How effective is the Bristol SU ban on society initiation ceremonies?

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By Shannon Sweeney, First Year English

After a number of incidents of initiations-gone-wrong in societies, Bristol University and the SU has cracked down on these events through strict regulation. This week, Epigram investigated the effectiveness of the ban on society initiation ceremonies.

When you hear the words ‘society initiation ceremony’, what do you imagine? Secret candlelit scenes, huddled around an old book? A formal event, swearing oaths? A dangerous game where the victor is granted the spoils of admission? For many, the idea elicits a sort of mystique - it brings to mind iconic scenes in the old cult-classics, or something that remains strictly in the realm of fiction. The reality, unfortunately, is quite different and the issues presented by these ceremonies have had a negative impact on Bristol University students. As a result, the University reminded students via email on 17 October of their Policy on Acceptable Behaviour, which states that ‘Unacceptable Behaviour includes ‘bullying, harassment, sexual misconduct, demeaning initiation ceremonies, threatening behaviour and malicious posting on social media.’

The University of Bristol Students Union have also placed further emphasis on their already existing ban on sports societies conducting or partaking in ‘initiation ceremonies’ of any kind in a bid to prevent them from taking place at any point this academic year. On 28 October, Bristol SU reminded all affiliated societies via email of the ban on initiation ceremonies when hosting social events; ‘In line with most universities and as a result of a number of very serious incidents at other institutions, Bristol SU and UoB do not permit Initiation Ceremonies.’

‘In line with most universities and as a result of a number of very serious incidents at other institutions, Bristol SU and UoB do not permit Initiation Ceremonies.’

‘In the past students have caused criminal damage, been seriously injured and in at least three cases have died as a result of having to take part in an initiation. As well as this, initiation ceremonies are intimidating, humiliating and can amount to bullying. They do not encourage the welcoming and inclusive student groups that Bristol SU wants.’

Obafemi Alabi, Bristol SU’s Sport and Student Development Officer also noted the negative impact of initiation ceremonies on student wellbeing; ‘Initiations are prohibited in the Bristol SU code of conduct as they are known to have an effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of students. We advise our student groups on how to run events and socials which are safe and inclusive.’ Alabi also addressed the issue of inclusivity within Bristol 350+ societies, stating that ‘If any students feel as if there are barriers to joining different clubs, we’d encourage them to get in touch with us to discuss this further.’

‘In the past students have caused criminal damage, been seriously injured and in at least three cases have died as a result of having to take part in an initiation.'

Whilst the SU’s dedication to an open and inclusive student experience at Bristol is admirable and should always be encouraged, will this step actively reduce barriers to partaking in sports whilst at university? When asked if the ban had impacted their society, the Club Captain of Mixed Lacrosse (one of the largest sporting societies at Bristol, with over 400 attendees at 2021’s Freshers) said, ‘I wouldn’t say Mixed Lacrosse has been overly impacted by the ban, we’re not a club based on a need to initiate, we’re a social club and as such we don’t feel like we need to indulge in a “rite of passage”.’

The response from societies such as Mixed Lacrosse is a wonderful indicator that sports societies at Bristol have been, and are continuing to be, an inclusive place for athletes and hobbyists alike to gather. When asked if their society had been impacted, both Bristol’s Rugby and Hockey societies did not provide a comment.

Many sports initiation ceremonies can often include excessive consumption of alcohol, sexual and emotional humiliation, or the forceful involvement of new members in potentially dangerous situations. The results of these situations can be devastating, with the case of Ed Farmer (a former student at Newcastle University) which resulting in the student’s tragic death in 2016 after an initiation to Newcastle’s Agricultural Society left him with a hypoxic brain injury and cardiorespiratory arrest. Many such cases have been reported, with a majority of UK Universities having banned the practice. Rather than traditional drinking initiations, societies may want to consider less dangerous traditions - it could be as simple as a trip to a particular restaurant to welcome new members or giving new members a piece of clothing or a wristband to indicate they’re now officially a part of that society.

'Rather than traditional drinking initiations, societies may want to consider less dangerous traditions.'

Bristol SU can also help societies run safer and more inclusive events. For society committee members, the Bristol SU Development Team are running a series of training sessions through to 3 December with workshops such as ‘Managing Stress’ and ‘Mental Health Awareness’ to take part in, aiming to create a safe and enjoyable experience with affiliated societies for both all committee and members involved.

It’s clear that the concern surrounding initiation ceremonies is both necessary and pivotal to creating an open and safe environment within sport at Bristol, and the University remains committed to providing students with the most inclusive experience possible. An increased awareness about the dangers of initiation and a firm stance from the University is only the latest in a series of moves made by the SU to ensure that students at Bristol have the most enjoyable experience possible.

Featured Image: Unsplash | david clarke

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