As Cameron and Clegg push on with their legislation to allow gay marriage, you might believe that we live in a society which grows ever more permissive, tolerant, and liberal.
This would not appear to be the case at Cambridge University, where a notorious drinking society has been forced to cancel part of their after-exam entertainment.
The all-male club the Wyverns has halted one of the traditional events at their famed summer party. On the 16th June after exams have ended, they would have held an all-female wrestling competition in which contestants wear bikinis to wrestle in a paddling pool filled with jelly. This year the Wyverns cancelled the event after a petition gathered over one thousand signatures. The society said it “understood the concerns”. But almost the same number of people have now signed a second petition to bring back the spectacle . The re-instatement camp is savvy enough to call for male wrestling to occur alongside the women’s event; and by supporting a repeal and calling for male participation, they are absolutely bang on.
The complaint over bikini-clad jelly-wrestling writes itself. The petition criticised what it saw as “sexist, misogynistic and completely inappropriate” conduct, going on to criticize the cash prize offered to the victor by claiming boldly that “paying women to wrestle half naked is not entertainment.”
The petition also made the claim that the activity is ‘elitist.’ I must have missed those episodes of MTV Cribs where rich kids pointed boastfully at their inflatable playpool filled with supermarket jelly. The charge of elitism is a ludicrous one.
An all-female event could be considered sexist, but even this complaint needs to be considered against the validity of organisations and events which are female-only. At both professional and amateur levels, mixed wrestling is rare. It is not a requirement of entry for women to the party that they take part in the wrestling, or that they attend wearing a bikini. The spectacle of people in swimwear wrestling in a pool of jelly is not specifically a sexual one. It is at least partially a comic event in questionable taste. It is a poor reflection of the petitioners’ lack of research if they think that paying people to wrestle half-naked doesn’t constitute entertainment. As an art historian, the petition’s author should be familiar with the competitive all-male nude wrestling in ancient Greece, perhaps having seen Pierre Puget’s marble of the famous wrestler Milo of Croton in the collection of the Louvre.
None of this is to say that I do not recognize the squeamishness which appears to be our conditioned response to the concept of all-female bikini-clad jelly wrestling.
Like any good 21st century male my first reaction to this story was a certain amount of horror that such a thing was taking place, but we should not overlook several fundamental features of the argument.
It is a private party, which those who do not wish to see bikini-clad wrestling taking place do not need to attend. The students involved are not children, but some of the most intelligent and academically successful women in the country. There is absolutely no social pressure to attend this event or to take part in the wrestling. Po-faced members of the student body who want nothing to do with this can head out onto the backs with tea and scones, play pooh sticks in the Cam, or go for a punt. If their enjoyment of May week is spoiled by the knowledge that someone, somewhere may be in a state of sexualized undress, then they are in trouble.
What goes on at the Wyvern’s summer party is a small issue, but like so many of the arguments that students have, it is indicative of wider social tensions. It would be silly to pretend that male and female undergraduates with a few beers inside them wouldn’t enjoy watching people who are semi-naked. Game of Thrones is a popular TV series for more than just the plot. Squeamish liberal instinct can too easily devolve into shrieking tyranny.
The Wyverns admitted as much when they announced their decision: “we were reluctant to take immediate action on the recent petition. However, the anti-jelly vitriol with which the campaign was conducted forced us to take the threats that we received seriously.”
We cannot achieve a settlement of how to implement our modern attitudes towards men and women by counting mouse clicks. It is sexist to tell women who fought to get into University what they can and can’t get up to when they arrive. Next year, the men of the Wyverns should not be scared into retreat by a petition, they too should be jumping into the pool.