The Butler Scholarly Journal

The St Cuthbert’s Rugby Social

By Ali Poll

I have read much over the previous months regarding the actions of Cuth’s rugby club, and aside from the harm the original actions have caused, what worries me most is the response of others. I have read often that their ban from playing was unfair, that their free speech has been impeded, and that those who called them out on it are just boring. This worries me so much because it points to a level of acceptance where this sort of behaviour seems almost expected of those playing in male-dominated sports. What I really hope is that by the end of this article, you will have an idea of why this isn’t a case over people being “over-sensitive” or wanting to restrict people having a good laugh, but it is about allowing the entire population of Durham to feel safe in their own city; a right which these actions, and the collusion with them from a majority of Durham students, is seriously infringing.

First, let’s look at why people don’t think this is a problem. Apparently rape is funny. That seems to be the sticking point in most people’s defences of such actions and attitudes. Before we go any further, it thus seems necessary to clarify something: It isn’t. And thus a group dressing as possibly the most famous rapists of recent times whilst chasing schoolchildren-impersonating freshers around town really isn’t funny. One thing it certainly is not, is satire: the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices. There was no attempt made to ridicule, criticise or condemn Savile’s actions as rapist and child abuser, and you’d be hard pressed to call them ‘stupidity or vices’ anyway: it was done for pure entertainment and shock value, and to evoke a response. Well, you got one. It seems people just haven’t considered why this could be anything but a laugh, so this being the case, I shall spell it out: triggering. That is sensory cues which take victim/survivors of rape or sexual abuse back to that event, and the trauma that goes with it. To draw a parallel (not a particular good one if you analyse it in depth, but it makes a point): would you take a soldier suffering from PTSD after a return from Afghanistan and make them watch a war film, witness a “suicide bomber themed social”, or play Call of Duty? I thought not. And so comparatively surely you wouldn’t force a victim/ survivor of rape or sexual abuse to witness a rapist-themed social? By doing so, you may be causing them to suffer harm and trauma beyond your comprehension. I can’t imagine how this would feel, and I am fortunate that in being male, I am around 8 times less likely to in my life, but I have enough empathy with people’s emotions to realise this isn’t the sort of deep trauma I would want to cause someone. That isn’t “banter”.

So how likely is it that this social came across a victim/survivor of rape or sexual assault? Again, this seems to be dismissed as negligibly low. I wish it were, but if 200 males and 200 females saw this social, even using the most conservative reported statistics around completed rape, that’s 10 female and 2 male survivors. Including attempted rape and serious sexual assault, the figure could rise to 45 or so in total – 45 people dealing with the emotional trauma of rape or serious sexual abuse that have just witness 20 or more rugby players dressed as a famous rapist, chasing schoolgirl-impressionist freshers around town. Add to that that as many as 1 in 7 female students experience rape or sexual assault whilst at university, and I assume I don’t need be to point out again the potential for triggering flashbacks in this situation, and the enormous harm this can have on a victim/survivor’s life. Such statistics are often dismissed, even ‘a joke’ I’ve been informed (strange sense of humour, but I guess if rape is funny, rape statistics may also give you a chuckle to pass those long northern winter evenings) but they are unfortunately true, supported by government and charity based research. It’s a fact. So now consider the actions of Cuth’s rugby club in light of the harm this may have caused these people, and tell me its banter. Of course, this is aside from the effect this has on victims of ‘less serious’, but still severely traumatic, forms of sexual abuse, violence or harassment, or those who simply feel vulnerable walking through town at night because of the awful statistics, and that they are constantly reminded by people that, if they get raped, its apparently often their fault. On top of that, we also have the added strain on the ‘town vs gown’ relationship, given this sort of behaviour is often cited as a reason local residents find the student population irritating, if not downright rude and obnoxious. So you begin to see layer upon layer of people who aren’t annoyed because they don’t think your joke isn’t funny; they’re annoyed because you’ve caused them personal trauma or a feeling of vulnerability which no one should be made to feel.

And, as a final note on this incident, it is not an infringement of their human rights, personal liberty or free speech to ban them from competitive rugby because of this. Such decisions are based on a balance; is it more important that a group of guys are allowed to dress up as paedophiles and chase their team-mates through the streets, or that members of the Durham community have the right to not fear threatening or triggering behaviour when walking through the streets of town. Well having read the rest of this article, I hope you’re able to make your own mind up on that one.

To discuss the implications of these actions and people’s responses is a more general manner, I think it is important to look at how people have reacted to this situation, and the reasons they cite. High on the list is a complete lack of awareness of the harm that can be caused triggering victim/survivors and causing other to feel unsafe, but what is applicable to the Cuth’s rugby saga, as it seems to have become, is applicable the same way in all such situations. To me, more worrying is the disbelief that figures for rape and sexual assault are as high as they are, and this is part of what can only be described as a victim-blaming and silencing culture. People don’t believe these statistics because of the sever under-reporting of such crimes, but can you honestly imagine why you would report them, when the majority of Durham Tab readers have been happy to align itself to the view that this is actually acceptable behaviour, and that rape and child abuse are things worthy of mocking, not condemning.

The link between the actions of paedophile-clad rugby players and genuine rapists and rape victims may seem tenuous, but is about perpetuating a culture. In the UK, it is estimated that fewer than 0.5% of rapes result in a rapist being prosecuted. This is because there is disbelief of the victim at every stage of the process: their sexual history is scrutinized and the reason for ending up in the situation they did is usually pinned on them. If the victim had been drinking, willingly gone somewhere with the rapist, or even had sex with them on a previous occasion, there is even less chance of a prosecution. People don’t make up rape accusations for fun (fewer than 6% of accusations are believed to be false), they do it in almost all cases because they have been raped. However, whilst society keeps on blaming the victims, reports and prosecutions will remain low. How do you change this? You make it so that victim/survivors know that they will be believed, and that their trauma won’t be mocked. Using rape as a vehicle for your own amusement does the complete opposite, and silences victims. Unfortunately, especially within male-dominated sports, this seems to be almost expected behaviour, which extends from ‘rape jokes’ and the belief that someone ‘deserves it’ or ‘is asking for it’ for dressing or acting in a certain manner, to incidents of dressing as rapists and thinking it’s funny. Whilst you continue to do this, you continue to tell both victims and perpetrators of rape and sexual assault that you think it’s acceptable. And whilst that is the case, people won’t come forward as victims of rape, and rapists won’t be prosecuted, so people will carry on not believing the victims.

Clearly this is a vicious circle of disbelief, victim-blaming and under-reporting, but it ends when we as a society want it to. I don’t believe most of these actions are malicious, but borne from a complete misunderstanding of the issues discussed in this article. But that is why this message needs to be made more widespread. No one is saying you can’t go out in fancy dress, have a few drinks and a good laugh, but please for the sake of every one of the victim/ survivors already dealing with their trauma, and those who will experience it in the future because we continue to condone such actions, just stop: stop perpetuating this culture, and it will make a difference. Seriously, rape isn’t funny.

  • Greg Tonks

    There seems to be very little debate in these comments (original article). It appears that as soon as a perspective or opinion that does not condemn and vilify the participants of the social,it is immediately insensitive and somehow advocating sexual assault and rape. The 23 mentions of the word rape in Ali’s argument seems to detract from the question of whether the punishment handed out was just and instead uses this article as a platform to publicise rape awareness. Not a bad thing I might add, just not the crux of this article.

    As to the disregard of the intent of an action, there is a difference between recklessness and malice. In this case I believe the rugby players to indeed have been reckless and negligent in their behaviour and their lack of consideration for those people who could suffer from triggers, but I do not believe them to be maliciously motivated. For normal members of society to have to live their lives in order to avoid triggering something that they are unaware another person has experienced is naive and pointless.

    In the same way in which Ali argues that Call of Duty could be a trigger for soldiers with PTSD, it is not banned or subjected to punitive actions. Equally other forms of violence such as films and games are still cleared for release despite the fact they too could often trigger traumatic flashbacks. Indeed, the critically acclaimed “Blood Diamond” features extremely graphic imagery of genocide and child soldiery but there is no-one pushing for its ban in case somebody watches it and suffers a trigger!

    To conclude as a scholarly journal, it should be acceptable to debate both sides of the argument without harassment for either “advocating rape” or “being too boring”. The social was indeed in bad taste but for a reckless action I believe the punishment was excessive and should have been restricted to community service or fines. The social secs did not sit down and think “how best will we trigger traumatic events from peoples pasts?” How does it help or aid the victims for the team to be banned from playing rugby? It doesn’t! However if they were made to work with or understand the victims of these crimes they would indeed think twice in the future. The ban has simply strengthened their opinion of “boring people” within Durham and has divided a great many people across the entire University.

    I appreciate that due to the removal of the original article some of these arguments seem out of context but I consider them to be valid nonetheless. I apologise if anyone is confused by the purpose of some of the points.

  • In reply to the unnamed source-provider:
    I find the way you replied to be unnecessarily offensive and belittling. This is supposed to be a scholarly journal not a playground dispute.
    I appreciate the statistics and thank you for sourcing nonetheless, and would like Ali to source my further links if possible.
    I am not trying to disuade the validity of the provided statistics butI do not think they are entirely applicable to the Durham student populace (the people you see in the college bars that Cuths rugby were in).
    I grew up in a working class area in South Yorkshire and I would happen to say that all manners of crime is more rife there than you would find in Knightsbridge or Kensington, to use an extreme example.
    The point I wish to make is that the demographic of Durham University is not representative of the crime concentrated regions of the UK, you only have to sit in the library to see it is predominantly middle to upper class and therefore less likely to witness or be a victim of any crime, let alone rape.

    This was a reply meant for the previous article, now removed, a article-debate between Sam Spring and Ali Poll about whether the punishment fit the crime for the Cuthberts rugby team and the following punishment on their Jimmy Saville social.

    Personally, I find it frustrating the article split in two now as the discussion on the comments section at the time was ongoing.

  • the person who sourced the statistics!

    here are some stats for a comparable population if you’d like to have a look:

    I’m not aware of much empirical evidence that sexual violence is more prevalent in certain socioeconomic groups.

  • the person who sourced the statistics!

    not sure exactly what other sources you were referring to but here are a few

    the stat on false reports of rape –
    also see this by the same author, very relevant if not a specific stat:
    a lot of the other data is from here which I linked before, apologies that it vanished:
    as for the (23/3%, 5/0.4%) stats I referenced in my previous comment, they are from a booklet from rape crisis which cites the following:
    Westmarland, N and Alderson, S (2010) Interpersonal Violence in the North East: Mapping Services

    seems a good summary for now. say if I have missed a specific point. while I felt you were dismissive of the stats to begin with (hence my terse response!) I do agree with Greg that education is the way forward hence my providing this information.

  • Owen Franklin

    This might be slightly repetitive but since the original article is gone, it’s the only option…

    First of all, the opinions of members of the student body with regards to the social’s theme had absolutely no bearing on Cuth’s rugby being banned. That was the independent decision of the college officers, long before much of this wider debate ever started.
    As I said before, Cuth’s rugby club have a long history of controversial socials (both for theme and for general behaviour), and THIS is likely the major factor behind the harsh ban. Early in my time at Durham I witnessed the team being kicked out of Chad’s and John’s in one night, and last year they were threatened with disciplinary action (and possible bans) because of their behaviour in Hatfield bar, which prompted a formal complaint ( They are repeat offenders and apparently haven’t learnt from their past mistakes. I’d personally bet that the reason they did a hill college bar crawl this time is because they’re still less than welcome in the Bailey bars after how they behaved in Hatfield.

    Greg, I absolutely agree that normal people can’t be expected to watch every single action or comment they make for fear of triggering something that they don’t fully understand. But a social like theirs, particularly because of how awfully they behaved, forces anybody in the vicinity to witness it. Sticking with the traumatised soldier… For the most part he can choose to avoid violent video games or films. But if you’re sitting in a college bar and a provocative, yelling social barges in dressed up as paedophiles and rapists, or terrorists, or any other outrageous theme, you are forced to witness it.

    I’m sure that nobody sets out to maliciously trigger people, but on the other hand the idea of planning a controversial/outrageous social is inherently selfish. By definition such a social is going to evoke a reaction from people, and the implied response is ‘deal with it.’ Because it’s a group of peers on a social, and they can dress how they want, and it’s their right to do it no matter if it offends you. Or, in this instance, could trigger a terrible memory. So while it’s not malicious from the outset, there is extreme ignorance to fail to see how a social themed around a sexual predator could cause upset.

    Jack, I appreciate your point, that Durham is overall safer than most places in the UK, particularly with regards to violent crime. HOWEVER, a significantly small percentage of rapes are committed by a total stranger (I’m loathe to throw around statistics without providing a link but it’s less than 10% I think). The majority of rape victims know their attacker, and some may even have had sexual relations with them already (eg: a boyfriend forcing himself on his girlfriend when she doesn’t want to have sex), which is one of the reasons why rape is so under-reported.

    Short version for skim-readers: the severity of the punishment was because Cuth’s rugby were repeat offenders at infamous socials and got into trouble one too many times. It really didn’t help that the social theme was so thoughtless; maybe it was one controversial theme too far. When your social goes from poor taste to potentially harmful to others, irregardless of intent, it’s time to draw a line in the sand.

    PS: Greg and Jack, I share your frustration at the loss of the original article, a lot of this lacks its original context!

  • Ali

    Yeah, first of all Greg it certainly wasn’t written or ever intended as a full justification of the punishment, it was written to highlight why I thought the social went beyond just “bad taste” and to try to illustrate to those who weren’t aware the damage that can be caused by such actions. As people use ignorance of the issue as an excuse for the actions, I think it’s important to increase this awareness so that in future people don’t end up getting involved in such behaviour without knowing the harm they’re going to cause.

    I think there’s a difference between whether the punishment was excessive and whether it was the best possible solution. I think that (as Owen says) this was the tip of the iceberg as to their socials and behaviour, and this through frustration the disciplinary committee decided they needed to do something which went beyond just standard protocol. However, I do agree that such punishments don’t address the underlying problem, and whilst justification for these people to work with victims/ survivors would be difficult for the sake of the victim/ survivors, I do agree that education is the best way forward, and in a similar way to the police offering a speed awareness course as an alternative to points on your license for some offences, certainly something which sought to increase understanding of the problems with such behaviour would bear better placed to result in a general culture shift.

    Again I agree that malice makes an action worse, but lack of malice certainly doesn’t excuse it. As I believe I said in the article, I don’t think this was done with the purpose of causing people trauma, rather it part of a culture in which its necessary to be as ‘offensive’ as possible to ‘beat last years social’, but that doesn’t mean that those who took part in it and thus perpetuate such a culture shouldn’t be punished for it. While there clearly isn’t the facility yet to just rely on education to stop this behaviour, severe punishments do at least act as a deterrent.

    I agree the Call of Duty analogy wasn’t perfect, more an more mainstream concept which I figured might be easier to understand than that rooted in the psychology of a rape victim. However, at least with Blood Diamond (love the film btw, actually think it deals with the issues you mention surprisingly well considering how mainstream it was) it is advertised that the content of the film will be graphic in nature and contain such scenes, and thus someone has the option to quite easily avoid it. Victim/ survivors (or indeed anyone else who doesn’t wish to witness paedophile themed socials) don’t have the same luxury when this is such an open, public event.

    I also agree it is fair to debate both sides as to whether the punishment was to severe (and certainly whether it was the best course of action) but as I said, I more wrote this to try to use this incident for some good in terms of raising awareness. And it certainly isn’t debatable as to the harm which can be caused by these actions.

    In response to Jack, I think most sources used are above (as you can tell I had some help collating information). Unfortunately, although what you say may be the case for some types of crime (I wouldn’t like to say for certain, if I get time I might look this up later ) but it certainly isn’t the case for crimes of a sexual nature, mainly because most rape/ sexual abuse isn’t the opportunistic “rapist-in-an-alleyway” scenario which people conceive it to be. 90% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and a majority of these are within the context of a relationship of sorts. In these situations, it may even be possible to argue that an increase in socioeconomic class correlates with an increase of abuse, rooted in the sense of over privilege felt by people such that they believe they are above the need for consent. I point to recent stories involving Brighton & Hove Albion footballers (I don’t know their backgrounds, but as an illustration of the assumed immunity from those with privilege) as an example.
    However, that is simply me theorising, and I know that across the broad range of sexual assault crimes, there has never been found a link between frequency and socioeconomic class.

    Also, worryingly a recent NUS surgery (I believe cited above) found that 1 in 7 female students were subject to a serious physical or sexual assault whilst a student, which is shocking and definitely indicative of the fact that there is a severe culture problem, even within the seemingly safer realms of the middle-class Durham bubble.

    Apologies for the length of reply, but I felt good points were raised I wanted to respond in full so that people were aware why I felt the article was needed and just how prevalent the problem was.

  • Greg Tonks

    Ali, thanks for the reply and clarification of some of the questions and points I posed. I think that my argument was more relavant when applied to the original format of the article and I agree it doesn’t quite work in the context of this revised format.

    Thanks again