Durham is a university for people who felt boarding school didn’t last quite long enough. A cobbled campus wrapped around a golden-stoned cathedral and an 11th-century castle, it is a collection of small, pally colleges that feel like distinct institutions in their own right. St. Cuthbert’s for the Rugby boys. St. John’s for the religious types. Hatfield for the red-trousered brigade. St. Hild and St. Bede for the trust-fund kids with drum-and-bass nights. When I was there, friends took to calling it “the Resort,” because the chummy venues and chocolate-box vistas reminded them of their second homes in Chamonix or Courchevel. (Another joked that the university was actually pretty diverse: “You’ve got Stowe boys, Etonians, Harrovians, Downe House girls, Marlburians … ”) It is cliquey, sporty, leafy, academic—the plummier, slightly dimmer younger brother to Oxford and Cambridge.
Which is why it was shocking, but not necessarily surprising, to hear of the latest scandal at the university—the unearthing of a Freshers’ Week contest where “posh lads” aimed to compete to sleep with the “poorest girl” on campus. The game was planned in what was, according to the Daily Mail, a Facebook group chat believed to be for incoming freshers with the title Durham Boys Making All the Noise, which also contained discussions about sexual assault. One alleged freshman asked: “Aren’t Durham dead on it with sexism … since that lad from Durham was accused of rape a few years ago?” Another replied: “I know maybe 15 girls who say they’ve been raped and not one taken to court. Or a police report. And women will always believe women mostly.” A third wrote: “It’s called being a whore.”
Lydia Gibson, an incoming freshman law student (and Durham local) who caused the comments to go viral when she shared them online, says the content won’t surprise anyone familiar with the university. “They were talking about getting girls drunk in the most cost-effective way possible, and saying things like ‘Let’s sleep with as many girls as we can,’” Gibson explains. “I thought: I see this too much, so I’m just going to expose it.”
It is cliquey, sporty, leafy, academic—the plummier, slightly dimmer younger brother to Oxford and Cambridge.
“One of the problems with Durham is that it almost creates a certain type of male, if you’re susceptible to that,” she continues. “You could be a normal guy from a normal background, and you meet all these posh guys who talk in a certain way, and you become a part of it. You can get indoctrinated into an elitist society before you even get there.” In her post that accompanied the leaked messages, Gibson wrote that the members had also “been talking about spiking girls’ drinks.”
After sharing the messages, Gibson says she was contacted by some 100 people, many of whom told her of similar experiences. “It’s a big problem and no one really talks about it.… We all know about these games.” (Jeremy Cook, the pro-vice-chancellor at the university, said in a statement that the university was investigating the “abhorrent social media comments … as a matter of urgency.” As a result of the investigation, one incoming freshman’s offer of admittance has been withdrawn, according to the BBC.)
The controversy reveals a campus in the throes of a culture war. In mid-September, the Palatinate student newspaper’s print edition was dramatically shuttered after the ruling student union claimed it needed to save money. But skeptics believe the axing of the paper was actually a brazen act of political censorship, according to the Daily Mail. The Palatinate, they say, has long been a thorn in the side of the progressive student union, and has published several articles about a controversial student-union election and its new president, Seun Twins, who appeared to call for violence against Tories in April. (Twins has denied that she incited violence, later writing, “The post wasn’t about Conservatives, it was in relation to a specific incident of bullying and harassment that occurred,” according to the Durham Tab.) Meanwhile, the union has banned the school’s Conservative Association, a student group, citing a “culture of hate” within the group and claiming its members were posting comments on social media referring to white supremacy and Nazi genocide. (In response, the Conservative Association told the Palatinate, “From what we do know, these statements have nothing to do with the current exec [executive committee]…. No issues were reported to our society or any members of our exec by our members, or anyone else, nor have we been given the opportunity to address the alleged screenshots held by the SU.”) Christopher Page, former president of the Durham Union Conservative Association, told the Daily Mail, “The union has been acting more like a dictatorship than a student democracy.”
The revelations are another blow to Durham, whose reputation has been blighted by sex scandals of late. Four male students at the university have been taken to court for sexual-assault or rape charges during the last four years, but have all been acquitted or seen their cases dropped, according to the Daily Mail.
“I think the collegiate system makes sexual assault far harder for the victims,” says Gibson. “If you decide to report it, you know that you will then have to go and have breakfast with that person every day, lunch with them every day. Everyone knows each other. It feels like a boarding school, with extra sex and alcohol.”
The members had also “been talking about spiking girls’ drinks.”
“The whole setup makes it easy to get institutionalized and indoctrinated.... It makes it easier to slip into this weird cult.”
A similar scandal has engulfed St. Andrews—the equally oofy Scottish university that counts the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in its alumni—over the summer break. Here, many of the allegations center on the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, which has suspended several members after it was claimed that a dozen sexual assaults took place at its events, according to The Times of London. Again, the allegations were made on social media, where apparent present and former students posted to an Instagram page called @standrewssurvivors in July. (A statement by the fraternity says it takes the allegations “extremely seriously,” and adds: “The fraternity unconditionally opposes, and its conditions of membership absolutely prohibit, any conduct considered sexual harassment or sexual assault.”)
Two disillusioned former recruits later told the Jewish Telegraph that the senior members of the fraternity encouraged predatory behavior toward girls. “The role models would push us in a direction that we did not feel proud of,” one of them said. “We were encouraged to get drunk and pick up girls.” Another former member added: “In my short time with the frat I witnessed nice lads turn into near predators.”
In August, further allegations were made against the university’s prestigious Kate Kennedy Club. Dating from the 15th century, the club is known for an annual procession where members dress up as figures from history—such as Mary, Queen of Scots; John Knox; and Kate Kennedy, the niece of one of the school’s founders—and for its “notoriously boozy dinners,” according to The Times of London. One woman said that she suffered a panic attack after an alleged member of the Kate Kennedy Club sexually assaulted her at a student ball, wrote The Times. In another allegation, a member claimed his affiliation with the club made him “invincible” during a drunken rage in which he also called a woman a “stupid slut.” (The club itself has condemned the allegations as “appalling.”) Outrage deepened when an article by the deputy editor of The Saint, the independent student newspaper at St. Andrews, appeared to joke about “predatory straight men” on campus and to defend the “locker room” culture at the university, according to The Times. The rolling scandal follows a case in 2018, when, a St. Andrews student claims, she was gang-raped at an off-campus charity fashion show unaffiliated with the university.
Despite the official condemnation by Durham, Gibson—who has set up a Facebook group called “Dismantling the Culture at Durham University”—fears little will be done. “I very much doubt they’ll take substantial discipline against [the group-chat members]. I don’t have much faith in them investigating properly,” she says. “They hate bad press. And now they probably hate me too.”
“Things like sexual assault tend to be worse at the top universities—Oxbridge, St. Andrews, Durham,” she concludes. “If you grow up with an elitist mindset—that you are entitled to everything, that you deserve certain things—perhaps you think you’re entitled to have sex with women, too.”
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL