In universities across the world, the first term of the academic year means new people and new challenges. It also means, for many, the excitement of joining various clubs and societies. Unfortunately, with this comes a darker side, namely initiations. In case you don’t know, an initiation is a form of ceremony, made to admit someone into a particular group. This is nothing new; initiations date back to (at least) ancient Greece and the Bronze Age, becoming a part of spirituality and a staple for any secret society. Nowadays, most initiations for university clubs have lost any sense of spirituality or secrecy. In fact, they are pretty notorious. Last year, Metro reported instances of people eating dog food and goldfish, using a chicken as a rugby ball, and David Cameron’s now infamous interaction with a pig’s head (allegedly). These details are bizarre and a lot of people find them funny. That is understandable: initiations can be so ridiculous that all you might feel able to do is laugh. Another frequent reaction is disgust, cringing and scrunching up your face. Another is to roll your eyes because the culture of initiations is obnoxious and archaic. What do these three types of reaction have in common? They are all momentary, for those who find it funny might have been involved in the past, or want to participate in the future, whereas those who don’t will continue to avoid it. Sooner or later, everyone turns the page or keeps scrolling.
This is part of the problem. People don’t look at the behaviour that goes on during initiations properly, because they dismiss it as group drunkenness and, often, typical ‘male’ culture. Not enough attention is paid to the ugliest aspects of initiations and to what they show about the culture that they reflect and, in the end, encourage. Take an example from St Catz. The rugby team orders the freshers to run around the main quad naked, known as ‘streaking’ in the US, which is a pretty standard spectacle for an initiation. They also make freshers wrestle each other, still naked, in what is called a ‘bum off’. Inventive. To win, one fresher has to force the other on to all fours and position himself behind. Obviously, this looks like gay sex. It is hard to imagine someone not thinking of that if they were to see it. The rest of the team guffaws and heckles, encouraging and mocking. But what exactly is so funny about gay sex?
Now, if you phrase the question like that, I bet that many people would simply answer, ‘Nothing’. That is because many people today, particularly in an environment that seems committed to equality of sexual orientation like Oxford, realise that to say something else is probably to be offensive. Treating gay sex, or any other form of an intimate relationship, as somehow funnier than the straight equivalent indicates homophobia. Essentially, it suggests that you still think of being straight as the norm and that something which departs from that norm is, therefore, weird and material for comedy. Yet, though the members of these teams would probably answer that question in this particular way, they are the very same people who endorse behaviour that is inherently homophobic. Just because no-one is using a homophobic slur does not mean that homophobia is absent.
To treat initiations as harmless is to ignore what they are and what impact they truly have.
This tells us a lot about the use of homoeroticism, especially in sports initiations and (most notoriously) in male groups. It is relatively mainstream in psychological and anthropological thinking that men who identify as straight gravitate towards homoeroticism, often subconsciously, in order to deal with their own insecurities and their repressed fascination with the idea of not being ‘straight’. Of course, homoeroticism is not necessarily a problem in itself. But when it is employed to mock, humiliate and degrade, it is a massive problem. If you willingly participate in, or endorse, an activity that uses gay sexuality as an instrument for humiliation and mockery, then you’re being homophobic. No matter how many times you say, ‘But I would never be homophobic!’ or ‘What? Rubbish, I completely support being gay!’, doesn’t detract from that.
One response that seems to come up against this is that initiations are simply a consequence of the cultural problem—tackling them will not solve the problem, since it needs to be addressed at its source. Whilst this makes logical sense, it is hugely flawed. A parallel can be made with sexual assault. Sexual assault is a consequence of a culture of objectification and, frequently, sexism. Depending on how you view the issue, its source is probably the conditioning of the society in which a person grows up. Imagine, then, turning round to a victim of sexual assault and saying that their experience—though horrendous—is only a consequence of the problem, and so combatting it will not be effective in the wider scheme of things. Not only is that outrageous, it doesn’t make sense. It is like arguing that older generations are a lost cause and that we should abandon the problems of today in order to prevent the problems of tomorrow. If so, the criminal justice system would fall down. Instead, we can do both. We have to treat these types of initiations as the endorsements of homophobia that they are, which would be far from ineffective. Remember that every year freshers are exposed to what is seen as the wildest side of university culture through initiations. They see it as exciting and exhilarating because it represents some kind of adulthood and experiment with the forbidden. Usually, they become the second- and third-years who carry on the traditions. Therefore, opposing these initiations is the same as sending a message to incoming students that affirms inclusivity and rejects primitive rituals that belong in the past.
To treat initiations as harmless is to ignore what they are and what impact they truly have. The important step is to acknowledge the homophobia that occurs during initiations and take it seriously. Yes, it might be fun and it might give you something to laugh about for years to come; however, it is blatant hypocrisy to promote gay rights during the day and partake in this kind of initiation at night. It is not difficult to think of the deterring effect that this has on those who are unsure about their sexual orientation or who come to university identifying as gay or bi, for instance. Sports teams present themselves as a place for the heteronormative to dominate and for the ugliness of hyper-masculinity to reign. Recognition of a spectrum of sexuality is essential to society’s progression, and that recognition must be genuine and whole. Being gay doesn’t stop when you have finished simulating it in initiations; it extends way further than the trite and simplistic purposes of an initiation or anything else that approaches sexuality in this way. Ultimately, to ignore this is to show that you prioritise ‘fun’ over equality and respect—it not only means that you don’t take homophobia seriously, but that you actually endorse it.