Unless you’ve spent most of your undergraduate life so far in a state of eremitism, someone will have presented you with an account of an all-male Oxford drinking society sexually objectifying, or even preying upon, a group of women. Drawing up fit lists; assuming guests to their events will end up ‘in bed with’ them; inviting female students to be ‘hunted’. That behaviour so belittling, entitled, and sometimes sinisterly predatory has not been suffered gladly and has in the last few years brought under fire such societies as the Black Cygnets of St Hugh’s, the Syndicate at Teddy Hall, and Hertford’s Penguin Club bodes well for Oxford’s development towards a less intimidating social landscape. What bodes less well, however, is that the criticism levelled at these institutions and others of their ilk is largely limited in scope to their treatment of women, occasionally extending to their proclivity to smash up restaurants, leave trails of glass in their wake, and decorate second quads with vomit. Of course, with their readily identifiable victims and their palpable consequences, these are the transgressions of Oxford’s drinking societies which make the easiest, and in some ways the most urgent, matters of discussion. However, if we are committed to confronting the quietly pervasive feelings of inadequacy and isolation that haunt so many of the university’s less privileged students as well as dealing with the ubiquitous spectre of misogyny, the discussion can’t end there. We have to address a number of other problems with Oxford’s drinking society culture.
Foremost amongst these is the way that drinking societies promote, by the very fact of their existence, the idea that some people’s company is so undesirable that barriers must be erected in order to ward it off and an association with them so objectionable that it must be denied. I know that sounds like a very ungenerous interpretation of drinking society culture and I don’t believe that many (if any) of its participants consciously set out to deliver to other students the message that they are ‘undesirables’ but considering the facts for a moment, I think it is clear that it is something they absolutely do. Now, there are some contexts in which our social interaction with others must be in some way circumscribed and formalised. A football competition is one such context. A boozy meal or night in Bridge is not. The nature of your activity is not emptied of its meaning if one or two more people decide to join you, as would be the case if two more players took to one side of the football pitch. The activity you are engaged in does not depend on all participants remaining recognisable as members of a named social constellation, as is the case in a football tournament. Alcohol-fuelled inter-year or inter-collegiate bonding is not enabled only by the formalisation of a social grouping and the close controlling of its boundaries. Thus where such formalisation has occurred, it is difficult to understand what the motivation behind it could be if not a deep disinclination to mix with, or even to be categorised alongside, anyone outside the select coterie in question. Even in the many cases where those who are excluded have no real desire to mix with the members of the self-proclaimed society, these clear, public signs that they would not be welcome to do so can still prove hurtful.
But it is not only over this essential fault that most of our drinking societies should be challenged: a high proportion of Oxford’ effective private members’ clubs must be called out for their gleeful flaunting of privilege. What makes that longstanding rumour about Bullingdon boys burning fifties in front of the homeless so believable is the fact that they, alongside members of most of the city’s other drinking clubs, can be seen burning their money on so many other occasions. Sometimes through excessive consumption (apparently the raison d’être of the Piers Gaveston society), sometimes through wanton destruction. Always in very bad taste. Because while it is easy to see, when you think about it rationally, that it is the individuals who put on these displays of luxury who are further out of step with most of Oxford, that does not stop those of us from working class backgrounds feeling, when another tale of their excesses hits the rumour mill, that old fear that Oxford is a place for the rich: a playground of privilege in which we are quite alone. And the fear is coupled with an increasingly strong sense of dissatisfaction with your own lot. Both this dissatisfaction and the sense of not belonging are reinforced, of course, by the way that a number of drinking societies not only flaunt them but treat those inherited comforts of wealth and social prominence as the ultimate indices of a person’s worth, indulging in a practice (unprovable but very real) of shortlisting candidates for each new intake based primarily, if not exclusively, on the schools they went to and the people they holiday with. Such a modus operandi, when it is observed in action enough times, goes a step further than making working-class students aware of their relative position on a socio-economic spectrum: it leaves them embarrassed by it. If you are shown repeatedly that only being rich and well-connected makes you socially desirable, eventually you start to believe it. Because their ways reinforce, and sometimes even inculcate, this sense of embarrassment, alongside feelings of dissatisfaction, isolation and rejection, Oxford’s drinking societies – even when they seem to be on their best behaviour – represent a dark blot on the university’s social landscape.