News that Exeter’s Safer Sex Ball will be cancelled seems to have left campus disappointed and dissatisfied with the Guild’s decision. The SSB has been one of the biggest events in the student calendar for the past twenty-one years, a staple of Exeter students' bucket lists, and seen as a must-do student experience.
Even more importantly, the Ball has raised thousands of pounds for charities such as The Eddystone Trust, which provides information and support for anyone affected with HIV in the South West. The university's Student Guild, however, has cancelled the RAG-run charity fundraiser, telling student newspaper Exeposé on Monday that ‘the event’s association with promoting safer sex has been overshadowed with a less positive image, leading to unintended consequences for students who attend the event, as well as RAG, the Guild and the university’.
However, the Safer Sex Ball has long been shrouded in controversy on campus. The latest exploits of two students enjoying the Ball a little too much were caught on CCTV. The footage was then recorded by Guild employees and released onto the Internet in December. This isn't the first time scandal has broken: the Ball was similarly tarnished when a Guild magazine made a joke about sexual violence in 2011, involving the calculation of how many calories were burnt when taking a woman's clothes off without consent.
This has fed into wider issues on campus at the moment, such as the Spotted and Confessions Facebook pages, crazes which have swept the country’s universities, which the Guild asked to be taken down. Similar student exploits such as Original Sin at Exeter caused controversy of their own last year. Event organisers posted pictures of nearly naked students on their Facebook page and held competitions such as “Fittest Fresh”.
These events have further coloured the national opinion of Exeter University, and have been splashed over national newspaper websites. The Daily Mail wrote that the SSB was a perfect example of Exeter’s apparently ‘public school crowd’ where everyone ‘wears Jack Wills’ and ‘has their own car’. Perhaps this wasn't helped by the fact that when students arrived at the Ball they received a Jack Wills condom. In fact the Daily Mail article entitled ‘Degrees in misogyny’ went as far to suggest that at Exeter the term "'Hi, slut' has become an all too familiar way of addressing women undergraduates," an interesting assessment of life on Exeter campus.
Then a 'tribal' theme added to the negative atmosphere surrounding the 2012 SSB, and a Campaign against the Racist Safer Sex Ball Theme was launched by Exeter Students for Social Justice. The campaign received support from the NUS, lecturers and alumni.
One student involved in the campaign said that the use of the Tribal theme was cultural appropriation and an ‘oppressive practice that results from the cashing in cultures as commodities’.
Whether or not you think that the SSB is racist or sexist, and despite the pleasure some articles seem to have taken in reminding readers that Exeter is The Sunday Times University of the Year, the question does need to be asked -should the Guild be encouraging nudity and drinking on campus? I myself attended the SSB, not as a guest, but sober and fully dressed, there to look after the welfare of guests. It is fair to say that the SSB does create a rather bizarre sight on campus: where you would usually find yourself drinking coffee or writing an essay suddenly there are drunk, slightly awkward looking students in their underwear when it’s minus five.
The Ball has not died a complete death, but the Guild has said in a statement that they are ‘working together’ with RAG to ‘reinvent the Safer Sex Ball’. Importantly the Guild believes that the Ball cannot exist in its current format but that there is still the hope of providing a fun night for students that raises money for charity. Yet RAG released a statement saying ‘replacing the SSB would diminish the scale and success of the event, the level of student engagement, and the benefit to charity’. RAG have accused the guild of not having the best interest of students at heart, and have proposed a campaign to be run with the support of the student body, in the hope of running the SSB in its current format again next academic year.
Although efforts were made by the Guild and by RAG to keep the real message of SSB, including the use of campaigns week and the presence of high security and a welfare team, it is undeniable that Exeter’s image in the media has been negatively affected by the events of this academic year. As a student concerned with student welfare, experience and potential employers’ opinions of my university, I believe that the reinvention of the SSB can only be a good thing. Hopefully a change in the Ball can mean that the real message of raising money for charity and enhancing student experience can be appreciated.
Hopefully instead of national newspapers jumping on the opportunity to ridicule a Russell Group university they can appreciate the thousands of pounds raised for charity and the large amounts of volunteering that happens at Exeter year in and year out. As a university constantly accused of being 'too white' and 'too middle class' change can only be celebrated. Perhaps students will be looking forward to the new excitement of 2013’s Ball, instead of looking back at the tarnished and long worn out “Safer Sex” Ball which hopefully will soon become a thing of Exeter’s past?