When I was a Fresher

Printed in The Student, September 15 2009

Even if The Student’s survey proves that, for the majority , sex during Freshers’ Week is limited to dipping your hand in the ubiquitous condom bucket outside Potterow (not to mention plenty of well meaning, if slightly hyped-up advice) there is a definite association between Freshers’ Week and sex. However, this hasn’t always been the case. It can’t be overstated that attitudes towards sex have altered vastly over the past fifty years.

‘Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)’, laments Philip Larkin in his 1967 poem, Annus Mirabilis which documents the tectonic shift during this decade of apparent “free love”. He continues, ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.’ Mention of sex was no longer taboo in popular culture. It could be said that discourse about sex didn’t start until 1960s. When British academics surveyed the nation’s sexual behaviour in a manner similar to the Kinsey report in 1949 the results were deemed too scandalous to be released into the public domain. It wasn’t until 2005 when the data was retrieved from a dusty archive that researchers discovered attitudes were far more liberal than first thought, they were just never discussed.

The “sexual revolution” of sixties heralded many changes. D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, wasn’t printed in Britain until 1960 after a landmark court-case where his use of “four-letter words” and explicit depiction of a love affair between an aristocratic woman and her rough-speaking gamekeeper was deemed of sufficient intellectual merit , sociological and cultural concern to warrant publication. There’s a phrase “education is the best form of contraception” and it could be argued that a more liberal attitude towards sex was the result of more open dissection about sex in literature, popular music and more detailed research into sexual behaviour. However, in practical terms it was the invention of the pill in 1961 that proved a challenge to traditional values about sex.

If the fifties marked the invention of the teenager, then the sixties was perhaps the first time where young people were aware that their interactions with the opposite sex were different from that of their parents. John Nolan, who attended Freshers’ Week at Edinburgh in 1966, remembers some of these social changes, “Things changed very quickly in the Sixties.  For example, girls were only allowed in male rooms in Pollock Halls between 11am and 11pm. However, by 1968 the rule had disappeared.  The halls became mixed.”  Previously, the sexes were much more segregated, meaning Freshers’ Week was a very different experience from what it is today: “Also, in 1966, as far as I remember, girl students were allowed in Men’s Union (now Teviot) only at dances on Fridays and Saturdays. Unofficially this was known as the “Cattle Market .””

It is no coincidence that the rules changed in 1968. The now legendary student protests of May ‘68 in France were a rebellion against traditional morals, including notions of sexual freedom. One of the incidents that sparked off the protests was a dispute between student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the French minister for education over banning male students from female dormitories at night.

A more open attitude towards sex continued in the following decade, Jane*, an Edinburgh 1978 medical graduate, now a local GP recalls: “The student helpers t-shirts said “Feel a Little Fresher Every Day” so that set the tone.” When it came to Freshers’ Week and sex, the 70s was a transitional period: “We came after the sixties, no-one wanted to be a virgin and no-one worried about safe sex. We were the “Pill Generation”, completely different from our parents – but we paid for it! Most of us to this day have never told our parents that we “did it” before we were married. I think the AIDS scare and emphasis on safe sex has slowed this down a bit, and a good thing too, we were very young and easily hurt, and there seemed to be no good excuse not to. Fortunately none of my friends have suffered cervical cancer, I like to think our intelligence and self-respect saved us! We knew about HPV but there was nothing we could do about it, condoms were considered naff and old fashioned. The pill did its job, but of course provided no protection against STD and cervical cancer.”

In some respects, current attitudes towards sex appear to have reached a happy medium; it is no longer an unspeakable subject but “rampant sex”, or “free love” as it was known, is no longer a social trend. Jane* believes that today’s students have a more enlightened approach to sex but has other concerns: “I am more worried about alcohol than about sex – almost a reversal – I think where we didn’t realise the risks of sex, they don’t realise the risks of alcohol. [In the 1970s] licensing laws were draconian – nearly everywhere shut at 11pm and nowhere opened on Sunday. This reduced our intake. We had a lecture where we were told that most people will consume half their entire lifetime’s intake of alcohol during their student years. I have tried to tell my student friends of today about the risks but they glaze over and think I am just a middle-aged killjoy. I think you should never drink until you are unconscious or vomiting in the street, or having sex with someone you wouldn’t normally look at, or can’t remember what you did.”

Freshers’ Week is an introduction into university life but it is worth bearing in mind that your first impression, be it positive or negative, may not be a realistic one. For some it might be a 9-day party but for those of you who might be underwhelmed by the experience, take comfort  in the words of those who have been there: “Freshers’ Week [in the 60s] was still recognisably a preparation for university life.  Today it seems a hedonistic week-long pop festival.  Great entertainment but is that what university is really about?”


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