Leave the bin outside

In the first week of this term, Cherwellprinted the sorry tale
of Brian Butterworth, first-year psychology student at Merton,
who was sent "into digs" for sleeping with a woman on
college accommodation. Scandalous, yes; but ameliorated
considerably by the fact that the story in question was reprinted
from a 1964 edition. Surely, then, in 40 years, the University
has moved on; surely such stifling moral interference is long
gone by now? Perhaps in theory. Unfortunately, though, the moral stance
taken by Oxford’s educational institutions is, in practice,
still repressed and repressive. While colleges clearly cannot
prevent consenting men and women (in any combination) having sex
on their own time (not least under the European Convention on
Human Rights), there are still regulations in place regarding
accommodation for which the only purpose seems to be discouraging
sexual contact. Many colleges, for example, operate a system of signing in and
out guests who are to sleep in a member’s room. This may seem
perfectly reasonable for a parent, or a sister, yet shows a
complete misunderstanding on the colleges’ behalf of the nature
of modern sexual relationships. If I’m considering bringing a
woman or man I’ve met in a club, say, back to my room, on the
premise of a coffee, my chances of sleeping with her are likely
to be greatly diminished by requesting she give her signature to
the duty porter first. My own college, St John’s, operates
just such a system, and threatens all kinds of punishments for
refusal to comply with its sexually crippling procedure. So why should we stand up for our right to have one night
stands? Rather than arguing fervently in favour of sexual
promiscuity (next week, perhaps), the most compelling reason is
that we should be free to engage in any sexual activity that we
wish, as consenting adults. It is not the place of the college to
impose its own archaic morality on us – it exists as an
instituion to teach us, and we live in its accommodation.
However, we pay for this privilege, and accordingly it does not
have the fallback that parents do when they demand you abide by
their rules (“As long as you live under my roof etc.”).
The relationship is not what schools call in loco parentis;
rather, it is one of landlord and tenant. The colleges that operate such systems will undoubtedly claim
all sorts of practical reasons for maintaining them: St
John’s’ favourite is to cite the fire risk of not
knowing exactly who is in the building at night time. These are
clearly rubbish. In the event of a fire, I would either be in my
room with the person in question, in which case when I was found
he or she would also be discovered, or, on the off-chance that I
was in the toilet when such a hypothetical blaze erupted, the
authorities would either assume I was in my room (in which case
they’d discover my guest when looking for me there), or find
me first, and I would point them in my guest’s direction.
Such a mix up, with one person in the toilet and the other
trapped in the room (or whatever precisely the college fears), is
just as likely to happen during the daytime. The most farcical
aspect of the whole system, though, is that only if the two of us
are going to be asleep together do we need to sign in – in
which case, we’ll both be in the same room, and as soon as
the potential rescuers discover me, my guest’s presence will
be obvious. Surely the real fire risk is the college-mate from
the quad next door who pops up for a chat at three in the
morning? He genuinely might get lost in such a disaster. At the end of the day, though, if St John’s really cared
about fire risks, it would have had more than one smoke alarm per
stair case when the Tommy White building caught fire last term.
What actually lies at the heart of this ‘safety’
measure is an instinctive conservatism to which institutions such
as Oxford colleges are inevitably prone. The desire of the powers
that be to i m p o s e their own m o r a l i t y onto us should
be resisted fiercely – it is the sort of infringement of
civil liberty that adults should not have to suffer once they
leave school, and which, at any non- Oxbridge university, would
be laughable. The whole concept of the scout, insidiously checking that we
behave, is similarly ridiculous. Yes, we are grateful for the
option of having our rooms cleaned, but the idea that our rooms
be inspected at least once every two days is patently absurd, and
implies the colleges see us as little children to be monitored
carefully. While it may seem petty to become so irate over whimsical
sexual encounters, the problem of college restrictions on guests
is far more wide-ranging. Relationships, both inside and outside
college, become difficult to manage. At St John’s, special
permission is required from the dean if a guest is to stay for
more than two consecutive nights, because of the strain on
college resources. In fact, of course, a guest requires no
resources at all, aside from a little extra water to brush his or
her teeth with. Such an utterly farcical explanation from the
college does not justify the seriously significant amount of
bureaucracy that is invoked in order to have your girlfriend or
boyfriend stay over for a long weekend. There have always been conspiracy theories about the way in
which colleges attempt to manipulate people into working. The
dire nature of some college bars, for example, is often put down
to an attempt to encourage students to stay in and work – or
at least an apathy about any part of life not academically
fruitful. While these may or may not sound credible, the immense
difficulty of sustaining a long-term relationship if your partner
is unable to stay in college accommodation without decanal
permission, is real and tangible. Ultimately, it is high time that some of the Oxford Colleges
realised that the happiness of their members is the true mark of
success in a college, and long-term, colleges that stifle their
undergraduates will not attain the high application rates that
they need to achieve academic success. St John’s is the
perfect example of this: despite its superior wealth and
placement in the Norrington tables, it receives far fewer
applications than its more casual neighbour, Balliol. Moreover,
the University as a whole already has a reputation for being a
lot less fun than non-Oxbridge institutions. If it doesn’t wish to see its prized academic success
disperse into the university system as a whole, then Oxford needs
to abandon its authoritarian instincts. Unable to reconcile
sexual freedom and the elusive Oxford dream, I’m packing my
bags and heading off to study under the Professor of Cognitive
Neuropsychology at the University College London, a certain B.
Butterworth (BSc, Oxon).ARCHIVE: 3rd week TT 2004