Carnage: fancy dress and nothing more?

Carnage Pimps n Hoes photoThe notorious student event Carnage UK is facing fresh criticism over its most recent fancy dress theme ‘Pimps and Hoes’. The night, which took place in Leeds on Sunday, 7 October, has caused several MPs and student union officers from around the country to speak out in protest against the theme.

The event organisers, Varsity Leisure Group, have denied accusations that they are glamorising prostitution and the exploitation of women after the controversy was reported in the national news. In a letter to Cardiff Women’s Association they defended the theme, which was chosen by students via social media polls, and insisted that the night was “a fancy dress student event, nothing more.”

The company charges students £10 for a t-shirt that gives the wearer free entry into up to ten bars and clubs. The t-shirt for the most recent event featured a checklist of challenges including ‘get low with a hoe’ and ‘pimp my pal for £1’.

Katie Siddall, LUU’s Welfare Officer, expressed her concerns via a blog post on the student union website in which she criticised the ‘distasteful’ theme for trivialising the sexual objectification of women.

Leeds West Labour MP Rachel Reeves has also spoken out against the theme after Siddall raised her concerns at Reeves’ surgery. Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Reeves slammed Carnage UK’s choice of fancy dress theme and accused them of encouraging students to see the sex industry “as a bit of a joke.

“The truth about so-called ‘pimps’ is that they force vulnerable women into the sex industry and they are often beaten, raped and seriously terrorised so that they do not dare escape their situation”.

Siddall criticised the inappropriateness of event being held in Leeds “where one study suggested more than 60 per cent of sex workers experienced violence on our streets”.

Despite the recent criticism, thousands of students donned fancy dress to attend the night in Leeds on Sunday. Similar well-attended events have also been held in over 30 other University towns and cities.

Expressing her own fears about being branded a ‘killjoy’, Siddall went on to say: “I do of course want studednts to have a great time and be happy at University, but in order to create change you need to challenge things that people don’t always think about, because they have been normalised by events like Carnage.

“They see it as a light-hearted theme, but you can have fancy dress without being offensive.”

Siddall went on to describe the pressure nights such as Carnage put on the ‘town and gown’ relationship in Leeds: “Students are often criticised despite all the good things they do in the community – I don’t want events like Carnage to have a negative impact.”

Eight more ‘Pimps and Hoes’ themed events are taking place this month in University towns and cities across the country; but as the controversy around the night has grown, the organisers are facing more resistance. An online petition started by Cardiff University’s Women’s Officer Sam Hickman has gathered more than 75 signatures and on Monday approximately 50 students marched through the Sheffield city centre with banners and wearing t-shirt slogans in order to raise awareness of the issues surrounding pimping and prostitution.

The protest, which was organised by University of Sheffield’s Women’s Officer Amy Masson, was sparked by Varsity Leisure Group’s refusal to change the theme despite attracting criticism from Sheffield Central Labour MP Paul Blomfield. In an open letter to Carnage UK, Masson urged the company to reconsider the theme and expressed her disappointment “that Carnage has chosen such a flagrantly sexist marketing strategy”.

The infamous bar crawl has a history of controversies. 17 student unions across the country banned the organisation from advertising on their premises, following the outrage provoked by University of Sheffield student Philip Laing urinating on a war memorial after several hours drinking during an event hosted by Carnage UK.

Other incidents include the assault of a 61-year-old man by one of its organisers in March 2009 and the suicide of a student at the University of Bath behind a nightclub during the event in 2008.

The past furore provoked by Carnage UK caused the NUS to launch a campaign against the company in 2009 by appealing to the Government to ban its events. Leeds University Union also discussed a motion on the referendum in November 2010 which suggested that the union should “oppose commercial organised bar crawls”; however, the motion was not passed. This new wave of controversy could give renewed energy to the NUS campaign and Siddall said she would “support a ban” if it was proposed again.

Words: Amy Goodlad. Image: Becki Bateman

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