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Sexism on campus

BySarah Henderson

Oct 21, 2014
courtesy of Bryony Harwood

When embarking upon university in the 21st century, one of the last problems one expects to encounter is the pervasive presence of sexism. Yet, with recent research by the Nation Union of Students (NUS) revealing that 50 per cent of student participants identified prevalent sexism, laddism and a culture of harassment at their universities, sexism on campus appears to be an increasing issue, jading the university experience for many female students.

‘Lad culture’ is well known in universities throughout the UK and the western world, yet it appears that this is not the only avenue for sexism to flourish on campus. Be it during Freshers’ Week, sports club initiations and training and on ‘Spotted’ internet pages, sexism is a problem within universities which will not be silenced.

Even if the problems are acknowledged as seriously misogynist and sexist, the oft quoted response “It’s just banter” is all too often employed, as if this excuses and explains the problem.

Most recently, the president of the Royal Dick Veterinary College rugby team has attempted to distance a trio of players from the club, who were reported chanting gang rape jokes towards a group of young female medics outside Potterrow.

According to eyewitnesses, the male students demanded STI check-ups from the group, before chanting “Gang rape, gang rape, gang rape”. Clearly, no amount of stating “it’s banter” sidesteps the fact that this is overtly and aggressively sexist, even primal, and is surely the last thing that should be expected on campus. The club’s slogan, ‘Making Friends Wherever We Go’, appears particularly sinister in this context.

Lad culture displayed by such students frequently continues into nightclubs such as Potterrow, where the expectation of lads to boast about how many times they ‘pulled’ often leads to growing inebriation and forcefulness expressed towards female students. Of course, female students are equally as liable to having large volumes of alcohol through their own volition on a night out, however, the overtly laddish and consequently sexist attitudes of some male students is shockingly prevalent, and chimes with the NUS study revealing that one third of female students have experienced sexual harassment throughout their time at university.

In addition to this ‘Lad culture’, some sports clubs appear to cultivate inherent sexism. The men’s rugby club at the London School of Economics were disbanded at the beginning of term for distributing a misogynist leaflet calling female athletes “trollops”, “slags” and “mingers”, and describing their physical appearance as “beast like”.

This, despite hard training and mutual respect within sports clubs at universities, demonstrates how the pressure placed on female students to conform to expected physical acceptability within university is still a major concern. In order to conform and feel part of the team, some sports clubs provide degrading initiations for female members during Freshers’ Week (of course, this is not restricted to men’s sports teams or male commands to female students). A female student in the women’s rugby team at Swansea University, for example, once reported having to drink a shot through a tampon.

Worryingly, sexism has become a normal experience online for a proportion of female students also. Notoriously, ‘Spotted’ pages have become a virtual sphere for the expression of some incredibly crude sexism towards female students.

Some particularly obscene examples include: “To the girl talking about Harry Potter, I think your arse might be a horcrux, I’m gonna have to destroy it tonight” (Spotted Kent Uni Library); “To the dirty skank… for god’s sake buy some new leggings!! Jesus Christ! I can see your minge” (Spotted: Swansea University Campus) and “The fat bird standing by the printers on the first floor. Don’t want a shag but could really do with a cuddle.” (Spotted Essex University). This even veers into racism, with one picture (taken from behind without consent) of an Asian female student accompanied by the line: “Asian girls and their asses though” (Spotted Coventry University).

Such examples not only objectify women, it simultaneously provides a space to justify vitriol and bullying.

Unfortunately, using a virtual medium such as the Internet makes such an issue even more difficult to tackle. According to Laura Bates, writing for The Guardian, such comments are excused as an ironic joke, as it’s ‘hilarious’ to rank women out of ten and post anonymous public judgements of their appearance online.

Further, pages such as the ‘Uni Lad’ and ‘The LAD Bible’ on social media websites validate such behaviour in wider societal circles, furthering the belief that it is a ‘norm’ and thus acceptable to continue such sexist comments and attitudes within university confines.

Of course, not all male students agree with and participate in this culture of sexism at university. The research of the NUS by Polly Williams (from the Equality Challenge Unit) raises an interesting and alternative point of view: “A dominant lad culture may also damage the experience of many male students, who either feel that they have to conform, or become disengaged from campus life to avoid it”.

However, it is also possible that the problem partially stems from narrow-mindedness and uncertainty as to how exactly to tackle the issue. Perhaps instead of attempting to address the issue by promoting societies within the university such as the Feminist Society (FemSoc), or through tactics such as signing petitions, most effective would be the creation of a male discourse around these issues, questioning why it is that lad culture is so pervasive at university. Whilst this appears to undermine female participation in discussion, in reality, as women discuss certain female issues with other women, men are more likely to listen and talk to men about issues which are ascribed to their gender.

Clearly, the increasing presence sexism and lad culture at university is a pressing issue that needs to be tackled head on. It is not just “banter”, it is an endemic issue, which prevents female students from being able to wholly enjoy certain aspects of university, and encourages male students to conform to the misogynistic prototype established by a pervasive lad culture.


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