Everyone knows that an Exeter bop is a byword for Dionysiac sex-fest, so Deans should sit well down and accept it. If Doris gets her knickers in a twist because she got assaulted by some rabid finalists, well, she shouldn’t have ventured into the Mating Dungeon in the first place. Clearly they should have seen it coming – without a bit of Satanic ritualism down in the chapel can things ever truly get poppin’? After all, everyone knows going to Hassan’s is a no go without the much needed hydrating swig from the ol’ ‘dirty chalice’ . Feeling a bit chilly? The customary Bacchaic dance around the ceremonial bonfire will warm those cockles before you saunter into the brisk dawn air. Don’t fancy the trip out? Don’t worry, you can have a munch on the suckling pig once Jimmy’s got his balls out of it.
Perhaps. Except that of course this particular bunch of ‘middle-class louts’ really aren’t living up to their Secret History/Riot Club reputation. The bop description of “anything but clothes” was quickly qualified by “but please no nakedness”. Ooh, sorry love. The fire alarm? Set off by a can of deodorant. That’s right. These pheromone-fuelled, devil-worshipping, fiends have basic levels of hygiene. There is something telling about how, given the junior dean rushed back into the building, the danger of an actual fire started by some loopy arsonist obviously didn’t even register. Furthermore, the fact that the word “brandished” managed to make its way into a news article is clearly testament to the fact that the college’s response to this ‘unacceptable behaviour’ was objectively laughable.
There is plenty of discussion about how Oxford’s coverage in the media has created a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy – that the more the media portray Oxford students as warped hedonists, the more ‘normal’ people are discouraged from applying. The rest of us, then, are left trying to emulate this ‘expected’ way of behaving, as if we all harboured some kind of primitive ideal of the ‘Oxford Student’ – perhaps some devastating combination of elitist sex pest and buff rower, that we were all desperately trying to live up to. Deep down, we obviously all want to be those naked Christ Church freshers. We all want our pink bellies splashed across the Sun.
Potentially there might be an element of truth in this. But I think a great deal of this reputation disseminated by the media comes from the college responses themselves. Pontificating to a group of drunken students, rather than giving them a hard talking-to the next day, is worthy of media attention. But not because of the students’ actions – because of the sheer thoughtlessness of staff. Yet not all readers, or all journalists, will wish to interpret it in this way. The fact that the chippy comment on the bottom of the news article – which was, not-so-subtly, poking some fun at Exeter’s deans – nevertheless rounded moralistically on the students, is symptomatic of how a college’s overreactions can serve to amplify the very image of Oxford students they ostensibly try to dispel.
There may be something wrong with bop behaviour here, just as St Hugh’s smoking ban may have been precipitated by real concern for staff and students. But it is the methods of correction that are incorrect – placing legislative bans and lecturing students as if they were children.
Don’t get me wrong. Oxford’s paternalism can be lovely. Going to clubs in freshers’ week under the care of seven sober second-years equipped with everything short of a register, gave much-appreciated further support in what was already a disorientating week for a provincial bumpkin. But part of becoming a functional adult is to recognise for ourselves what is acceptable and what isn’t. If colleges don’t give us the space to do that, we’ll continue to test the boundaries – and wait for the spank.