Initiations; along with rugby at the Zoo, blacking out at Hyde Street, and shamefully hustling a dubious conquest out of your flat, they’re one of North Dunedin’s most time honoured traditions.
You gather up whoever is moving into your shitty flat next year, force a few drinks down their throat, make them do some dumb shit, and everyone has a good old time. But last year things took a turn after a massive initiation at the iconic Debacle flat on Cumberland Street.
Debacle requires incoming flatties to prove their love for the flat with an act of bravado, declaring, “I love Debacle so much I would . . .”
It’s a contest of one-upmanship, where each flattie tries to outdo the others to prove their loyalty. But that can go really fucking far. As one onlooker put it, "If one of the boys does a double Diesel funnel, you can just do a triple Diesel funnel. Why would you then turn around and say 'I'll do a shoey of my bro's piss?'"; One thing led to another, and someone ended up with a wheelie bin full of vomit poured over him.
The crowd of over 100 people, combined with the fact that it took place on a main road, meant the media quickly picked it up, with the Otago Daily Times labelling it “sadistic”.
Subsequently, the University, who quietly loves that its reputation as a party school brings in all that sweet student loan money, announced that some of the students involved would be suspended from the University for a semester. Pearls have been clutched, the University has thrown its dick around a bit, everyone is happy.
But what about all those other initiations, the ones that your parents don't hear about and then call you to make sure you're not doing anything stupid like that. We went straight to the source.
The Absolute Lads
[Note: We use “Lads” here as a gender inclusive term]
The Absolute Lads featured here took the view, for the most part, that initiations are about bonding, brother/sisterhood and having a sick fucking time. As one of them put it, "The methods are quite fucking socially unacceptable, but the goal of it is to create some camaraderie among the boys."
Tasks and requirements vary from flat to flat but "A classic would be drinking some sort of rank smoothie concoction – like cat food and a cheeseburger combo, all blended up with a bit of bong water and alcohol."
The initiation of one of the Absolute Lads we talked to involved "mystery lines" of powder to snort, copious funnels (with raw egg because "everyone knows a raw egg is just good protein") and baccy bongs.
Surprisingly for Castle Street, consent is a major concern. “Everyone comes in wanting to do it. It’s all consensual, for sure it’s disgusting, but it’s consensual.”
Safety is a primary concern for the Absolute Lads, with cutting edge medical treatment at the ready for those who have had a bit much. “Everyone’s drinking copious amounts of alcohol, but we all know it takes a while for it to sink into your bloodstream, so you just vomit it straight back up and no one’s gonna die.”
The Absolute Lads we talked to believe that those at Debacle have been mistreated, punished by the university for something that was not under their jurisdiction.
“It’s not on campus, you’re not repping the Uni. If you’re a labourer who doesn’t go to uni but you live on Castle St, you still have to do it [initiations], it’s not about the uni, it’s about the street and the flat.” The Uni argues that everything done while attending the University reflects on them and they have the right to deny students based on their behaviour. Is that fair? Or should what we do in the confines of our own homes be our own problem?
As one of the Absolute Lads so elegantly put it, “Fuck, if I put a tarpaulin out in my room and got my missus to piss on my face, would I get suspended from Uni? What if I filmed it and put it on Pornhub? Why is that different? We all still consented”
The Absolute Lads also spoke about the storied history of Otago Initiations, and the lack of punishment for initiations that do not receive media attention. “It’s been going on for forty fucking years, why do these guys get made an example of now? […] Everyone knows it’s been going on forever, all the proctors and everything, but they know it’s a battle they can’t win because it’ll just happen anyway.”
The Semi Lads
But what about those who don’t live in the infamous flats but still have initiations? Well those are the Semi Lads.
Interestingly, speaking to them they mostly echo the same points about initiations, seeing them as a tradition, “the kinda thing that happens when ya move into flats”.
The Semi Lads still have laddish tendencies, but don’t entirely meet the requirements for the (completely bullshit) Absolute Lads specification, like living on a party street. The ones I spoke to had to initiate themselves, as they hadn’t had any contact with the previous tenants.
For their initiations they competed amongst themselves, with the winner of the most challenges getting to choose the order of the rooms, a fantastic way of cutting down inter-flat conflict. For them it was “just as much an ordinary drinking competition as an initiation”. When asked about the Debacle initiation, they saw it as going too far and taking the fun out what is supposed to be a good time, although they reiterated the Absolute Lads’ belief that it was consensual. “No one was physically forcing them to stay, I get the peer pressure but there's not much that could make me hang round if I was gonna get pissed on.”
The Non Lads
And what about the Non Lads, the students still engaged in initiations but who couldn’t even be confused for a lad at a distance? These students are as far away from Castle Street lads as an A+ is from my degree.
Their initiations are just a fun time, focusing more on drinking than anything else. “We had to skull a bowl of a mixture of diesel, GnT, vodka and goon […] we had to pass an egg between us with our mouths; if we broke it we funnelled it. We had to do a dance routine, played can roulette. We had to steal something from Castle Street. I blacked out but we did a photo apparently, and when I came to I was holding a hamster.”
When asked about the Debacle initiations, and other Absolute Lad initiations, they were extremely similar to the other two groups, although slightly more critical.
“I thought they took it too far, some of the stuff was unnecessary, exaggerated and fucking disgusting. The whole initiation tradition is pretty normalised by us, so we don’t see how crazy it is until it gets extreme. But also, the media does blow up the big ones and that’s just projected onto the rest of us [students], which gives us a bad rap.”
The Old Lads
Paul Gourlie was President of OUSA from 1981-82, and was in charge of running initiations at Selwyn College for about 10 years. Ask him about how initiations today compare to those of old and he scoffs, “Oh, behaviour is so much better now.”
“If we got all the deans of all the faculties together, most of them went through initiations and most of them would not want their children knowing about it. The difference is, what we did was largely unseen.”
The college initiations, which have been all but stamped out now, mostly consisted of “making people eat unacceptable food, getting super drunk, and running down the Leith in various states of undress.”
The difference between the college hazing of old and the flat initiations of today is the power structure – students moving into a new flat are far less scared of the old tenants than brand new freshers were of their college elders.
But then there were the flats – a wild west of lawlessness, before the University had the power to punish students for non-academic indiscretions. “There was not a lot you could do about them,” he said.
“Medical students no longer have syringe fights, where they pull blood off each other and squirt it around. Pharmaceutical students no longer seem to steal surgical ethanol to mix up in a washing machine. Behaviour now is so much better. Sure, there’s a burnt couch occasionally, but so what?”
As all the students reading Critic will know, the Semi Lads and the Non Lads far outweigh the Absolute Lads whose piss-stained escapades end up in the paper. The majority of initiations turn out fantastically, with only minor damage to pride and livers.
Initiations are a tradition at this point, and while some traditions should definitely be taken out back Old Yella style (looking at you Knox, yes, it is fucking weird that you guys howl at the moon), are initiations actually doing more harm than good? Not if the students are to be believed.