Alcohol: responsible for the problematic behaviour at swaps? Eleanor Deeley

Stories of anti-social, offensive and misogynistic behaviour on swaps are notorious. This kind of conduct is often associated with old, male, Oxbridge drinking societies, but it is still prevalent today. Many of us will have read an article released by The Tab a few months ago, entitled 'JOHN’S BOYS EXPOSED: “Fine if you’ve tried having sex with a passed out girl”'. It gave an account of a swap that was, according to the article, a sinister episode of "old school, elitist Cambridge" behaviour. Perhaps this is old news, but why not use it to tackle a problem which continues to exist?

Like too many swaps, it sounds as if the evening went severely awry. Some of the behaviour seems to have been entirely farcical: the call to “stand up if you could buy this entire restaurant with your ring” indicates more ignorance of Cambridge property prices than intentional malice. However, some of the other quotations reported were highly disturbing, particularly the fine appearing in the headline, which treats the prospect of rape extremely insensitively. More alarming still, the article suggests that this kind of behaviour is not confined to Sesame – that charming location renowned for what The Tab politely called “rowdy” conduct – but cites the concerns expressed by another John’s student at the JCR election hustings, who felt that drinking societies within the college were making “women and other minorities feel unsafe”.

Let me clarify from the outset that I do not intend to vindicate this kind of behaviour, which seems to have been both thoughtless and disrespectful. But the results of the subsequent disciplinary inquiry into this episode have recently been announced: some of these ‘lads’ have been punished for their involvement by being banned from the John’s May Ball. While these boys may have been forbidden from going to a party, they are certainly not facing legal action for any allegations of rape. Of course, this does not mean that their fines were not ill-judged, or that the girls attending the swap did not have a right to express their alarm, but it does seem as though the press may not have provided a full version of the story. This raises some important questions about the kind of attitude required to tackle the issues underlying swap and drinking society culture, as well as more general social interaction among students.

We all know that behaviour on swaps is often boisterous, alcohol-fuelled, and at times downright disgusting. On one memorable evening in my first year I myself was to be found dodging a toilet seat in Sesame, which had been detached from its hinges, covered in sweet chilli sauce and thrown around the room. My story is certainly not unique. Sesame is one of those places I think most people would actually prefer not to be a fly on the wall. But in spite of all the noise, silly games and awkward drunken conversations, quite inexplicably, groups of Cambridge students (not just drinking societies) get together year on year and do the whole thing over again.

Of course, the fun stops the moment anyone feels unsafe. But this is exactly where the conversation should begin. Instead of focusing on a scandal, why not use this as an opportunity to talk about swap culture? It needs to be asked: why on earth would anyone want to play a game of catch with a toilet seat? Why do we keep going on these strange (not to mention really quite pricey, when you add up £20 for food, £5 for a bottle of wine and however much it ends up costing to replace whatever was broken in all the ruckus) social gatherings? Do swaps encourage friendships and relationships between colleges and genders, or confirm hostilities? Most importantly, how can we ensure that these events are inclusive and enjoyable for those who choose to attend?

Many of the boys at John’s say they have been surprised and troubled by the insinuations made about ‘lad culture’ and misogyny at the college, which quickly spread to the national press. The swap was interpreted as an example of many (banned) drinking society meetings at John’s, and generated headlines such as 'Cambridge College under Rape Investigation'. It is unsurprising that they are uneasy given the mutation of this story in the press. One told me that he now feels hesitant about talking to girls at all, for fear of offending someone he doesn’t know.

It is highly disturbing to me that condemnation of ‘lad’ culture in the press is reinforcing gender segregation rather than exposing it. We should not be closing off channels of communication by vilifying misogynistic behaviour. We should be swapping stories and starting debates. Let’s talk about the aspects of swap culture that can get out of hand. Let’s make students aware of the kind of behaviour that makes genders and minorities feel unsafe or marginalised. Let’s talk about how 11 men and women are raped every hour in the UK and Wales, and how this is certainly not something to joke about. These are the issues that we need in our headlines.

The most encouraging part of this story was the subsequent discussion at the John’s JCR hustings; it is quite right that such issues should be discussed. In a society increasingly complicated by political correctness, such open discussion and debate must be preserved. Let’s find a place for students to communicate, ask questions and debate freely, whether they are male, female, gender-neutral, elitist, underprivileged, politicised, impartial or simply bewildered by everything that it is possible to be.

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