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Oxford College Drinking Society Condemned for 'Sexually Aggressive' Event

The Black Cygnets group from St Hugh's College, despite being officially banned from college premises, sent out invitations for their annual event earlier this week. Male invitees were told to dress in "hunting attire", while the female attendees, the many of whom are freshers, were instructed to come as "foxes".

An Oxford college's drinking society that planned a "sexually aggressive" 'Fox Hunt' event has been condemned by college authorities and fellow students.

The Black Cygnets group from St Hugh's College, despite being officially banned from college premises, sent out invitations for their annual event earlier this week. Male invitees were told to dress in "hunting attire", while the female attendees, the many of whom are freshers, were instructed to come as "foxes".

Dame Elish Angiolini, principal of the college, labelled the group "repugnant, sexist and secretive".

The invitations, sent by the "Presidents and Officers" of the society, challenge the female students to "evade mauling" before "eventual capture by the huntsmen" in "Wahoo Foxhole" - which refers to a nightclub in Oxford.

The invitation goes on to describe challenges that "foxes must pass, with huntsmen in pursuit" - all of which are the consumption of alcohol in various locations around Oxford.

The invitation from the Black Cygnets

In response, students at St Hugh's passed a motion by a show of hands at their college student union, known as the JCR. The motion, voted on at an Emergency General Meeting called by the JCR committee, describes this as "language that could reasonably be seen to sexually aggressive".

The motion strongly criticises the drinking society: "The JCR believes [that] the Black Cygnets is a sexist embarrassment [and] the presence of the Black Cygnets in college contributes to an unpleasant and potentially threatening atmosphere."

It continues: "The JCR resolves to issue a formal statement of disassociation from, and condemnation of, the Black Cygnets [and] to issue a formal statement of support to college in all of their enquiries to render effective the ban on the Black Cygnets."

The motion was proposed by Carenza Harvey, a first year student at St Hugh's who received one of the invitations from the society. Commenting on the literature, she said: "I was shocked that something like this could exist seemingly so freely at this university. The language was inherently sexist and offensive.

"The girls who are invited to attend the 'Fox Hunt' are picked purely on their looks, which creates a very destructive and dangerous atmosphere. While it can be troubling and potentially upsetting for someone to receive an invitation like this, it is also incredibly disheartening and personally distressing for a young woman to know that she has not been picked because of her appearance."

Carenza was also critical of the role-play the society encourages: "The dress code [...] unavoidably and unashamedly generated a sexist and demeaning predatory feel to the evening. It also, disturbingly, creates the impression that women are only animals, to be objectified, while the men hold the upper hand as humans."

Carenza was, however, hopeful about the prospects of the JCR motion this evening: "I really hope that we can put a stop to activities like this at St Hugh's and send out a message that this sort of behavior is not acceptable in this day and age. We, as a college, are taking a stand that St Hugh's refuses to tolerate this type of misogyny and discrimination."

The response has also been forceful from the college itself. Dame Angiolini, the most senior staff member of St Hugh's, stated: "This College was founded to secure equality for women, and has a strong and continuing tradition of furthering the cause of women's rights and education. We are utterly appalled that any member of our community would consider belonging to, or participating in, this repugnant, sexist and secretive group.

"This group is already banned from our College and is treated with contempt by the overwhelming majority of St Hugh's students. Any student involved in the distribution of material of this kind, or participation in any of this group's activities, will be subject to the College's disciplinary procedures."

The Black Cygnets have apologised for their decision to hold the fox hunt themed event. Their apology letter, addressed to Dame Angiolini and all members of St Hugh's, begins: ""We are writing to express our most sincere apologies for our decision to continue this year with the tradition of the Black Cygnets' Fox Hunt. It will not take place this year or ever again."

The society was keen to rebut allegations of sexism, saying: "The event was wholeheartedly intended to be humorous for all involved and not as a trivialisation of women. As such we foolishly assumed that the wording of the invites would be taken in the same spirit both by those who had previously attended and those who had heard about it from others, lazily reusing the inherited format of invitations.

"In retrospect this was obviously negligent on our part and it is hardly surprising that those who were unfamiliar with the actual atmosphere of the event, invited or otherwise, interpreted it as they did."

The letter, sent by email to the entire JCR, continues: "Everyone currently involved in the society is vehemently opposed to misogyny, sexual violence, rape and the perpetuation of rape culture."

Laurie Blackman, a third year at St Hugh's, was involved in helping to write the student condemnation of the Black Cygnets. He said: "I think that that it's a really disappointing and oppressive aspect of the student body that a harmful minority of people persist in perpetuating, despite repeated attempts by college to prevent it.

"The idea of 'mauling' female freshers is pretty repugnant, especially in the wake of other sexist college scandals. I am very proud of the strong JCR response to this incredibly shabby behaviour."

The Black Cygnets have been subject to a decanal ban since 2008, and members of the society were reprimanded for breaching that ban in early 2012.

The controversy at St Hugh's comes in the wake of another sexism scandal facing Oxford University. At Pembroke College, in an email entitled "FREE PUSSY", male members of the rugby team were encouraged to "pick" a female companion and put "a substance of [their] choice" into their drinks for a social event. The team has faced severe reprimand, with the social secretary and captain standing down.

This blog first appeared on the Oxford Student, and can be viewed here

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