The invitation left little to the imagination: the silhouette of a naked woman in stilettoes with horns and a whip, posing in a seated position like Sharon Stone in that now infamous moment from the film, Basic Instinct.
The scene inside the University of Exeter’s Great Hall, setting for the annual Safer Sex Ball last month, was as decadent as the publicity material which advertised it.
Each guest — girls mostly dressed in lingerie, boys in their underpants — was given a condom when they arrived. (The pretext of the bash was to raise awareness of Aids). Many attending also brought their own contraceptive supplies.
One of the rooms in the main campus building was turned into a mini-casino for the night. Another featured a burlesque act called ‘Kinky and Quirky . . . the best “Tease” in Devon’.
‘The atmosphere in the Great Hall wasn’t fantastic, but it was quite different in the other rooms,’ a 21-year-old student revealed. ‘To be honest, it was like going to any other university ball, except that everyone was in their underwear rather than a dress.’
The university authorities, though, could never have imagined the event, as risqué as it was, would prove to be even more controversial than previous balls held in the name of so-called sex education.
The last one in 2011 attracted widespread criticism for using promotional leaflets containing a ‘joke’ about the number of calories a man could burn off by stripping a girl naked without her consent. On another recent occasion, a scantily-clad reveller was filmed gyrating while holding a sign which said: ‘No 1 Sh**.’
But the college top brass were in for a surprise.
For it emerged this week that shortly before 1.50am on December 11, as the raucous party neared its end, a couple sloped off to the bar, where they ended up in a darkened and deserted corner next to a pool table. The two soon lost all inhibitions. They didn’t know — or probably didn’t care by that stage — that a CCTV camera was trained on them.
Not so very long ago, what happened between them, however reckless or foolhardy, would have remained private, or at least as private as it is possible to be when you are having sex in a bar.
Instead, the whole world has been able to witness their steamy encounter. Footage from the security eye on the wall, it transpires, was recorded on to a mobile phone and sent to fellow students when they returned from their Christmas break.
Last night it emerged that two members of staff who had worked for the Students’ Guild were responsible for filming the footage from the CCTV camera.
Since then, the four-minute clip has been viewed not only by thousands of young people with smartphones in and outside Exeter University; it has also gone viral on the internet and caused something of a media storm.
Today, there is really only one topic of conversation on campus: who are the unidentified couple?
She is in a negligee; he wears shorts, cape and headband. Their faces have not been pixelated.
The fallout has been devastating, not just for the embarrassed duo, but for others who have also been dragged into the scandal. One student in particular has been the subject of hurtful rumours and gossip. She vehemently insists she is not the girl in the video, saying she has a boyfriend and did not even attend the Safer Sex Ball. Her account is supported by a tweet she sent after the raucous extravaganza in which she reveals she is ‘at home’ (away from Exeter) and another later when she tweets she is ‘on train back to Exeter’.
Even so, her reputation has been traduced. And the furore shows no sign of abating.
The Athletics Union, the governing body of sports societies at Exeter, is understood to be ‘scrutinising’ claims a female footballer was the young women caught in flagrante. The club categorically denies that any of its players were involved.
The incident is still among the ‘most read’ items on The Tab, an online tabloid newspaper for the University of Exeter (11 other universities, including Cambridge, Leeds and Durham, have their own version of the site). It ran a poll asking students whether the footage should be posted on its website.
An overwhelming 83 per cent (947) voted Yes, which, in its own way, tells us as much about the society we now live in as the events that unfolded that night.
A decision was eventually taken not to publish the material following legal advice. The Tab was told it could have been in breach of data protection and human rights legislation if it had. Not that this will be any consolation to the frisky couple whose humiliation is already complete.
Before smart phones, instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, you would probably not have read about them at all. But the revolution in social media appears to not only mirror the culture of voyeurism and exhibitionism that seems so prevalent — especially among the young — but to encourage and fuel it.
Exeter, it should be pointed out, is a member of the Russell Group of leading universities and was recently named University Of The Year in the Sunday Times University Guide.
Few would think so if they read The Tab — ‘a newspaper for students, not a student newspaper’.
Much of its website features both male and female students without clothes on.
Parents about to pay the £9,000-a-year tuition fees for their sons and daughters to study at Exeter should perhaps turn away at this point or pour themselves a stiff drink.
One of the stories on The Tab website concerns the phenomenon of ‘spotting’, which involves taking (usually inappropriate) photographs of yourself or friends in public places and posting them on the internet. In this case, a male student is pictured (or ‘spotted’) sitting at a library computer screen with his trousers pulled down and his ‘family jewels’ exposed (to use The Tab’s description).
Not to be outdone, female students have taken explicit images of themselves and uploaded them on to Facebook. Some are naked from the waist up, their modesty barely protected by a bar bearing the words ‘Original Sin’, the name of the London-based events company that organises themed student parties at Exeter nightclubs. One such night last term was called ‘F*** Me I’m Fresh’ [as in fresher]. A second, a few weeks ago, was entitled ‘F*** Me It’s Xmas.’
So far, so squalid. But it would be unfair to assume Exeter University is in any way out-of-the-ordinary when one looks at student behaviour at seats of learning across the country.
The proof, if any is needed, can be found on the Confessions Of A Uni Student website, founded in September last year, as a vehicle for students around Britain to reveal their most intimate secrets.
Many may wonder why anyone would want to contribute to such a site, even anonymously. But, then, why would you post lewd pictures of yourself on Facebook or ‘vote’ in favour of putting footage of a couple caught having sex on CCTV on the internet just for the fun of it?
Nevertheless, Confessions Of A Uni Student has been flooded with postings from virtually every university in Britain: Edinburgh, Loughborough, the London School of Economics, Brunel, Bristol, Brighton, Nottingham and Manchester, to name but a few.
The vast majority of these ‘confessions’, which reveal details about everything from oral sex to one-night stands, cannot be repeated in a family newspaper even with a liberal sprinkling of asterisks. The website has received more than 226,000 ‘likes’ and rising, meaning those who have read the content approve and have clicked the ‘thumbs-up’ icon.
One ‘confession’ is from a student from Swansea University who reveals how he was kicked out of the home of his girlfriend’s parents after her father accidentally stumbled across pictures of their X-rated bedroom games on her mobile phone. Did he feel any shame or embarrassment? Apparently not.
‘I wish I could have seen her dad’s face when he looked down to see his only daughter, naked and staring back at him, with me giving a thumbs up to the camera.’
Back in Exeter, some of the lewd behaviour has been blamed, rightly or wrongly, on the ‘public school crowd’. Many Old Etonians and their contemporaries from other top public schools like Marlborough traditionally choose Exeter if they cannot get into Oxford or Cambridge (Peter and Zara Phillips are graduates).
Exeter has a good academic track record, after all, as well as excellent facilities, and is in a beautiful part of the country where wealthy families live or have second homes. It’s no coincidence that, at one time, more students at Exeter were said to own their own cars than at almost any other university in the country.
‘Their uniform is Jack Wills and Abercrombie and Fitch [so called ‘preppy’ clothes brands] or trainers and parka jackets,’ one 20-year-old female student told us this week. ‘They stand out a mile even when they are trying to look more ordinary. They have all got the obligatory signet ring on their little finger.
‘I think the problem is that some of them have got more money than sense and party hard, which they seem very proud of. Some of them have been so heavily spoonfed that they can’t think for themselves. I think they go off the rails a bit here because no one is telling them what to do, where they should be and when.’
It is a story we heard from a string of sources at Exeter. The behaviour of a section of the male student population at Exeter has resulted in what one female undergraduate described as a ‘testosterone-fuelled’ atmosphere.
There were two allegations of sexual harassment made by female students in the 2011/12 academic year and five the previous year.
But sexist behaviour, we have been told, is commonplace. ‘Hi, slut’ has become an all too familiar way of addressing women undergraduates.
‘I have run into boys, particularly from the sports societies, on nights out who refer to you as a “slag” or “slut” and think its funny,’ says a second-year student. ‘They say it’s just banter, but it’s demeaning.
‘If you take them on about it, then they say you’re uptight, a prude or a lesbian. Sometimes I think we have gone backwards not forwards.’
Such attitudes can never be justified. But the behaviour of some women at Exeter, as we have already seen, has not helped. This is something which has been highlighted by the university’s award-winning newspaper, the fortnightly Exeposé.
One recent report was prompted by the growing number of girls posting compromising pictures of themselves on the internet, particularly on the Facebook page of event-organisers Original Sin.
‘Substantial concerns have been expressed regarding the way in which some women in particular have been presented and placed in a number of the images with some students claiming the shots condone the objectification of women,’ the paper said.
The Original Sin Facebook page featured many photographs of semi-naked students cavorting for the camera. Some were engaged in apparently drunken deep kissing while others were snapped having booze poured down their throats from bottles high above their heads by pals. Other photographs featured trays of glasses filled with red alcopops. Others showed bottles of booze next to boxes of condoms.
Yesterday, Tom Wye, Original Sin director, said: ‘In some circumstances, some people will go further than others to be noticed. At no point are people encouraged to do anything they’re uncomfortable with, or that may upset others.’
There are now signs that the university authorities are cracking down on some of the more outrageous behaviour, at least on campus. ‘Employers now scan social networking sites and will take a view on people’s professionalism based on what they read,’ the university management warned.
The couple caught on CCTV at the most recent Safer Sex Ball (and indeed the people responsible for circulating the footage) will now be hoping that there are no further revelations — such as their names becoming public.
But given the ubiquity of social media nowadays, there’s no guarantee of that.