When 200 undergraduates at Cambridge University sat for a three-hour criminal law exam on Saturday, they were probably expecting the misery associated with such a long exam to entirely consume their day. But when students reached the ninth question, it is safe to say that several received a shock they weren't expecting.
The question reads (trigger warning):
"Sandra is President of The Vizards, a College drinking society. She is organising the initiation of new members. After a great deal of alcohol has been drunk, the members of the society form a circle around Billy, Gilbert and Richard who are to be initiated.
(i) Sandra blindfolds Billy and tells him that Tracey will suck his penis. Jonny does so.
(ii) Sandra penetrates Gilbert's anus with a bottle. Although Gilbert appears to resist, and has to be held down by Tracey, he actually enjoys the experience.
(iii) Sandra waxes Richard's pubic hair and pulls it off with such force that she removes a significant part of his skin. The wound becomes infected, but Richard is so embarrassed that he does not get medical help and dies."
Students were then asked to write which criminal offenses they believed were committed in the above situation, if any at all. It's certainly a decent question, in that it demonstrates that the material covered in this criminal law class involves lecturing students on what is legally considered rape and other sexual offenses. But its graphic nature threw some students off, including final-year law student Jonathan Salek [no relation to author].
"The reaction in the exam room was pretty non-existent because of the stressful atmosphere, but outside I think there was a mixture of feelings," he said. "Some found it funny that a drinking society initiation was mentioned in a question, as the university tends to turn a blind eye to activities like that. Others were quite shocked."
Salek took to his blog following the exam, posting a photo of the question with his description of the circumstances under which it was presented.
While the content of the question itself appears to be appropriate for such a class, students say that the university's Faculty of Law is notorious for including graphic scenarios in its test questions.
Last year, an online law paper posed a question involving another drinking society initiation ceremony that involved streaking through campus while being beaten with stinging nettles. Yet another fictional situation described one person making unwanted homosexual advances on another, with a third being stabbed in the face and being thrown into a garbage truck.
Besides Salek, other students who took the exam that included the now-infamous question were so disturbed that they took to social networking to express their emotions.
"That's a horrific question," wrote an English undergraduate on Twitter. "[It is] so far beyond acceptable and a total misrepresentation of most socs, actually."
The "socs" to which this undergraduate refers are Cambridge's numerous drinking societies. There has been no indication that these societies partake in such drastic measures during initiations, though faculty members have often given these clubs small warnings for certain infractions.
"It was surprising to see the university directly reference drinking societies and particularly initiations, which they generally tend to turn a blind eye to," Salek said.
Other students found the content of the question surprising, but noted it was because they believe the university is finally "keeping up with the times."
"Drinking socs are, after all, a big part of life at Cambridge," added another freshman.
Whether or not the drinking culture at Cambridge is as raucous as the Faculty of Law illustrates in its fictional questions, the actions within them are clearly unpleasant. Of course, criminal law by its very nature is as graphic, and students taking the class probably had some idea of the curriculum they would cover during the year. But this doesn't mean they were wrong to be shocked — this question clearly stood out on the exam, and its impact has already garnered international attention.
Do you think this question is appropriate for an undergraduate criminal law class, or does the faculty need to turn down its creativity a bit? Comment below, or let me know on Twitter @christinesalek.