Each year Durham University students pass down a torch of traditions to the next year’s ‘fresher’ cohort. You will be all too familiar with the whispers of fresher’s week: college rivalries, college parents and whether or not you’ll be ‘sharked’ on your first proper university night out.
But what exactly does being ‘sharked’ entail? It certainly sounds insidious. At its core, it refers to an older student pursuing a younger student. But there do seem to be further connotations attached to ‘sharking’ that give it its predatory namesake. Some would argue that sharking is much more than a harmless university custom or ‘rite of passage’.
There are concerns that it trivialises unacceptable predatory behaviour such as harassment, coercion and even sexual assault. This is due to the way in which it could blur the lines between being pursued in a consensual and reciprocated manner and being coerced into an unwanted sexual act – all in the name of ‘being sharked’.
This is not a culture unique to Durham. Most universities in the UK are familiar with ‘sharking’: memes joking about the matter flood the unofficial Facebook pages of universities of all corners of UK. This nationwide-accepted tradition not only compares younger students to ‘shark’ prey but, some would argue, attempts to excuse the exploitation of power for sexual purposes and social capital. The power in this context? Being (often only a year) older than those being ‘sharked’.
Of course, not every example of ‘sharking’ is a horror story of club night harassment and predatory behaviour. A broad term, ‘sharking’ may refer to a second-year who enters into a fully consensual and loving relationship with a person who merely happens to be born three months prior to them. Perhaps the issue with ‘sharking’ is this broad nature: when does the pursuit of a person younger than you start being an abuse of power?
Clearly, the issue with ‘sharking’ lies not with dating someone younger than you, but rather with the culture that surrounds it. When an action becomes an unofficial university ‘tradition’ or ‘custom’, the culture around it changes. Suddenly, dating someone a year younger than you gives you social capital, placing a social pressure on students to take part in this ‘tradition’. Combining this pressure with alcohol, sex, and dating has inevitably ugly implications.
‘Sharking’ is not the only example of a university ‘tradition’ resulting in peer pressure and abuse. It highlights a nasty side to university culture, also seen in sports initiations. In this context, freshers once again are put at the mercy of older year groups, made to partake in sometimes traumatising and often disgusting activities – this time because they decided to join fourth-team Water Polo. A long-accepted unsaid university custom, initiations are another example of a university tradition gone bad.
But how are we expected to tackle this issue? The student body alone cannot be expected to reverse years of an embedded toxic culture in one swift movement. Yet, University faculties cannot begin to understand the complexities of a culture that is both ever-changing and only seen through student eyes. Furthermore, any attempt University staff make to tackle this culture is often resented by the student body, who perceive it as being treated like children.
The solution is not quick neither simple. As students, we each have a responsibility to look out for each other and to ensure that we are not participating in a culture that normalises bullying and harassment. There are ways for students to partake in university traditions without contributing to this culture; the first step is calling out the abuse when we see it.
Image: Rudolf R. Ruessmann via Flickr