Students drinking on Jesus Green for Caesarian Sunday last yearLouis Ashworth

Alcohol and Cambridge often go hand-in-hand in the popular imagination: conjuring visions of students stumbling home from May Balls, fancy-dressed revellers on Jesus Green, or clandestine drinking societies.

The reality, however, may be strikingly different, according to the results of a survey conducted by the University of Cambridge, and published exclusively in Varsity. The survey, which drew over 6,000 responses, suggests that Cantabs see drink as far less integral to their experience than students in other universities, and drink less on average.

It also reveals troubling links between alcohol consumption and sexual harassment. One in five students reported having been the victim of sexual harassment, with three-quarters of those saying that they believed alcohol had been as a contributory factor. Female students were seven times as likely to have been the victims of sexual harassment, and nearly six times as likely to have been the victims of sexual assault as male students.

The survey found that:

● Three per cent of Cambridge students have reported sexual assault, with two thirds of those believing that alcohol had been a factor
● Nearly a third of students drink in excess of recommended limits
● One in five students have injured themselves while drinking
● One in three students do not drink
● Comparisons with a National Union of Students (NUS) survey from 2016 suggests alcohol nonetheless plays a smaller and more positive part in the lives of Cambridge students than those at many other universities

Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, said: “Promoting safer drinking is one way we can encourage and support student wellbeing.”

“We cannot use the fact that alcohol misuse is multifactorial and societally endemic as an excuse for inaction”, he said, “and the outcomes from the survey helpfully highlight areas we can focus our energy to enact small but significant cultural change within the student body.”

The result raises particular concerns around the issue of sexual misconduct. The survey showed that most respondents who had been victims of harassment and assault believed that alcohol was a factor, with around two hundred reporting that they have been a victim of sexual assault – 171 of whom were women.

There were 1,143 women who reported having being the victim of sexual harassment, compared to just 155 men.

Audrey Sebatindira, CUSU Women’s Officers, said “The University should continue to support consent workshops and encourage them to be organised by MCRs, as well. Colleges and the University should also take seriously any reports of sexual harassment and assault made where any of the parties were intoxicated. Staff shouldn't presume consent was present or impossible to determine just because students had been drinking.”

Several female students spoke to Varsity about their experience with sexual harassment in Cambridge.

“People use alcohol as an excuse for sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour, but it is not a defence”, a Queens’ student said. “If these things surface when drunk, then it’s just a manifestation of underlying, problematic attitudes when sober”, she added.

Women were found to be more likely to be the victims of sexual assault, with 171 reports compared to 33 from men, and two from other genders.

“Without a doubt, more must be done to recognise and challenge sexual harassment, especially in non-college environments”, a Gonville & Caius student told Varsity, “but this won't truly come until it just becomes unacceptable in all social circles.”

When compared to the results of a similarly-angled NUS report from last year, which conducted a survey of 13,451 students from 21 universities as part of the ‘Alcohol Impact’ scheme, Cambridge students generally gave more positive responses. The average Cantab drinker consumes 12.4 units of alcohol a week – equivalent to about five and half typical glasses of wine or pints of beer, and equal to around 13 shots of spirits. It falls below the recommended limit of 14 units, but is ahead of the national average for adults. Analysis of the data found that 29 per cent of students drink over 14 units a week.

Alcoholic consumption seemed to have an adverse effect on some Cambridge students, with 40 per cent saying that they had missed a class as a result of drinking. Nearly half reported having woken up feeling embarrassed or regretting a decision after drinking – lower than the NUS result of 61 per cent. Half the students surveyed had gaps in their memory after drinking.

The findings also suggested that alcohol lead students into more risk-taking behaviour. One in five students said they had injured themselves whilst while drinking, and 13 per cent said that they had taken unplanned risks when engaging in sexual activity as a consequence of drinking alcohol, with six per cent feeling pressured into engaging in a sexual activity.

Sophie Buck, CUSU and GU Welfare Officer, said that the survey should encourage colleges to take more responsibility for issues of student wellbeing surrounding alcohol.

“Promoting safe alcohol consumption – such as keeping below the weekly unit limit, not cycling home drunk, keeping hydrated, seeking help when alcohol becomes a coping mechanism, and not taking advantage of drunk others – is hugely important for students’ mental and physical wellbeing”, she said, “both in the short-term and long-term.”

“Colleges should take a more supportive than disciplinary approach with students experiencing alcoholism”, she added, “referring them to support services where possible. This approach should be reflected in the tone of often disciplinary-heavy college alcohol policies.”

Over a third of students said that they had ridden their bikes home while under the influence of alcohol. Cycling drunk is against the law, and can result in riders receiving a fine. The choice to cycle home after a night out is more than just a matter of convenience, however. One Selwyn student told Varsity that she believed choosing to cycle drunk could be the best of several bad options for unaccompanied students.

“If you want to leave a night out early, you essentially have to get a taxi home”, she said, “because students are always discouraged from walking home alone at night, especially when tipsy. But getting a taxi is expensive and also being in a taxi alone when tipsy isn't wholly safe either. Therefore, on the majority of occasions where there is a possibility that the night won't be a big one, I would take my bike.”

The potential dangers of walking home at night were emphasised by a series of attempted assaults last term in the area around the Sidgwick Site.

A Cambridgeshire police spokesperson said: “Just as you wouldn't get in your car while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you shouldn't when cycling. Both substances can distract you and impair your judgement.”

Many non-drinkers feel excluded

Nearly half of those students who don’t drink believe they are excluded from certain social groups or events at Cambridge as a result. Teetotalers, who made up around a third of respondents, avoid drinking for reasons including religion, expense, health, or simply disliking the taste and effects of alcohol

The University of Cambridge spent some £3m on wine in 2013, and alcohol is provided as part of many events. Formal halls and receptions typically involve wine, and bops are typically held in or near college bars. Over a third of students who do not said that they felt it negatively impacted their ability to engage with University social life, while a fifth felt that there were not enough events which catered for students who don’t drink.

“People’s personal choice to not drink – in general, or on a particular night – needs to be widely respected and not criticised or challenged: drinking should not be a prerequisite for attendance at event”, said Sophie Buck, CUSU and GU Welfare Officer.

“Moreover, functions with drinks provided should offer good alcohol-free alternatives (e.g. elderflower cordial) and, where possible, Colleges should endeavour to have designated alcohol-free social spaces.”

Finding support

There are many support services available if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article:

Alcoholics Anonymous – (alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk)

Nightline – 01223 744444 (linkline.org.uk)

Samaritans – 08457 909090, 4 Emmanuel Road (samaritans.org/branches/cambridge-samaritans)

University Counselling Service – 01223 332865 (counselling.cam.ac.uk/)

Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre – 01223 245888 (cambridgerapecrisis.org.uk)

Rape Crisis London – 0808 802 9999 (rapecrisislondon.org)

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