Oxford University: home of the dreaming spires, way too many UK prime ministers and an awful lot of nerds.
It’s no secret that Oxford hosts some of the most privileged people in the country, with private schools shovelling as many kids into the Oxbridge application process as they possibly can each year. Which makes a difference – because for certain groups, being in the inner circles of the private school system gets you into places that nobody else can access.
In my second year at Oxford, a private-schooled friend of mine received a coveted invitation to the Piers Gaveston ball – known by students as the “Piers Gav” – nestled between letters in her pigeon-hole like a golden Wonka ticket. As a state-schooler from Cornwall, I had never heard of it. But to all the private-schoolers, it clearly held an almost mythical status.
Shrouded in mystery, the Piers Gav is a top secret and apparently very debauched party. Few are invited, and even fewer are involved in its organisation. But over the past few years it’s been subject to some intense tabloid speculation. Hugh Grant and Nigella Lawson were both photographed in attendance, and it was during the Piers Gav that David Cameron allegedly fucked a dead pig’s mouth.
According to Megan, who went to the Piers Gav a few times while at Oxford, “everyone has to sign an NDA” before attending. Scantily-clad in lingerie, bondage accessories and fancy dress, the chosen party-goers are carted off in a blacked-out coach to a gazebo outside of the city, and have their phones confiscated to maintain total secrecy.
Jasmine remembers being invited by a friend one summer. “The theme was ‘medieval’, so I wore black lacy underwear underneath a silver beach dress that looked like chainmail,” she says. “We met the coach at a meet-up point in town, then we set off to a field in the middle of nowhere.”
Jasmine remembers the parties being pretty drugs-heavy. “There were a few tents: one with dancing, one lounge-y tent that people sat and chilled in, a few sex tents and a tent with a stage that people were openly doing drugs in,” she says. “There’s every [type of] alcohol under the sun at the bar, and there’s a dealer who provides any drug you could wish for.”
Piers Gav balls don't just happen occasionally. There are a few each year: one in spring, one in summer and one at Christmas. Thrown by members of the Piers Gaveston society, a private members club with roots in the British aristocratic elite, they’ve been going for nearly 50 years. The club’s namesake, Piers Gaveston himself, is rumoured to have been King Edward II’s lover back in the 14th century.
Only members of the Piers Gaveston society are allowed to hand out invites, and they will have been elected by current or previous members. The “inner circle” of the club invites 12 people, who then each invite 25 more people. Nobody knows the criteria for choosing guests, but the invitees are usually close friends of the members. Of course, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know – most of the people at the ball attended the same handful of private schools.
Like all parties, the Piers Gav is a chance for people to make out and let loose. According to Jasmine, it's essentially a sex party. “There were people having sex all over the place, both in the tents and outside in the field, but it was kind of dark, so you couldn’t see much,” she remembers. “One girl was having a threesome with two guys in the middle of one of the chilling tents. Even as someone not really comfortable doing that kind of stuff in public myself, I didn’t mind the sex happening around us. It was a chilled atmosphere.”
Felicity once went with her boyfriend. She tells me the Christmas balls are often held in a huge stately home, instead of the usual tents. “This couple came up to us and asked us if we wanted to go into another room to have a foursome. We politely declined and went on our merry way,” she says, laughing. “One of my friends told me afterwards that, as he was getting a blowjob in one of the sex booths, he looked across the room and locked eyes with his own cousin, who was also mid-sex. Boner killer.”
Beth, another attendee, says she spent most of her time at Oxford feeling alienated. Her time at the Piers Gav also wasn’t particularly enjoyable. She went with her “girlfriend at the time, and the committee member who had invited us”, she says. “I lost them for a while, and when I went into the main tent I saw my girlfriend going down on the other girl on stage, in front of a cheering crowd. I was really upset by what my girlfriend did, but I wasn’t sure if I was overreacting and if this was a normal thing to happen at parties like these.”
While the Piers Gav still goes on today, it's also a relic of Oxford's weird, back-slapping past. It's the Oxford of all-male colleges and the Bullingdon Club. I was terrified when I arrived as a fresher; nervous that everyone would be mini Borises and Blairs. In reality, most of my uni mates had only ever heard rumours about the Piers Gav, let alone attended.
The real draw of the Piers Gav is the sexy myth, the mystery and the idea of a powerful “inner circle”. In a university filled with kids who have spent their whole lives being told they’re special, it’s a way to grasp at superiority and continue feeling part of the elite. You must be important – you were invited to a party that the whole university gossips about, after all.
At its bones, it’s nothing all that special – just a bunch of posh kids on drugs. Always remember: you can wear nothing but gaffer tape, shag a stranger and do a bunch of coke at literally any point during the rest of your life, so long as you find the right basement. You don’t even have to have gone to Eton first.