Cambridge drinking rituals of fining, pennying, and swaps have gone unquestioned and unchallengedNoella Chye

Content note: This article contains discussion of sexual assault.

“They were laughing.”

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the United States Supreme Court this week was a solemn reminder that university campuses around the world continue to be riddled with laxed standards for drinking cultures in the name of youthful indiscretion, and a status quo of silence.

Ford’s testimony has resonated with experiences of intense drinking cultures so prevalent on university campuses. The hearings last week pushed drinking culture into the limelight as two more women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, came forward with allegations of sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. At Yale, which Ramirez attended with Kavanaugh, 2,200 women and 1,500 men signed two open letters highlighting that Ramirez’s account “ of harassment, misconduct and assault ” was “sadly consistent with the campus culture at the time.”

Revealing a person’s sexual acts to a crowd takes information about their sex life – which may have been told in confidence – out of their control

Make no mistake: what Ford described at a high school party, and what Ramirez described at Yale, happens here too.

Last term, a leaked video of members of now-disbanded Trinity Hall drinking society, the Crescents, revealed a student making classist remarks. This video sparked the largest public debate Cambridge has seen so far on a culture of bullying and sexual harassment within the institution’s drinking societies, but also served as a stark indicator of how far conversations around Cambridge’s drinking culture have lagged behind. Why did it take Grudgebridge announcing its crusade against drinking societies to jolt us into a long overdue collective questioning?

And unspoken issues in Cambridge’s drinking culture extend far beyond that. As Grudgebridge has brought drinking society behaviour into public debate, the endemic issues in traditions tied to social drinking throughout the University have been left unquestioned.

Why have so many Cambridge rituals, such as fining and pennying, gone undiscussed?

The act of fining someone, often revealing a person’s sexual acts to a crowd, takes information about their sex lives – which may have been told in confidence – out of their control. It removes the autonomy of those involved without their consent.

There’s a pressure to be okay with it, and a power imbalance against taking issue with what everyone else at the table sees as harmless. No one wants to be the person who can’t take a joke. Especially freshers.

Swaps, too, are charged with pressures to have a certain openness about your sex life – to be blasé in the intimate details of your personal life becoming public knowledge, and sometimes a punchline.

The pressure to drink, and the social setting weighted with the clear expectation of coupling up, egg each other on. There’s a novelty to these traditions, to Cambridge quirks. And we’ve become all too comfortable taking part in them because they’re couched as archaisms we can brush off as harmless.

Pennying is similarly dismissed. The practice of encouraging forced, excessive drinking puts people in a place of vulnerability of losing complete control of themselves, disguised in the perceived sophistication of formal halls and of wearing a gown. Beer keg parties in fraternity houses of US universities are seen as different; we immediately recognise their troubling nature in a way that we don’t with pennying.

We’re all too comfortable taking part in these traditions because they’re couched in an archaism we can brush off as harmless

There exists a pervasive pressure to partake in these aspects of drinking culture, which have gone unaddressed, and unchallenged.

Underpinning these traditions is a ‘lad culture’ specific to Cambridge. There’s a pressure here to look and dress a certain way, to conform to a set of social cues – to unquestioningly partake in social settings that are the norm. The social pressures surrounding drinking are unique and couched to hide grave problems, making it more difficult to recognise that they are riddled with parallel, dangerous pressures.

We continue to laugh them off. We have failed to rethink the social norms and pressures that have shaped our drinking culture, leaving our perception of them as harmless quirks untouched. Feeding into this is an environment we’ve created where people do not feel they can raise these issues for fear of being seen as killjoys.

We still accept that it’s okay to perpetuate these environments despite the power imbalances they create, because it’s just something we do. Because it’s normal.

As long as we perpetuate the culture of silence that pervades these social rituals, we place Cambridge students in a network of risk which, worse still, we have made difficult to articulate.

“The details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me.”

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