Debate: Are crewdates an outdated Oxford institution?

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For

Alistair Sterling

Crew dates aren’t just outdated, they are damaging. Have misogynistic, binge-drinking, stereotype-reinforcing, lad-culture inducing affairs ever been acceptable? I’m generalising of course; not all crew dates are like that, but the concept does have significant issues that need to be identified and addressed.

The typical crew date, like the meal to be consumed, follows a set menu. Two teams of opposite genders arrive at the restaurant, sitting alternately. The more attractive members sit towards the middle of the table, and those ‘less blessed’ are resigned to the ends, where they can mull over the tribulations of aesthetic objectification.

Then the ringmaster introduces the show, welcoming everybody to this spectacle that is, of course, sure to be full of wonder and merriment. The pre-purchased bottles of Tesco Vintage are uncorked (or more likely unscrewed) and the drinking begins. ‘Pennying’ and ‘sconcing’ follow swiftly, each accusation sculpted carefully and precisely for the unwitting crew dater who thought their vibrant sexual encounter had gone unnoticed or that their disturbing foray with a tutor had long been forgotten. Unfortunately, it had not.

As the evening progresses, voices are raised to levels unmatched by the waiting staff in their feeble attempts to communicate that the gruel is going to be late, leaving confusion for both parties. At this stage, however, nobody really cares what’s going on, because it will inevitably taste similar when it comes back up on the walk to Park End. Everyone is now significantly more left-wing, except that one guy sat in the corner, wondering why he bothered coming in the first place.

This behaviour is reminiscent of a teenager’s 16th birthday party – a rowdy, disrespectful group of drunks, with no care for those they may be affecting. If such exploits occurred in an isolated environment, I would have much less of a problem. The crew date is not an inherently troubling concept, but the manner in which they are currently conducted is frankly disgusting. The heteronormativity, the archaic ‘faux-Buller’ behaviour, the pressure on members to get utterly buttered (despite the fact that 21 per cent of adults in the UK are teetotal), are indicative of an institution that still clings feebly onto the notions of yesteryear. In a progressive, inclusive, cultured, and educated environment of which we have the privilege to be part of, why do we still allow such things to go on?

The crew date, steeped in a history of mythical proportions, is an institution so dressed in tradition that we wilfully overlook the damage it causes. Those crew daters with influence over those less experienced abuse their standing t o make others’ evenings a misery. All of this happens under the guise that it’s ‘just a bit of banter mate, if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen’. The waiting staff are poorly treated, and women are often objectified, both by sconces and by actions during and after the affair. Too many times I, or my friends, have sat and watched as a burly crew dater stands, taps his glass and announces that the person to his right slept with umpteen ‘birds’ during a ‘night on the pull.’

Crewdates needn’t be like this. A lively meal with a few drinks and lots of people is no bad thing. But currently crew dates perpetuate a culture that jars with the progressive nature of Oxford today. Outdated? Yes, but they are also symptomatic of a student culture which needs to do a lot more introspection 

Against

Harry Gosling

As a fresher who has only recently been initiated into the Oxford tradition of crew dating, I do admittedly have a relatively limited pool of experience from which I am able to draw.

Yet even from a relatively narrow point of view, I can see there is little about crew dates that is inherently wrong or outdated.

The principal purpose of crew dates, it appears to me, is to have fun. They are an opportunity for students to draw breath as they lurch from one essay crisis to another. I think that the chance to meet new groups of people over dinner should be embraced, not rejected on account of the actions of the few rather than those of the many.

The tradition of pennying for example, while arguably serving to perpetuate the existing culture of drinking to excess, is hardly confined to crew dates alone. Sconcing too, despite the inevitable embarrassment caused, is quite simply just part of the fun. Even the horrifyingly over-priced food offered by some of Oxford’s less refined dining establishments can, in spite of first appearances, turn out to be edible once copious volumes of cheap alcohol have been consumed.

Aside from the enjoyment dimension, crew dates serve another important purpose in enabling students to meet other groups of students from outside their usual sphere of interaction. It is particularly the case with arts students that socialising happens predominantly between members of the same college. Societies are a good opportunity to meet fellow students, but crew dates are an almost unique opportunity for members of student societies and sports teams to meet like-minded people.

Of course one of the criticisms levied against the crew dating culture in Oxford is that it perpetuates and further embeds the unsavoury aspects of ‘lad culture’ and predatory sexual behaviour. There are numerous unfortunate examples of crew date members embarrassing themselves by expounding crude stereotypes. The by now infamous email sent by the social secretary of Pembroke College Rugby Football Club to its members during Michaelmas 2013 instructed recipients of the email to “pick” a fresher to accompany them on the crew date.

This type of behaviour is quite rightly condemned. Fortunately, however, this sort of attitude is fairly rare. You only have to look at the growing popularity of crew dating, exemplified by the multiplicity of crew dating websites now available, to see that they are regarded as a predominantly harmless and enjoyable experience, not an outdated one. Students can choose whether or not to attend crewdates; the fact that so many do choose to attend is indicative of their positive reputation.

It is undoubtedly true that a small minority of participants may treat crew dates as something of an ‘opportunity’. Perhaps I am naive, but this supposed crew dating culture does not appear to be particularly pervasive. The real problem is ‘lad culture’ and sexual opportunism, and these are not confined to crew dating alone. Would we argue that clubbing is outdated just because some individuals indulge in unsavoury behaviour?

It is not the crew dating culture in Oxford that needs to be challenged; it is the broader culture of ‘lad banter’ and sexual opportunism that deserves our attention. The attitude of some individuals towards crew dates may be outmoded, but the crew date itself should certainly not be considered an outdated institution.

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