In October of last year the BBC exposed a society initiation at Gloucester University, posting a video of students lined up with plastic bags over their heads, vomiting intermittently and being shouted at by another student dressed in a Nazi uniform.
But it is a widespread issue within British universities, Cambridge included.
Adrian Boyle, an Accident and Emergency consultant at Addenbrooke’s, told Varsity that most of the students he sees visiting A&E come with alcohol-related problems, and the number of alcohol-related admittances increases substantially during university term time, “because there is much more activity around town.
“In the last 10 years, the number of female students who are coming in extremely drunk and incapable has shot up. More too are being assaulted, which I think is a large safety concern.”
Many, if not most, undergraduates will have been out with a society at one stage or another. An average night out begin s with a couple of pints, followed by a bottle of wine at dinner, followed by more pints back in the college bar and then three or four VKs at a club. Total intake on a single night out will frequently match or even exceed the 24 weekly units recommended by the Government.
But if drinking societies are the lifeblood of this culture of bingeing, their initiations are the pressure points, where normal undergraduate excesses are distilled into ritualised orgies of consumption.
Some are more notorious than others. The Wyverns, Magdalene’s men’s drinking society, have an infamous method for testing out their new members. The ordeal involves a “meal” consisting of over 15 courses, specially prepared for those to be initiated.
Perhaps surprisingly, the first ten courses are served without alcohol, and include such questionable delicacies as a pig’s snout accompanied with wasabi sauce, and a pint of water with a live goldfish swimming inside; a dish which, if regurgitated with said creature still aliv e, exempts the diner from two of the following courses.
Their latest initiation took place last week and featured raw leeks, whole, uncooked squids and entire chillies. The four prospective members were then adorned with kippers around their necks and doused in treacle and flour. At the end of the trial, hosted at the Punter on Pound Hill, they had to down four “dirty” pints in 3 minutes, each containing foods, spices and foreign liquids, spurred on by yells from onlookers of “down it, down it!”
In other societies fine dining in classy settings is taken equally seriously. Members of the Beefsteak Club, a cross-Cambridge society, are treated to a lavish seven-course dinner, each dish accompanied with a full bottle of wine. The meal is served in a room with tarpaulin covering every surface to avoid damage to the property.
The Ferretz, an inter-collegiate drinking society, must consume 80 units on their initiation, beginning with a bottle of gin and fin ishing off with a bottle of port, consumed through a condom.
Whilst most initiations will end in little more than a embarrassment or a severe hangover the next day, some have become tragic. One 18-year-old student at Exeter University died after taking part in a golf initiation ceremony in 2006, and another died in 2003 following a similar initiation after choking on his own vomit.
After the BBC’s exposé, the National Union of Students called for a blanket ban on initiation ceremonies in all British universities.
One second year student said, “I disagree with NUS’ calls for a ban because it is part of the fabric of the social life at the University. It may not be one that the University sanctions, but it’s just as important as the lectures or the beautiful buildings.”
The Senior Tutor at Murray Edwards, Dr Owen Saxon, said of the Harlots, the College’s drinking society, “it certainly doesn’t se em to be something that would do Cambridge’s reputation any favours.”
Yet despite this official condemnation, CUSU Welfare Officer Andrea Walko was reluctant to condemn the initiations so strongly.
She said: “In terms of initiations specifically, I’m not sure they are as much of a problem here in Cambridge as other universities. What I think is more of a problem are the drinking societies.”
Ben, 21, is a member of one of the central Colleges’ drinking societies, and was initiated in his first year. “Initiation day was just a day out with the lads really, but with lots of booze” he said. “There’s a fair bit of shagging, but that’s only an aside to the drinking.
“There’s a points system for the girls – it’s pretty straightforward, from pulling to shagging. Maybe more for something special.”
Prior to initiation, potential members will swap with other Colleges or drink with existing members, often being set challenging tasks to test their suitability for soci ety membership. “You have to chop a bottle of wine before formal, shirtless, because vomiting is always a possibility. The other lads serenade you with the society’s song,” said one student.
Another well-known society’s initiation for female members is alleged to involve the member-to-be standing on a chair, lowering her tights and an existing member dipping her fingers in wine and simulating digital penetration.
The classic culmination to the drinking society year is Suicide Sunday, when many hold garden parties. The Wyverns’ party last year ended in police involvement as a Trinity student punched a co-competitor and a security guard in a jelly wrestling competition. The event is believed to be going ahead, although in a new location.
Its winter equivalent, the VT valley rally, occurring during the annual Varsity ski trip, is quickly catching up to Suicide Sunday’s levels of debauchery. This year activities included teabagging, the act of dangling the scr otal sack in someone’s mouth, at every checkpoint, flaming socks being placed on male genitals, the consumption of sweets from various orifices and entire teams giving each other back, sack and crack waxes. The winners received a trip to Canada.
One student, recently initiated into a drinking society, told Varsity that they are a way of formalising friendships. “Membership draws people who can’t necessarily sustain such a wide social group themselves together. In a sociological sense, members might feel higher up on the social ladder. It could be that most abuse directed at prospective members on swaps is from those less confident with their social situations.”
Swaps at the Bombay Brasserie, a favourite haunt for many societies, present opportunities for drinking games beyond the standard “pennying” tradition. Breaking poppadums over your neighbour’s head is a favourite, as is dunking your naan bread in curry and slapping the girl next to you with it.
The Patricians, Downing’s m ale drinking society, are alleged to have to drink eight pints in two hours, followed by cocktails in one of the city’s parks. Their uniform is chinos and a blazer and members are fined with downing their drinks if they are not appropriately attired.
Another second year girl added, “if a guy isn’t in a society, he could be seen as socially less up there and so less attractive”.
The Caesarians, Jesus’ inter-year drinking society, has a tradition whereby any initiated member can point at an invited male, or ‘Legionary’ as they call it, keeping with the Roman theme, and he must then down his drink. There is no limit to the number of times this can be done to any one individual, and it has been reported that many don’t make it much past the end of the meal, if that.
Caesarian Sunday, occurring in the first Bank Holiday in Easter Term, sees the annual fight between the Girton ‘Green Giants’ and the Caesarians on Jesus Green. Legend has it that a member of the Green Giants stole a bottle of Pimms from a member of the Caesarians. The bottle was subsequently thrown at the gro up of Caesarians in a challenge to a fight. The day sees most college drinking societies descend on the Green for a day of drinking.
Not all initiations involve heavy drinking. Many female societies prefer to set the girls tasks, such as running sex surveys in town, collecting obscure items of clothing from strangers, kissing strangers and dressing up.
The Newnham Nuns’ ceremony, for instance, involves eating liquorice held by a volunteering male’s teeth. The girl is then expected to kiss the boy when she reaches his lips. Another part sees a topless man covered in whipped cream and chocolate buttons, being cleaned by the girl, using only her mouth. More degrading, perhaps, is when the girls are told to put a condom onto a banana, again using only their mouths.
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