Like any self-respecting liberal feminist, I am at my most comfortable when vaguely outraged. So when I was invited to go out with what I was informed was one of Cambridge’s most infamous drinking societies, the Bulldogs, I was fairly excited. When people asked, I said I was going out of curiosity. I wanted to see whether they would fulfill all the things I expected of them; not just the outlandish drinking and debauchery, but also the misogyny, homophobia and elitism.
Before we arrived, the women’s drinking society recalled previous swaps. They laughed through anecdotes of lap dances, swapping clothes and being ‘portered’ in their underwear. They didn’t seem intimidated by challenges, but embraced them, as a good night out and an even better story to tell afterwards. They said a similar thing, walking home after the swap; they were empowered by owning their sexuality. They were not ashamed of their past trysts, revealed and magnified in ‘fines’. They refused to be demure, and embraced it, on the same level as the boys.
But throughout the evening, they made a point of telling me that it had to be my choice. If I didn’t want to reveal anything – body part or backstory – I didn’t have to.
This awareness continued through the night; they made sure I was sitting near people I was comfortable with, that no-one was too drunk and that all the girls got home in one piece, calling one when she left to go to a bar with one of the boys. There was much more awareness of where the group were and making sure they were comfortable than at any other alcohol-fuelled event I have been to before.
This attitude spread to the boys as well, who seemed perfectly comfortable chatting as much as drinking and who became strangely protective of my handbag when I put it down in the club.
Of course there were moments when the infamous side shone through: when one of the boys stripped so another could eat a copious amount of whipped cream off of him, some questionable drinking songs were sung and one boy got a fine because he admitted that he ‘had a boyfriend.’
This felt indicative of a deeper undercurrent of homophobia in the evening. It felt inherent to the whole idea of it being an opportunity for men and women to meet. Despite the conscious feminism in other areas, there was a pervasive assumption that to be there, you had to be straight.
Similarly, when asked why I had never been on a swap before, I wasn’t sure how to say that I had never been invited: that I had never previously been seen as fun, wealthy or attractive enough to be accepted behind the velvet rope.
Yet despite these twinges of awkwardness, I had a good night. I had fulfilled my dad’s request of “keeping on most of [my] clothes.” I had felt safe and completely in control of the situation, even as my blood alcohol level rose.
Of course, this was one night, with two groups, but it does indicate that drinking societies do not have to be banished entirely. I had believed that drinking societies couldn’t be saved; that they celebrated and institutionalised the worst elements of Cambridge. I was fully prepared to be outraged. But I found no reason to be.