Tolerating the toxic lad culture of drinking societies is lazy and stupid
TIM SQUIRRELL, President of the Cambridge Union, tears into the establishment of drinking socs.
On Friday, there was an article in Varsity about members of a drinking society rating girls that they’d slept with and, among other messages, saying that “it’s not about consent, it’s about intent.”
“Oh, the members of yet another exclusive all-male Oxbridge drinking society have been found to be engaging in misogynistic banter? I’m so surprised!” said nobody, ever.
The headline may as well have been “Drinking societies still pretty awful; Cambridge continues to pretend this isn’t the case”, because for every person who argues that this is quite grim and that maybe we should do something about it, there’s another saying that it’s ‘not all drinking societies, just some individuals’, or that ‘there are worse things out there’.
Let’s be fair – not all drinking societies are awful, all the time. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them. After all, the core concept is just going out with your mates, having a good time and getting drunk. So what could be the problem?
In part, it’s because they’re ‘secret’, with none of the official oversight that other societies are subject to, and therefore none of the regulation or conscientiousness that goes with it. But then, there’s nothing inherently bad about a secret society, either.
So we’re left with the main problem, which is the exclusivity of some drinking societies, and the prestige that is therefore attached to them. I’m not talking about open drinking societies, with no restrictions on membership. The criticisms which follow are about the exclusive ones – the ones who choose a few people each year based on various criteria, and don’t let just anyone come along. Even within these societies, it varies year by year and between individuals as to what kind of stuff goes down.
It’s the social status attached to the exclusive drinking societies and their associated matching ties and songs that gives rise to some of the most egregious behaviour we hear about. Because when there’s competition to get into a drinking society, people are pushed to do extreme things that they wouldn’t normally do.
We’re not quite on the same level as hazing rituals in the US where people have died, but I think we can all agree that being carried home semi-conscious and covered in blood because of the sheer quantity of alcohol you’ve been pressured into drinking is generally not a Good Thing.
If it was just a bunch of people going out with their mates to have a good time, we wouldn’t have the same kind of problems. Yes, the people who are misogynist shitstains on a night out with the Bulldogs or the Caesareans or the Crescents are probably still going to be misogynist shitstains if they’re not wearing a special bow tie, but it’s the exclusivity and the prestige attached to the societies which makes them so toxic.
Inside, there’s a culture of what I like to call ‘survival of the laddiest’, where the most extreme actions are celebrated. Post-swap reports laud the achievements of lads who do the most damage or engage in the most outrageous behaviour. So not only is there pressure to drink the most, be the loudest, be the most extreme, just to get into the society – once you’re in, there’s pressure to do the same all over again, because that makes you the laddiest of the lads.
An inevitable joke in the comments of every anti-drinking society article is “Guess you were never invited, then” – as though the only people who could possibly dislike them enough to criticise them are those who weren’t popular enough or sociable enough or laddy enough to get in. This just reinforces the point that all the horrible flaws of secret drinking societies essentially stem from the power and status that we afford them.
The ‘you’re just jealous’ criticism is the response of a bully, designed to embarrass and belittle those who would stand up to powerful social groups within the University.
Probably the most coherent defence of drinking societies written recently was by Milo Edwards. Aside from the argument that a drinking society is just a bunch of mates going out together in matching ties, which I dealt with above, he also says in the comments that “I don’t think there’s actually much of a connection between drinking societies and misogyny, just a coincidental overlap in some cases. There are a minority of misogynists amongst Cambridge students, and so there also are among drinking society members, but their misogyny isn’t driven by the society.”
It’s fair to say that without drinking societies, misogynists would still exist, and they’d still find a way to be a total waste of oxygen.
But it’s simply not true that drinking societies and misogyny are entirely unconnected. When your society’s idea of a good time is lining up a group of fresher girls for a ‘bra-unhooking competition’ carried out by the old boys then it’s just not true that any misogyny which flourishes there is entirely coincidental.
Obviously the girls want to be there, and they have agency, but even though they’re engaging in these things of their own free will, it’s the entire atmosphere and ethos of some of these societies which permits sexist attitudes and actions to flourish.
It’s similar to one of the reasons that rape jokes are awful: because whilst most people might laugh because it’s ‘just a joke’, there are some individuals who think that, on some level, it’s serious, and for them those jokes legitimise some of the horrible thoughts they might think, or some of the actions they might want to take.
Of course we should blame individuals for the things that they do. But by denying that there’s anything but a coincidental connection between the atmosphere and culture of some drinking societies and the actions of these individuals, we take the wrong-headed step of pretending that the things we say and do have no social repercussions and that social context doesn’t matter.
“A fine if you’ve ever taken a girl’s virginity and left her crying in a ditch,” to quote a member of one society on a night out. Even if it’s ‘ironic’, it’s still normalising a culture in which large numbers of people have been or will be raped, usually by people they know.
One of the problems with a lot of the anti-drinking soc arguments is that they tend to either deny the women who are involved any agency, making them into hapless victims of the horrible men, or they go the other way and slut shame them, arguing that if they engage in the kinds of things talked about above then it’s no wonder that things go wrong and people get hurt.
Obviously the women who choose to join drinking societies have a choice in the matter. To say anything else would be stupid. Obviously some of the freshers are pressured into doing things that they don’t necessarily want to do in the name of ‘banter’ or because they want to be part of the club. Again, that seems trivially true.
We don’t want to say that being in a drinking soc is ‘unfeminist’, because that would be silly. But there are certain activities which happen at certain swaps which are pretty horrible, and engaging in them is probably not an ‘empowering’ choice. That is to say, you can remain a feminist whilst still making choices which are fairly unfeminist – in the same way that many of us have to take an hour off of being a feminist in order to actually enjoy a lot of TV shows.
We also don’t want to shift the burden for sexual assault or any of the other horrible things that happen from the perpetrator on to the victim, because again, that would be stupid. Rapists rape, and the onus is on them not to do so.
But it’s entirely possible for someone to participate in a swap which has quite a sexist atmosphere, and to do so out of their own free will. We shouldn’t pretend that that choice is the most empowering or feminist one they can make.
We also shouldn’t pretend that every woman in every drinking soc is a wonderful person who never does anything wrong, because the percentage of women who are terrible people is probably about the same as the percentage of men, and there are certainly quite a few of them in Cambridge’s drinking soc circuit.
It may also be the case that there are some drinking societies which are exclusive, who don’t engage in the same kinds of behaviour talked about above, and who are generally lovely people whom you’d quite like to spend time with.
Why, then, do they feel the need to be ‘exclusive’? They might say that it’s not because of the social prestige, and that it’s because they’re going out with their mates and they don’t want just anyone to come along, because you can’t invite everyone and they’re not all your mates. This feels disingenuous.
If I go out with my friends on a swap and say that anyone who wants to join us is welcome to do so, it’s likely to only be two groups of people who come: my friends, and those who are maybe peripheral to my social circle but would quite like to go on a swap. Without creating any strict in/out membership list, I still haven’t ended up with a monstrous 100-person swap, because I’m just not that popular.
It’s highly unlikely that if Milo went out with his friends with their matching ties but without the label of ‘Peterhouse drinking society’, and without any form of exclusivity, then suddenly everyone would want to come along – because he’s just not that popular either. Nobody is.
The only reason more people do want to go along is because of the artificial social status created by erecting a barrier between the drinking soc members and everyone else in college. So it seems like the only real reason to keep your drinking society exclusive is because of that prestige. That’s fine. Everyone wants to feel special. But let’s at least be honest.
The difference between drinking societies and their nearest equivalent – sports societies at other universities – is that there are no ‘natural’ criteria to get in to the former. They’re socially divisive precisely because the only reason some people are let in and others aren’t is because they’re in the right social networks.
Whilst sports societies often have the same kind of sexist arses, those societies at least have natural inclusion and exclusion criteria, and are generally open to anyone who plays the same sport. There is literally no legitimate reason for drinking societies to include some people and exclude others, other than because they like the social status that goes with exclusivity. And it’s that exclusivity that gives rise to so many of the really hideous parts of drinking soc culture.
Drinking societies are such an ingrained part of the Cambridge culture that they’re probably not going to go away in a hurry.
But we could start to make the university a better place if we stopped the exclusivity, or at the very least stopped pretending that it’s not about social status. Because it is. And you’re not fooling anybody.