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Students and Society: York Sober Society

Alice Manning speaks to York Sober Society’s founder Amy McKee about how the society has continued to run during the pandemic

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Image Credit: @uoy_sober_society

Content warning: alcohol harm

‘Students and Society’ is a new series exploring the ways in which York students are giving back to communities both locally and globally. If you have a story you would like to share, get in touch with MUSE’s Features Editor at alice.manning@nouse.co.uk.

Whether it’s a “quiet” pint with your friend at Courtyard, or a full-blown bender at Salvos, many of us have experienced something of the tendency to drink alcohol at social occasions; it’s part and parcel of Uni culture. Even now in lockdown, without many of the usual excuses for imbibing, alcohol is still very much a part of student life. Preliminary analyses in the US show that more alcohol is being drunk among young people, whilst the UK saw a record period of alcohol-related deaths in 2020, suspected to be due to the isolating effects of lockdowns and social distancing.

While we don’t yet know the long-term effects of extended lockdowns on general alcohol consumption, we do know – while bars and pubs remain closed – that now is an opportune time to re-evaluate our relationship with drinking. Given how difficult it can seem to find Uni activities that don’t involve or encourage drinking, it’s heartening to see that York Sober Society is continuing to make strides in lockdown. I caught up with society president Amy McKee last month to see how the society has been running during the pandemic.

First, I asked her to tell me what there is to know about Sober Society. Having helped found the society herself in 2018, Amy explains that it was created as a response to drinking culture on campus. “Being sober myself I was worried about the drinking culture, especially at first. Everyone seemed to be talking about how freshers was perfect for making friends but I felt like none of that was for me as I couldn’t take part in many of the events the University had planned.” Sober Society is there to provide a space for students to engage in activities where alcohol will not be present: “We want students to be able to choose if they drink and we offer a space where they do not have any pressure to do so.” The society runs non-drinking socials for its members.

If you join Sober Society, you’ll be joining a group of over 350 members (on Facebook). As a society whose main aim is “to be an alternative to drink culture at Uni”, they welcome all students as long as no alcohol is consumed at society events. Members are diverse, with some having joined because they “don’t drink for many reasons, such as religious, addiction or personal choice”. Others join as, even though they may drink, they wish to join in on sober activities too. Amy emphasises that “the only thing we advocate for is the freedom to choose. We ask that members do not drink at our events but apart from that they are free to do whatever they like.”

During each lockdown, Sober Society has hosted weekly virtual events for members, such as your typical Netflix Party nights and games nights. More unusually, however, the society now offers “crafternoons”. Having obtained funding from YUSU for 15 craft kits to send out to members, Amy hopes to secure further funding in future as the crafts have proved a popular way to keep boredom at bay. Amy highlights these as a welcome respite from the tediums of the pandemic and the stresses of Uni: “We might all be adults at university but who doesn't need some crayons and a colouring sheet about now?”

However, as for many societies, this last year has been full of ups and downs for Sober Society. Amy explains that finances have been a worry, with revenue being lost “due to a lack of new members.” If this trend continues, Amy fears for the society’s continuation: “without some new blood we aren’t going to have enough of a committee to run next year, which would be a real shame considering how hard we’ve all worked to build this.” With existing members, alongside what I imagine is the bulk of the student body, experiencing Zoom fatigue, engaging with members old and new has proved more difficult during the past few months.

Despite this, there are definite positives for the society as Amy looks back on the past few months. Continuing the virtual events has given committed members an opportunity to stay in touch, something Amy says members have really needed. Lockdown has also offered new opportunities for advancing the society: “We recently ran a collaboration with Flat Earth Society which has been lots and lots of fun. We also won Best New Society 2020 over lockdown which was a lovely surprise!” With the prospect of Covid-19 restrictions being lifted over the next few months – and with it the opportunity to engage new members – the future for the society certainly seems promising.

With this in mind, as lockdown has put paid to many society events, I asked Amy what plans are in store for Sober Society when lockdown lifts. Looking ahead to a post-Covid student life, Sober Society hopes to offer its members some of the more esoteric activities available in York: “We’ll be going back to some society favourites such as Axe Throwing, but we also hope to do some new things such as Ghost Walks around York.” Aside from this, their most common events include “in-person crafting sessions, movie nights and tea shop crawls (like a bar crawl, but you go home much more hydrated).” The variety of events means there is something for everyone, whether you still engage with drinking socials at other societies or not.

There can be no doubt that every student will feel pressure to drink while at Uni, regardless of how much alcohol they choose to consume generally. For some, this can be overwhelming and Amy tells me that the society was formed “to balance the scales a little, as so many events are centred around drinking.” While the society as a whole is “not a support group or campaign group” and “does not condemn alcohol”, they are hoping to distribute a series of educational posters “with advice for students worried about the University drinking culture” once the lockdown is over.

Amy shares her own thoughts on alcohol culture with me: “personally, I think that it isn’t the pro-alcohol marketing that’s the issue, but the lack of marketing that implies that being sober is ok.” Clearly, there is an argument for achieving a balance between the enjoyment of alcohol in moderation, and understanding its potential harmful effects. Yet, this is difficult when the marketing, as Amy suggests, highlights only the positives: “I wish there was more marketing aimed at telling students it’s ok to not drink all the time.” Making sober spaces visible then offers a balance to a uni culture that can seem, at least on the surface, dominated by booze.

However, there are initial signs of change already happening. Amy points to the “rise of sober societies”, which “give students more options when it comes to socialising and making friends.” Studies suggest that young people are drinking less than their parents, and online spaces, such as Sober Girl Society, provide opportunities for young sober and sober-curious people to socialise.

Considering this trend, I asked Amy for her tips about navigating Uni life as a sober or sober curious student. If you’re new to mindful drinking, Amy suggests “just taking a second to say ‘do I really want this?’” when in a social situation where alcohol is present. “There’s many ways you can have fun without alcohol and once you’ve done it a few times you’ll be more open to doing it again.” Aside from joining in on the fun that Sober Society has to offer, Amy recommends quizzes, walks and games nights as manageable sober activities – lockdown or no lockdown.

Importantly, she recommended being honest and upfront about not drinking: “set your boundaries early on.” Reflecting the society’s inclusiveness of those who do choose to drink, Amy is keen to emphasise that your degree of alcohol consumption is completely up to you. “You’ll need to decide for yourself if you’re happy to go out and spend time with people drinking, but if it’s not for you then don’t worry!”

While Uni drinking culture will no doubt bounce back with the rest of student life, York Sober Society demonstrates there are fun activities at York for everyone, regardless of how much or how little you drink.

You can get involved with Sober Society on Instagram or by joining their Facebook group.




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