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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Women Gone Way of the World: Inside the world of secret female drinking societies

Inside the world of secret female drinking societies

Tales of student binge drinking invoke cheap fun: twenty-somethings clutching tins of supermarket lager sitting in long, itchy-carpeted hallways; sweaty hordes jumping in unison to bad pop songs at worse clubs; saccharine shots tipped into slavering mouths (only to be regurgitated, a few hours later).

But while most may head, en masse, to the union, a select few have always had a thirst for something a little more exclusive. And last week, news broke of an elite all-girls’ drinking society at the University of Bristol, called Scortum (be careful how you spell it), whose antics are seemingly more Bullingdon Club than basement club.


Members of Scortum are handpicked for their looks. 
Members of Scortum are handpicked for their looks. 
“Members are handpicked for their looks, who they know, and who their families are,” reported online student newspaper The Tab. “From private dining at Mayfair restaurant Sketch to drug fuelled house parties where members brought celebrity dates such as the stars of Made in Chelsea, the society is not one for a couple of drinks in the local pub... Although membership is for life, only 60 members exist at any one time. This means that inductions are rare.”
Though memorable. One current Scortum member (let’s call her Alice) told me she would never forget her initiation weekend, which involved an secretive trip to London, where one ambitious fresher had arranged a visit to an underground casino near Chinatown that had officially closed the year before.
“I remember whispering in her ear ‘how the hell did you pull that off?’,” says Alice. While the girls gulped bellinis, the organiser, Emily Alway, 19, from Cheltenham, “ran up to the roulette and took a massive gamble.”
Said gamble was, allegedly, Alway's £3000 student loan - she won £7000, and the presidency.
“Everyone was thinking of stopping her but she was adamant and above all, so confident,” says Alice. “I felt like I was going to be sick. The ball span and in a flash everyone was screaming. She won a crazy amount. All eyes were on us.”

Members of Scortum gambled at an underground London casino. 
Members of Scortum gambled at an underground London casino. 
The next evening, they went out again. “Emily probably spent more than half [of her winnings] on the following night. We had early evening drinks at Beach Blanket before going to this private dining event at Sketch. I ate a quail’s egg in a starter and ending up vomming in their pod loos.”
Selective and non-sensical, it sounds like a (very) high-octane version of my own initiation ceremony into Whiskers, when I was a student at St Catharine’s (or ‘Catz’) College, Cambridge.

I had to dress up as a schoolgirl, stick my face into a variety of different foods, down multiple shots of coruscating hues and then jump up and down a lot, in order to send the alcohol straight to my head. I don’t think many of us were studying science.
Although figures published last year indicate the proportion of teetotal young adults increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013 - prompting claims that freshers have never been so squeaky clean - drinking society culture is no relic of the past at Oxbridge and various Russell Group universities.
And in my experience, the girls are more than a match for boys when it comes to raucous behaviour and one-up-womanship. As Alice observes of her own initiation, “I knew I had to impress the girls - and I wanted to”.

Figures indicate the number of teetotal students was up 40% between 2005 and 2013. 
Figures indicate the number of teetotal students was up 40% between 2005 and 2013. 
Candidates for Whiskers were selected by the existing members of the society - the criteria were opaque, but I like to think it involved “being fun” - and summoned to initiations via a paper invite in their college pigeon hole.
Mine arrived in the first week of my second year, by which point I had caught a serious bout of freshers’ flu, but was so terrified that I wouldn’t be invited again if I declined, that I dosed up on painkillers and powered on through.
Like everything at Cambridge, drinking societies involve highly structured fun that appeals to the university’s type A minds. Furthermore, they’re all elites.

All drinking societies in Cambridge are elite. 
All drinking societies in Cambridge are elite. 
While I have no statistics about the proportion of state vs privately educated members - and certainly no clue as to the make-up of mine - I’d hazard a guess that most mirror the social architecture of a certain type of schooling; where those on the first XV rule the roost.
Some shouted about it more than others, but the secretive selectivity was undeniably flattering at the time, if all a bit obnoxious with hindsight.

Every college had at least one male and one female club - apart from the two all-girls’ colleges (though theirs reportedly did enough carousing for both genders; the initiation for the Camrbridge’s New Hall Nymphs reportedly involved riding a bicycle into town wearing nothing but an open formal gown, blowing in the breeze).
Each term saw a calendar of “swaps”, which involved meeting a boys’ society, usually at a curry house, usually in fancy dress, drinking a whole bottle of wine each and then tipping up at one of Cambridge’s clubs (Wednesday night Cindies or Sunday night at Life) where you would lose your costume, bit by bit.
Drinking at dinner was regulated (obviously) by a “fines” system: someone would stand up, tap the side of a bottle with a knife and call out a “fine” - faux-shaming a specific member of the group for some form of sexual activity.  I say faux, as everyone liked the attention, really.

Phoebe was a member of the Whiskers society at St Catz, Cambridge
Phoebe was a member of the Whiskers society at St Catz, Cambridge Credit: Phoebe Luckhurst

Every year, our society would take the fresher boys out for dinner. Because obviously, every girls’ society was also all about the boys. Alice alludes to this competition: “We were tasked to bring impressive bachelors…The type of people who you know by their surname”.
One recurringly popular theme was a swap where you were invited to bring a “randomer” (subtext: an eligible boy), ideally one of the university’s “big names on campus” (BNOCs). Getting off with one of those names obviously had equally big cachet.
On reflection, it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. Men’s drinking societies are notorious for boorish behaviour ranging from misogyny-lite to the much more serious. Last year, the police investigated allegations that members of the Wyverns, an all-male drinking society from Magdalene College, Cambridge chanted “rape” as they paraded through Oxford.
Though our antics involved nothing more sinister than a ritualised version of normal university drinking, ​certain ​aspects - dressing up by wearing as little as possible; drinking until we were sick and long after we really wanted to stop; “fining” people for having sex - undoubtedly pandered to the same laddish culture.
Even female society names (Scortum is Latin for ‘whore’) speak of sexual availability, while men's (the Musketeers, the  Caesarians ) smack of derring-do.  Surprisingly, considering we were at Cambridge, no one intellectualised it as such, at the time.
As I said, Oxbridge is keen on organised, ritualised fun; though the antics of Scortum suggests it’s catching on - and the stakes are getting higher.

"Women & Destruction of Christian Civilization"