I enjoy the odd swap here and there. There, I said it. Maybe it makes me a worse person if my idea of a good evening is getting hammered and having slurred conversation with people I’ve just met, feeling a mixture of embarrassment and pride as my most horrific fines come up. Or maybe it’s normal to need to blow off steam in an outlandish manner, given the pressures of Cambridge. Either way, it’s satisfying, in a peculiarly Cambridge way, to be debating the rightful limits of free speech one moment then explaining how you ended up getting with someone in a college library the next.
Justifications aside, that I do like swaps means that I’ve experienced my fair share of what is probably the straightest thing about Cambridge. And honestly, I’m not sure if we can ever sit comfortably at the hallowed tables of Curry King, Sesame and Clown’s. Swaps may be fun, but they are uncompromisingly and institutionally heteronormative. I’m sorry if you were expecting an article about the time I kissed a member of staff at Curry King, or was one of only two people to stand up on a subject swap when the fine was for sleeping with someone on our course. For once, I’m going to take swaps seriously.
I should start off by saying that the guys in the Jesus swap group have always been accepting and inclusive without thinking twice. This isn’t surprising, since several have girlfriends and most don’t see swaps solely as a golden opportunity to pull. It would be nonsensical for them to reject me on the grounds that I’m not going to be making anything more than friends with the girls I sit next to. For these guys, swaps are far more about doing something with ‘the boys’ and being able to act a little bit more ‘laddishly’ than they do around their female friends in college, because they’re not going to be judged over their cornflakes the next morning by the girls on a swap.
Still, even the good intentions of the majority of the Jesus guys don’t make it easy to ignore talk of “success rates”, or girls in relationships being “dead wood”, by a small minority. I’m fortunate that it is only this vocal minority reducing swaps to meat markets at which I’m an awkward vegetarian. Gays and lesbians at other colleges feel far more excluded than I do, whilst non-binary students have it even harder, stuck in a system that strictly divides into male and female and renders invisible those who identify as neither or in between.
The other problem is the consequences of a group of guys getting drunk together. Inevitably, I’ve found that after a bottle of Basics with the lads, homophobic language seems to slip out far more easily. On top of this, any attempt to call it out is far more likely to be met by an aggressive response, as I found out to my detriment in Sesame.
Even if every guy on a swap was a model of tolerance and respect (hard to imagine, I know), there’s still something uncomfortable about the whole idea. If pulling was truly secondary to having a good time on swaps, then why the gender segregation? Surely a group of friends of all genders and orientations could descend upon Curry King with another such group and go through the whole debauched process? This is what happens on subject swaps.
Yet that’s not the case in college swaps. For some underlying reason, a group of only guys goes out with a group of only girls, and unless this changes swaps will remain inherently tied up with assumptions of straightness. Those who frustrate these will never be comfortably integrated, however much they may enjoy shit curry and great banter!
My conclusion is, therefore, a sobering one (insert joke about alcohol here). I’m not saying swaps, or those who go on them, are homophobic. Nevertheless, I fear gender-segregated swaps are intrinsically straight. We may be invited to sit at the table, but we’ll never quite fit, however much we fake it.
Ethan Axelord (GR. Columnist)