Fancy Another?

Inside The Secretive, All-Women University Drinking Societies

Introducing Fancy Another? – a weeklong series on what young women's drinking culture in the UK looks like in 2022, with zero percent judgement.
I arrived at university in 2006. At the end of freshers’ week, the boys in the year above published a 'newsletter' (which I later learned was weekly) called "The Bog Sheet". It was lo-fi, printed on pages of A4 paper. Inside, it slut-shamed young women for sleeping with men and described sex acts as 'points' – one point was a kiss, five points was penetrative sex, with a sliding scale of foreplay in between – reducing us to numerical notches on a metaphorical bedpost. In my first term, on a night out, someone shouted in my face: "It’s not rape if you shout banter." I later learned that they were members of Oxford’s notorious, supposedly secret Bullingdon Club – an invite-only, men-only drinking group where future prime ministers got wasted and smashed up the interiors of pubs and restaurants before handing over a cheque to pay for the damage in the ultimate show of privilege. 
Members of the Bullingdon have included Boris Johnson and David Cameron. We know this because, handily, they posed for year group shots in their tailor-made uniform: navy blue tailcoat with a velvet collar and ivory silk lapels, monogrammed buttons, waistcoat, and a tie in the club colour of azure. This get-up can reportedly be purchased from a single Oxford tailor and costs around £3,500. Being initiated into the 'Buller' is not a refined process, though. As one former member told me, it involved being blindfolded in his bedroom and forced to drink 'piss' while older club members went through his wardrobe and cut all his Hermès ties in half.  
At the time, in the early '00s, this sort of destructive misogyny was barely remarked upon. I'm not sure I was particularly shocked by it. At the same time, feminism was unfashionable; as a political movement it seemed to be on hiatus. Young millennial women were fair game in a world where their more famous counterparts – Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears – were stalked by photographers who took photos of them, bleary-eyed with their skirts around their waists on nights out, and then shamed with no consideration of their mental health or potential addiction issues. It was the tail end of the 'ladette' era, the '90s, in which Generation X women like Zoe Ball and Sara Cox were not only berated for daring to drink like men but belittled. The term 'ladette' itself, syrupy but sardonic, cast women as childish imitators of the lads.
Were women imitating the lads? Is binge drinking really a male birthright or does Britain just have a messed up attitude towards alcohol misuse full stop? In 2003 The Guardian reported that the average 18 to 24-year-old British woman consumed almost three and a half times as much alcohol as Italian women of the same age. At the time, according to Datamonitor, while the average woman in the UK consumed 108 litres of alcoholic drink a year, 18 to 24-year-olds were putting away 203 litres. Germany had the second highest consumption of alcohol among young women, at 189 litres a year, followed by the Netherlands at 107 litres.
'Ladette' culture was blamed for binge drinking, even by left-leaning publications such as The Guardian. But something far more interesting was happening. For the first time in history, women were going to university and/or entering the workforce in record numbers in the UK. Ironically, this was because of the work of political feminists who came before them. But once they got there, picking up the baton of driving equality wasn't top of the agenda. If women are allowed to take up space, occupying the cultural environment once reserved for men, then they will be exposed to the same opportunities – including the chance to get fucked up. What the moral panic headlines failed to do at the time was question the rules of the game, instead belittling women for daring to take their chance and play. 

It started off with good intentions – to subvert the male-only drinking of the past (and present) – but it got messy.

And play they did. The 'Buller' made headlines repeatedly. In 2005 the BBC reported that club members had smashed 17 bottles of wine, "every piece of crockery" and a window at the 15th century White Hart pub in Fyfield near Oxford at a dinner organised by Princess Diana’s nephew. Less discussed was the fact that there were also all-women drinking societies in operation, some of which still exist today. They were just less obvious about their destruction, managing not to make it into Paul Dacre’s line of sight over at the Daily Mail.
In my own year, while the boys were busy chronicling who’d had sex with who, a self-selected group of young women students were eyeing up potential members for their private drinking club. They admitted only six women a year to a cohort of around 50. This gave the illusion of exclusivity for a get-together where members would wear all-white fancy dress and drink until they threw up. 
How were women chosen? "Honestly there were three criteria," says one former member, "a) are they hot, b) are they popular and c) do they party a lot." Not just for wealthy boys from the country’s most expensive schools, being a member of an all-women drinking society was, back then, a badge of honour because it was exclusive. Millennial ladettes were Mean Girls. 
"I remember once using wine as a mixer for vodka," the same former member recalls. "I passed out when I got home, I was actually carried home from every event in my first year." The society was headed up by a third-year student who took on the role of 'queen' to oversee initiations which, the same former member explains, "involved using your teeth to pick tampons out of jelly dog food".
"I remember another girl who was being initiated into our society fell and smashed her head open because she drank so much," the former member continues. "I honestly couldn’t tell you how much we were drinking – copious amounts."
This club was not unique. In Bristol there was an all-women drinking society called Scortum (the Latin word for whore), whose members were "handpicked for their looks, who they know, and who their families are". Cambridge had its fair share too, including but not limited to the Black Widows at Jesus College. There were also reportedly similar societies and clubs at Durham and Edinburgh. 
Grace*, a former Oxford student, was in a drinking society which she says was "named after a promiscuous woman in the bible – lol". (Let’s presume she means Jezebel.) "I remember getting the email later than my best friend and felt really upset when I thought I hadn’t been invited."
At another Oxford college, a former student named Mary* says there was a women-only drinking society called Fit and Fuckable. "Only three women from my year were invited and it’s meant to be the most attractive girls in the year," she explains. "I think one of the prerequisites for becoming part of the club was taking a nude in the library."
It is unsurprising that young women who came of age at a time when we were objectified in the press and reduced to the sum of our physical parts by our peers who awarded us 'points' felt validated by being considered hot enough to be invited to an all-women drinking society. 
Around 2010 (the year I graduated), something changed. The elite, secret and invite-only drinking societies of Britain’s most prestigious universities were suddenly in the headlines more often than they were out of them. The Guardian ran an opinion piece about them entitled "Port and Prejudice" and, particularly prompted by the 2014 release of the film The Riot Club, which was based on Laura Wade’s play Posh about a club resembling the 'Buller', the Daily Mail went through a phase of printing blurry photos of Cambridge students in bikinis partaking in jelly wrestling at the infamous end-of-year party thrown by the university's most 'prestigious' gentlemen’s drinking club, Wyverns, which has since been banned.

Obviously I look back at it now and I don't think that elitist societies like the one I was in are conducive to an inclusive university experience.

Anonymous club member
Feminism was also reinvigorated around this time thanks to the internet. Facebook was founded in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Tumblr in 2007 and Instagram in 2010. Between them they spawned magazines like Rookie in the US (2011) and The Vagenda in Britain (2012), which took on topics such as size zero and held the media's feet to the fire every time a woman was described as "pouring her curves" into her clothes.
And so, in what some on the political right would deem a symptom of 'cancel culture' (but others might call progress), Wyverns is no longer allowed to hold its annual semi-naked jelly wrestling party. The Bullingdon Club is alive and well but Oxford University’s Conservative Association (OUCA) has tried to ban members of the champagne-swilling wrecking association from joining its ranks. Even future Conservative politicians don't want to be associated with them. Beyond Oxbridge, society has changed too. Call it the culture wars if you want but conversations about gender, sexuality, race and class parity have sped up significantly. In no small part this is because of social media which, in particular, has facilitated awareness about mental health, structural racism through the Black Lives Matter movement, trans liberation and what it means to be gender nonconforming, as well as the #MeToo movement and its Generation Z equivalent, Everyone’s Invited, which has shone a light on rape culture in Britain’s schools and universities. It's no longer unusual for a young woman to be a feminist: more than two thirds of 18 to 24-year-olds now identify as such.
Millennials are a curious bunch. Extensive polling from the think tank Demos in 2013 found that in young adulthood they were a deeply individualistic generation so being in an 'elite' club would likely have appealed. Was this nature or nurture? Either way, Generation Z is a different prospect. We know that they see gender neutrality as the norm, are less likely than millennials to identify as heterosexual and are known as 'industry killers' by alcohol manufacturers because they drink less than their generational forebears.
In this more sober climate, at a time when vital conversations about what it means to be a woman and how that intersects with all of the above are commonplace, do exclusive all-women drinking societies carry the same cachet? Do they even have a place?
According to several current students, these groups still exist but they have gone underground. This is for two reasons. Firstly, universities no longer want to have their reputations dragged through the mud in the press and have tried to ban drinking societies. Secondly, they have less appeal to the student body as a whole. 
Andrea*, who is currently at Cambridge, says: "Drinking societies are very common here at Cam – all of the colleges will have at least one (even if they’ve been officially disbanded). Many still have male and female-only drinking societies which are separate (e.g. Fitzwilliam College has the male drinking society called the Onions and the female one is called the Shallots). I drink but, unsurprisingly, have nothing whatsoever to do with these foul and attention-seeking establishments."
"There's a small subsection of students who are still interested in being in a women’s drinking club," confirms Jade*, who is currently at Oxford. "They're the same people who stereotypically go to Oxford – they went to a posh school or their parents are alumni – maybe their parents were even in the societies. But honestly, the vast majority don’t seem to care very much." If anything, the consensus is that it’s actually quite lame to be in one now.
Another recent former student says that the societies which exist out in the open are inclusive: "There's a termly women’s dinner and the point is to drink a lot - and all womxn are invited, not just cis women."
There was a sense back in the '00s that trying to keep up with men’s drinking clubs was somehow proof of gender equality, according to Grace. "It felt like we were competing with the male version of our society which was VERY toxic and created a dangerous drinking space. I think it started off with good intentions – to subvert the male-only drinking of the past (and present) – but it got messy and people who weren’t invited felt excluded."
But if this was progressive, it was an emperor’s new clothes incarnation of equality. So focused were these young women on having what the boys had that they didn’t stop to question whether they actually wanted it. 
So, does the former society member who mixed vodka with wine and saw girls being carried home regularly think that these clubs can tell us anything particularly profound about womanhood or women's drinking culture? "Honestly," she says bluntly, "I think it says nothing at all other than that Britain has a binge drinking culture."
"I was 18 and, genuinely, I was just really thrilled and honoured to be chosen," she concludes. "Obviously I look back at it now and I don’t think that elitist societies like the one I was in are conducive to an inclusive university experience. The whole thing was really regressive and promoted a lot of social division."
Which women leaders and prominent public figures belonged to these all-women drinking societies? We don’t know because, unlike the men, they weren’t stupid enough to be photographed.
*All names have been changed to protect identities
This article was updated on 7th January 2022 to remove some details which could have identified a contributor.

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