Freshers’ Week is supposed to represent the ideal university experience. It’s a week characterised by daily nights out, new friends and the ever-present spirit of “the sesh”. Freshers is also a week that assumes a lot about people. It assumes that you’re the kind of person who’s ready to fork out £45 for a ticket to nightly parties and discos and club nights. It assumes that the kind of night that you want is one spent drinking and dancing. It assumes you’ll have a hangover and vague memories of the night out the next day. And it assumes you’ll live through that experience for the following four nights of the week as well. As publicity for the start of semester Refreshers week hits campus, it’s worth reigniting the debate over the inclusivity of Glasgow university to students who do not drink.
Sadly these assumptions aren’t always right. These many assumptions in favour of “the sesh” become a major issue when you are a non-drinker trying to embrace university life. Because even while Freshers’ Week remains the clearest practical example, this attitude lives long beyond that first week of freedom. If you talk with people in your tutorials about your weekend, there’s a good chance someone will have an entertaining drunk story of how they had however many bottles of Buckfast and called so-and-so’s parents to profess their everlasting love. Whether these drunk stories are entertaining is unimportant as either way they play a role in normalising this idea of university life.
I was a QMU helper during Freshers’ Week and the culture of drinking certainly had an impact on me, and this culture is seen across the unions. Although many in the QMU are critical of the GUU’s “laddy” drinking culture, our union often does the same thing in a different way. In Freshers’ Week, you’d have heard chants of “DJ Fresh loves the sesh”, “sesh…sesh…sesh” from the QMU, and, from the SRC and GUSA, “Where’s your Tennent’s gone?”. Some helpers in the SRC even called their union the “sesh-R-C” which also plays into all of this. And all the unions frequently took part in pre-drinks and drinking games, which can be incredibly dull if all that’s at stake is a sip of your soft drink.
For more insight into why this attitude can be harmful, it would help to have something to back it up. Luckily, research by Dominic Conroy and Richard de Visser published in Psychology and Health in 2014 is freely available online. One issue they notice is how people judge non-drinkers choice. One respondent to their research, named Katie, “described a comprehensive and inevitable pattern of dialogue in her daily life in which [her non-drinking] was called into question.”
As a non-drinker, it can be easy to feel alienated because of this. As much as I certainly had a good time being a QMU freshers helper, I found myself retreating to bed at 11:30pm most nights because I had just lost my patience. So, what can be done to help non-drinkers have a better time?
There are some very well-meaning suggestions from people who drink about how to make events and the QMU in general more welcoming to non-drinkers, but they simply fail to grasp the underlying problem. A policy such as bringing in more choices of mocktails is ultimately futile if everybody else is still drinking the same and treating alcohol the same. The problem is not the availability of non-alcoholic drinks (I’m personally fine with a pint of coke). A drinking game isn’t any more enjoyable for a sober person if they’ve got a mocktail instead of a J20, and the conversation won’t be any more inclusive if everyone’s still talking absolute shit.
The thing is, you don’t need to be actively judging someone for their non-alcoholic drink to be excluding them. The issue is far subtler than that, and the QMU can’t claim to have fixed it by adding more choice of soft drinks at the bar. At a recent QMU committee, those attending where asked what they love about the QMU. All but one person answered “the sesh”. This hardly makes non drinkers feel welcome. If those at the heart of the union think that booze is the best thing the QMU has to offer, how can the union claim to be above the “laddy” drinking culture we so often berate?
Despite criticisms of previous attempts to tackle this issue, it is difficult to offer much more. The problem of a negative atmosphere when it comes to drinking has no quick fix and must be tackled by looking at the way we think about alcohol. As hard as it is to believe, there is more to life than the sesh.
[David McGinley – @mcgingly]