Drinking societies: a fresh perspective?

Will Bennett 24 May 2018

Of the many people I have discussed drinking societies with, most of those that have been vehemently opposed to drinking societies have never had first-hand experience with them.  One of the frustrating aspects of this debate is the fact that it is difficult to pin down what exactly drinking societies are being accused of. Posts on Grudgebride have varied from the bizarre (boys punching holes in roofs with their heads) to the pathetically infantile (having to sleep on the floor). However, the serious issues are the ones that deserve our focus: racism, homophobia, and sexual abuse.

Having been on swaps with drinking societies I have had the good fortune to have never witnessed any behaviour that even comes close to some of the appalling accounts I have heard about. I do not doubt that some of the stories are accurate (although given the nature of the forum it is unfortunately impossible to say with certainty), and the reason they may be accurate is because appalling behaviour exists in society, and in almost every sizeable subsection of society. Drinking societies cause these problems in the exact same way that the wider culture of universities does, and every member of this university that goes out, drinks or socialises is part of that culture: a culture that, at times, can foster such behaviour both within drinking societies and without drinking societies. We must act on that, but not on impulse.

A drinking society is a group of individuals that wish to gather socially and drink. Swaps are not a uniquely drinking society phenomenon, single-gender groups are not a uniquely drinking society phenomenon, drinking is not a uniquely drinking society phenomenon. Perhaps the one uniqueness of drinking society environments is that people expect the sort of behaviour that may be considered inappropriate in a different social setting (for example, eating food off each other’s bodies). An aspect of why drinking society swaps are considered enjoyable by those that attend is a sense of both putting yourself outside of your comfort zone and pushing against social and personal boundaries that constrain how you would usually act. It can be thrilling and wholly positive to do this, in fact it is vital to discomfort yourself in social settings if you want to develop.

Obviously, this can get far too out of hand, but the problem of not being able to draw the line (one that definitely needs solving) is not one that only drinking societies have: it is endemic in university culture and wider society more broadly. Even if damaging behaviour occurs more in drinking society environments, it is obvious that it would not be sensible to draw the line as far to the side of caution as possible, that being the case of banning drinking societies. On the one hand, banning would restrict the ability of those who wish to participate to push social boundaries and gain enjoyment from this in a way that does not harm others, but it would also be ineffective at eliminating situations where the line is crossed. Banning drinking societies will not prevent people from seeking out alternative settings for this sort of damaging behaviour as long as we do not achieve wider reform, and if we tolerate certain aspects of how we behave in wider society then we must not be hypocritical in condemning drinking societies for much the same thing.

I am not a member of a drinking society. I turned down an offer to initiate on the grounds that I do not drink and do not wish to attach my name to a society that has drinking as its main purpose. I think the drinking culture at universities is disastrous. Countless nights out have confirmed that people act in ways that they regret seriously, often to their extreme social and personal detriment, as a consequence of excessive alcohol consumption. I have seen this at drinking society swaps and I have seen it on nights out with my friends. I accept that most people want to drink, and some people want to drink copiously. However, I find it extremely hypocritical that people attack drinking societies for doing exactly what they revel in doing themselves so often: getting drunk and behaving in a manner that often harms themselves and others. Attitudes towards alcohol are undeniably the cause of so many issues in our universities and wider society. I am sure no one would argue for restricting the liberty of students to drink in social groups even though it sometimes has such dire consequences for so many people, so why would they argue for restricting the liberty to drink within a different social group, namely, drinking societies, where there are sometimes the exact same dire consequences?

Another issue that exposes the hypocrisy of many of those that would protest against drinking societies is attitudes towards sex. Casual sex is as deeply ingrained in university culture as drinking. Drinking societies are attacked viciously for their “misogyny”: the clear intentions of a swap being a place to engage with the opposite sex, and hopefully, by the end of the night, really engage with the opposite sex. But if you are open to the culture of casual sex, which of course as someone who values personal liberty I think you are well within your rights to be, then why is it only an issue when it occurs within a drinking society environment? I am sure many of us at this university think it is absolutely okay to approach someone in a nightclub with the intention to attempt to flirt with them and take them home. But what about when someone approaches you with the same intention – in a drinking society tie?

Evidently there is no difference between either interaction, yet the latter situation is instinctively labelled within our university as predatory with little regard to the actual nature of the interaction, whilst the former situation is broadly seen as acceptable and considered normal behaviour to be found on most nights out. This clear contradiction in the way that the same social interactions are viewed by certain parties demonstrates that the argument against drinking societies and some of their alleged actions may largely be the result of prejudice and consequent labelling rather than actual fact. This is, at least in part, the major problem of drinking societies: an image problem which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, with those that hear stories of drinking societies reiterating them, on forums like Grudgebridge. This generates a perception of drinking societies as a microcosm of all of wider society’s problems, it highlights the bad and entirely ignores the good (which certainly exists if you bother to look for it). It is certainly difficult to defend a society that actively encourages these behaviours and only these behaviours, but this is only what drinking societies are being made to look like, not what they actually are. The problems being debated regarding drinking societies stem from broader university culture rather than the drinking societies themselves, and neither do drinking societies inherently foster these problems more than any other social groups in which there is a formalised expectation for a certain kind of behaviour, such as drunken rowdiness and casual attitudes towards sex and sexual behaviour.

Attacking drinking societies is far too easy, and far too unhelpful. We have to look at the deeper problems in our culture instead of taking the easy route of scapegoating drinking societies for these wider issues. The frankly irresponsible and authoritarian response of certain groups and people to propose banning drinking societies will almost definitely cause more harm than good. Not only does it risk alienating those that can really make a difference in coming to a solution and finding that line between fun and unacceptable, it deflects attention from the real task at hand for anyone that cares deeply about the issues that are being aired. We must not fall into the trap of looking for an instant solution, one with obvious and clear aims that can be achieved quickly, when it is not the right one. Reform is essential, in drinking societies and beyond, to ensure that unacceptable behaviour does not continue. So, let us instead take the difficult road, assess the problems with wider society and how we interact with one another in every setting, because I do not think we can truthfully say that drinking societies and the problems surrounding them are much worse than what many people face in everyday life, both at this university and in the wider world.