they weren’t really missing out.

Fresher Michael Leslie is a Catholic whose grandparents took an oath to never consume alcohol. Although Leslie himself never took the oath, he said that he always saw what they did and never really felt the need to drink. Health is a second consideration: although he never drank before, his diagnosis of a kidney issue reaffirmed his choice.

Similar to Farlam, Leslie told me that he had fun during freshers’ week: “Maybe not the same style of fun [as other people’s] because I wasn’t drunk, but I still went to the clubs, I still spoke with people, and I still had fun subject drinks. I just drank the apple juice and orange juice.”

I agree with Farlam and Leslie that drinking is not at all necessary to a fun freshers’ week, as I had a blast at various clubs. I’m proud to report that I’ve formed a mental chart ranking the quality of free water at various establishments: Kudos to Oxo Bar; bottom rank goes to Spoons.

These teetotalers’ experiences are what I wish I’d known before coming to Oxford, for it would have saved me much worrying. But once the free flow of freshers’ week alcohol ends, how do teetotalers’ fare?

Like me, fresher Arav Bhattacharya came from California as an international student. He follows his family’s Hindu practice of not drinking even though he’s not actively religious.

With the drinking age set at 21 across the Atlantic, most students cannot legally purchase alcohol in America. This leads to distinct social incentives on the two sides of the pond, as Bhattacharya observes: “In the States, people will performatively drink a lot more just to act cool. [In the UK], drinking doesn’t have that same kind of connotation because it’s legal, and no one’s really stopping you from getting a drink – aside from maybe your wallet.”

Despite the relative responsibility of British drinkers, navigating the unknown of hanging out with drunk friends is still an interesting experience to him: “I have to monitor what I say and do because I know that mentally I have a certain level of capacity that they don’t necessarily have because they’ve been drinking.”

Bhattacharya’s words are valuable advice to teetotalers, I believe. While we can giggle endlessly at our drunk friends’ silly shenanigans, our position of sobriety is also one of responsibility.

Thus far, most sources have been telling me that teetotalism has a trivial impact on their social life, but second-year Thomas Li offers a different perspective.

Li, who describes himself as usually a heavy drinker, found that a week-long drinking ban for medical reasons spoiled his fun: “We had a BOP on Saturday, during which I didn’t drink, and I genuinely had an awful time. For me a few drinks sort of dissolves any social awkwardness because drinking dampens your senses…It was just not fun because I was there sober [while] everyone else around me was really drunk. I didn’t realise how boring bops are if you’re not drunk.”

However, when I asked Li whether he thinks that people who are always teetotalers would have more fun than someone on a one-time drinking ban, he said that yes, the right social circles would build relationships based on going to events that are not alcohol-based.

My only unresolved question, then, was whether the drunken freshers’ week nights are a teenage propensity we’ll grow out of, or whether it is here to stay.

For this, I turned to older students. While most of us enter Oxford at the age of 18 when they’ve only recently become able to purchase alcohol, some study here as mature students aged 21 or older in colleges such as Harris Manchester.

HMC second-year Wesley Lam told me that older students are less likely to get wasted at the pub; rather, they prefer something more relaxed like a nice cocktail at the pub night. In a lot of postgraduate circles, people also drink more professionally at events and conferences, he said.

However, Muhammad Hamza Waqas Awan, also a second-year at HMC, feels that HMC has a massive drinking culture.

As a Muslim international student from Pakistan, Awan has an active social life at Oxford but occasionally encounters difficulties when people ask him to try drinking: “[They think] my reluctance to drink is influenced by the fear of my family finding out, as opposed to my own personal preferences. They think that way because I am really chill otherwise, so I don’t fit into that ‘Halal boy’ category…There are only a couple of other Muslims in my college so I feel really out of touch at times.”

Moreover, Oxford’s culture of networking over drinks can limit teetotalers like him from the banter. “I feel like I have to make up for it by being good at some other jokes, or just trying hard at times. Overall, there is a feeling of exclusivity derived from a drinking culture which limits teetotalers like me from being fully immersed into social networks unless you are prepared to try hard through other means.”

I believe I’ve heard, and now relayed to you, both sides of the argument. While the majority of my sources expressed satisfaction and optimism, others spoke frankly about the consequences of teetotalism in a drinking-heavy culture, and I believe their accounts deserve serious consideration. After all, I’ve only been in Oxford for two weeks, and I have on one occasion faced less-than-polite pressure to drink already. I expect similar encounters during my time here.

But so far, I’ve been happily surprised to prove my worries null. I found it the most natural thing to forge strong friendships and try out new things.

The fun images I dreamt up did become reality. My memories of freshers’ week are of booming music and swaying bodies, of stumbling home at 2am, of laughing wildly with friends and strangers and anyone in between, night after night, luxuriating in newfound freedoms.

I treasure these memories without any need for alcohol. I was drunk on happiness, and that was enough.

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