This post has been really difficult to write, but I’m sick of reading these things and witnessing people being flippant and eye-rolling about it, and not being able to articulate why it makes me so upset and sick to my stomach. So here goes. (For what it’s worth, this is the version that doesn’t even touch on the classism of “dress like a chav” nights, or the racism that goes along with people deciding blackface is okay for fancy dress.)
In the UK, people have recently been paying a lot of attention to the events of freshers’ week at various universities across the country. If you’re not from the UK, here’s a quick run down - freshers’ week is the first week of university before classes start, supposedly a week of events with the aim of introducing you to new people and helping you get settled in. In reality, freshers’ week is a week of events that aim at getting you incredibly drunk. It is (or can be) a lot of fun, but there’s also a lot of pressure in there. If you don’t join in during freshers’ week, you miss the initial formation of friendship groups, you miss the first lot of in jokes, you miss the bonding and funny stories, and really? You are, the general feeling is, a bit boring. Freshers’ in itself isn’t something I have a problem with - I think getting drunk together is a good way of breaking the ice, and I’m always good with an excuse to go out on the cheap and make new friends. And after all, organisers will always say, not everything is focused on drinking. There are quiet movie nights, and… and honestly? I don’t know what else. I took part in freshers’ week all three years I was an undergrad, and I was never made aware of anything but the opportunities with alcohol. Like I said - there’s an incredible amount of pressure to join in and get out of control, and if you don’t, no matter how strong-minded and confident you are, there’s always going to be a sense of having missed out, having people label you boring or uptight. You know this. Other people know this. It’s why the pressure is so effective.
And if that was it, it would just be a sign of the UK’s ever-increasing issues with binge drinking and alcoholism. You have to drink; you have to keep up; you have to have fun, and this is how. But let’s look at some key examples of events during various freshers’ weeks:
- "Freshers’ Lunch…This will be mainly a chance for you to scope out who’s in your department and stake your claim early on the 1 in 5 girls."
- "“slut dropping”. The process, they explained, involves driving around town with friends in the early hours of the morning and offering a lift home to a young woman they deem a “slut” (usually a woman in a “post-club state”). After asking her address, they drive as fast and as far as possible in the opposite direction before forcing the woman out of the car and using a camera to film her “standing by the side of the road as they drive away”."
- themed nights: ‘Slag ‘n’ Drag’, ‘Tarts and Vicars’, ‘Rappers and Slappers’, ‘Geeks and Sluts’, ‘Golf pros and Tennis hoes’, ‘Slut-droppers vs Moshers’, ‘Pimps and Hoes’, ‘CEOs and corporate hoes’, “rape victims”
- a lacrosse team with team ‘rules’ stating that members don’t date - “that was what rape was for.”
- “Contest where girls had to dance on stage. Most cheers win. Girls encouraged to take off items of clothing. No guy version.”
- nights where “I attended one of these events and was turned away at the door for wearing normal clothing … I was told I could come in if I flashed.”
- The idea that students must choose to participate or risk being labelled “uptight” is a recurring theme.
(Note that there has only been one reported case of slut dropping, but that’s enough to make certain university night clubs want to name a whole night after it.)
Now, here’s the thing. My time at university was the best time of my life. It also included the worst experiences of my life as well. The most frequent response to these articles seems to be the idea that people are taking these events too seriously - it’s just a laugh, people say. It’s banter. (The same kind of banter that led UniLad to joke about and encourage rape.) But there’s no getting away from the facts: university has traditionally been a boys’ club. We live in a rape culture of victim blaming and slut shaming. 1 in 7 female students are victims or sexual assault or violence. Sexual assault is under reported and has an incredibly low conviction rate.
My nights out at university were a source of drunken hilarity, excellent bonding, and the celebration of a freedom I had never before experienced. My nights out at university also conditioned me to thinking that it was okay for someone to accuse me of being a “slut” because of how I was dressed, because some nights, that had even been the point- yes, I’d had unwanted attention, comments and gropes, but what else was I allowed to expect? Then a night out at university led to sexual assault. Date rape. My nights out at university led to me blaming myself for this because of how I had been dressed at the time and the idea that I should have somehow known better, because nights out had also revealed to me the shocking number of boys who think that if a girl is too drunk to consent she’s still ‘fair game’. I (foolishly) read internet comments that told me if I was weak enough to be influenced by events that told me I was merely a sexual object without power or rights, I was the stupid one and it was all down to me.
None of that is true. No one is to blame for my experiences except the men who chose to do those things without my consent. But I just want to say this - next time you write something off as harmless banter, think about the attitudes and conditioning and pressure around those events, and then come back and tell me it’s not inherently sexist and harmful to young girls who are out in the world on their own for the first time.