Varsity at 70

Sun, 2:1s and suspicious sex: 70 years of salacious stories

For her first assignment, Violet‘s new Features Writer Anna Hollingsworth investigates the sexual goings-on in Cambridge since 1947

Anna Hollingsworth

In an unnamed college, there’s a media room hidden away in a corner of the bottom floor of the library: with a lockable door, no CCTV, and plenty of leather-topped tables to get to work at – you know, study the human anatomy, recite emotive poems, or attempt to defy the laws of gravity. It provides the perfect setting for ticking sex in a public space off your bucket list.

A few years ago, a couple of kinky freshers took up the challenge, and achieved something of a BNOC status for doing the thing without anyone – apart from all their fellow students – finding out. Or so they thought.

Now, I’m not saying I’m the porters’ pet, but getting on with the right people gives you certain benefits – geez, not like that – rather, like knowing that Cambridge’s take on Christian Grey’s playroom does in fact have CCTV, and that the fresher hanky-panky was streamed live into the plodge. A refreshing change from watching students puke the contents of their formals into flowerpots, I should’ve thought, but the porter on duty at the time turned the screen and let them get on with it. How considerate and liberal-minded!

“By the sounds of it, Medics can diagnose their patient in more contexts than one”

Nothing new there: Varsity has been reporting on increasingly liberated sexual values for decades. The results of the 1972 ‘Varsity Opinion Poll on Sex’ were published under the headline ‘Cambridge getting sexually more permissive’. Some 47 per cent of male and 45 per cent of female undergrads said they’d done the deed, compared to 43 per cent as reported in a survey four years earlier in the late ’60s. But students weren’t exactly embarking on a horny rampage, either: as “a measure of promiscuity”, Varsity reported that only one in eight singleton students was having sex twice or more per term – it’s great how everything is done on a termly basis.

Not so in 2008, when Varsity re-visited students’ bedchambers, ranking colleges on a promiscuity table. Homerton came top with an average of 6.9 sexual partners per Homertonian – I guess the thighs evolved from long-distance cycling float quite a few boats – dominating the likes of Corpus with an average 3.2 partners per Corpuscle. Apparently first-class activity in the sheets doesn’t translate into equally up-and-coming exam performance, though: the survey points out how Homerton came 26th in the Tompkins Table and Corpus eighth. Even more active than Homertonians were Medics, with 8.2 partners per person. By the sounds of it, Medics can diagnose their patient in more contexts than one.

The 2008 survey was also bolder in penetrating more aspects of students’ sex life than its ’70s predecessor. While the Varsity journalists behind the latter were interested in the near-existential question of why students had sex (the answer was ‘sexual appetite’ for 48 per cent of men and ‘in love’ for 59 per cent of women), their millennial counterparts were more curious about the ‘where?’ question – both in the geographical and anatomical sense (let’s just say that 60 per cent of respondents had enjoyed the great outdoors).

What both surveys shared was discretion and anonymity. The survey from the late ’60s was conducted using face-to-face interviews. Very observantly, in 1972 Varsity noted that in the earlier survey “subjects were often embarrassed by the questions and tended to give dishonest answers, or none at all.” Gosh, I wonder why?

‘But why do we care what other people get up to?’ I hear your inner prudery raise its head. Well, why not, because the colleges certainly do. While in 1972, 36 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women answered in the affirmative to “Have you had sexual intercourse in a Cambridge College or Hostel?” and only 21 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women said college discipline had interfered with their sex life, the consequences of being found in action could be severe – and I don’t mean a good ol’ spanking here.

In 1961, a female undergrad – or ‘undergraduette’ as the parlance of the time would have it – at St Hilda’s, Oxford, was sent down after she was found in bed with a man. A comment piece in Varsity stands up for the girl, asking if “Cambridge dons [would] behave with any more wisdom and tolerance than their Oxford counterparts?” Some things don’t change: earlier this year, students at Corpus rose to the barricades about the college’s policy on guests visiting their rooms, with allegations of bedders informing on students and relationships having to be publicly declared. I guess that answers the ’60s comment writers’ question.

“Professor Mary Beard, graduating from Newnham in 1977, shared an anecdote of a French visiting student for whom it took a year to realise that Newnham was actually an all-girls’ college”

It’s not only porters and bedders monitoring what enters where at Cambridge, though. Our loyal friend the Daily Mail made national headlines of Newnham antics in 2010 when an email from the then JCR president Lizzy Cole was leaked. All Cole was asking for was some peace and quiet after numerous complaints about noise in the college: “I’d just like to politely remind everyone that Newnham corridors funnel sound and walls are very thin in some buildings. Therefore, please remember to be discreet in your activities, especially during late/early hours of the day.” Instead, she got nationwide coverage of a college where life is, as Madonna would have it, like a prayer.

But it turns out that stories from Newnham – shock horror ­– are as versatile as the alleged naughty nuns. Writer and broadcaster Joan Bakewell, a Newnhamite in the early ’50s, told the Mail of kisses over cream cakes from Fitzbillies, but also of rolled blankets in beds to cover up for nights spent in all-male colleges. Professor Mary Beard, graduating from Newnham in 1977, shared an anecdote of a French visiting student for whom it took a year to realise that Newnham was actually an all-girls’ college. At the same time, sexual appetite was dampened by the prospect of being sent down if discovered, the difficulty of obtaining contraceptives, and total catastrophe in the form of unwanted pregnancy – and as another ’50s Newnhamite, author Jessica Mann, says, “because nice girls didn’t.”

From not-so-private media rooms to nunneries – sorry, Newnham – fetishised in the media, Cambridge has found its way to satisfy its desires through the decades. And through the decades, Varsity has been there to report who does what and what goes where – who ever claimed student journalism was dry?