Not just banter: the epidemic of sexism on university campuses

‘Lad culture’ on campus is often excused as harmless, as simple bonding among male students. But it has clear links with the epidemic of sexism and sexual harassment in our universities. 

Harriet Williamson
10 March 2015

I was on a Manchester Magic Bus at 11:30 on a Friday night. It was packed with boozy students, travelling from the student district of Fallowfield to the city centre for a night on the town. I usually try not to take too much notice of what’s going on around me on the bus, but it was so noisy that I had no choice but to pay attention.

A young man was standing in the middle of the lower deck of the bus, taking a selfie. When asked why, he shouted that he wanted to ‘get the freak in the picture’, referring to a girl sitting behind him who was dressed in a steampunk-style ensemble. The guy’s friends found this absolutely hysterical, and suddenly it felt like the entire bus was laughing at one girl, dressed differently, sitting alone, her head bent and cheeks scarlet. The young man responsible took his seat again and proceeded to show his mates pictures of girls he had allegedly slept with, shouting sexual details about them, while the group loudly rated them out of ten.

wavebreakmedia shutterstock.jpg

Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

It wasn’t a huge incident, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I’d witnessed bullying, pure and simple, of a girl on her own by a loud-mouthed sexist who had no qualms about sharing pictures of and intimate details about girls he’d maybe bedded. His behaviour and that of his friends turned the public space of the bus into their space, where they could bully and behave like sexist dicks with impunity. It felt like an unpleasant microcosm of the worst of student behaviour; where the privileged control a space that’s meant to be for everyone, and show utter disrespect for women and anyone who is different from them.

University campuses should be the most progressive places in Britain, taking a revolutionary approach to gender politics and sexual equality, and aflame with a vibrant intellectual culture. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The prevalence of sexist attitudes of campus and the quotidian nature of harassment and assault means that the university experience is sullied for many attendees.

There is an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault occurring on university campuses across Britain and it must be recognised and dealt with as a matter of urgency. One in five women in the UK are victims of sexual offences, and one in three female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances or sexual assault, yet universities seem reluctant to deal with the sexism rooted in campus culture, like a malignant cancer.

University lecturers are not exempt and can contribute to the drip, drip of sexism that students are exposed to. Hanna* attended a prestigious film school, where female students were told to ‘marry rich, girls’ during a talk on how to set up a successful business. Tutors would also refer to some male producers as 'difficult' while difficult female producers were 'ugly' or 'bitches'.

Jess* was raped in her second year of university, by her boyfriend, while she slept. “At the time, I knew what he'd done was wrong, but I wasn't brave enough to call it rape. At 20, I saw rape as a very black-and-white situation- I pictured rape as women having to be held down and screaming, - and I thought maybe it didn't count.”

She didn’t report the experience because she didn’t think the university administration would take it seriously. “So many people are judgmental, and do see rape victims as attention seekers or lovers of drama, and I am still too scared to face what others think of me.” The toxic nature of rape culture at university means that rape is treated as a source of amusement and in some cases, the police and university admin figures are complicit in silencing students who have been assaulted. The majority of sexual assaults in Britain are not reported, with 80% of participants in a 2012 Mumsnet survey choosing not to go to the police. 

I can’t talk about campus sexism without mentioning ‘lad culture’. The NUS’ ‘That’s What She Said’ report on campus sexism explores the nature and impact of lad culture more comprehensively than I am able to in this article, but a few points bear repeating. One of the key aspects of lad culture is a focus on sexist ‘banter’, speaking about female students (particularly female sports players) in a denigrating and disrespectful way, and making women feel excluded and unwelcome in public and campus spaces. The more that female students are dehumanised and viewed as things rather than people, the easier it is for male students to justify acts of sexual abuse and violence. The NUS research shows that 50 per cent of participants in the study identified ‘prevailing sexism, laddism and a culture of harassment’ at the universities they attend.

Let’s not forget the famous Uni Lad article entitled ‘Sexual Mathematics’ that included this: "If the girl you've taken for a drink... won't 'spread for your head', think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds … Uni Lad does not condone rape without saying 'surprise'." Or the Oxford University Ruby Club email that encouraged members to spike the drinks of their fresher dates.

Arriving at university as a fresher, I was warned about second and third year boys ‘sharking’ on newbie girls, as getting to ‘fuck a fresher’ gained them serious ‘points’. My male fresher friends were given no such advice. Throughout my three years of undergraduate, I laboured under the misapprehension that in a club, it was totally normal to be groped by strangers, and to move around the venue with friends, ‘hiding’ from the guy who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Now, I feel horrified and upset that a stranger grabbing my body uninvited was just a regular part of a night out.

‘Lad culture’ on campus is often excused as harmless, as simple bonding among male students, or as ironic ‘banter’. Some dismiss critics of lad culture as classist, attacking a particular strain of working class male behaviour, when in reality lad culture has very little to do with social class. I attended an overwhelmingly privileged university, where proponents of lad culture were largely privately educated and wealthy.

When Lucy* moved to university, it was the first time she’d lived away from home. “A couple of weeks in, I met this second year guy, and we started seeing each other casually. Then one night, a couple of months in, I was out for a friend's birthday and he said he had loads of friends staying and they were continuing the night at his, and I should come back too. I'd stayed at his before, and he always made sure I got home safe, so I thought it would be fine.

After we all hung out for a while, we got set up for the night. It was like a proper sleep over, with all the guys in sleeping bags and everything on the floor. I got to sleep in the bed with the guy I was seeing. Lucky me.

It was the guy I was seeing and his best friend who raped me, with four other guys in the room, none of whom stepped in to help me. At one point, I vaguely remember one of them telling me to shut up crying because they were trying to sleep. The guy I was seeing actually asked his mate "are you finished with her?", and then handed me his joggers to sleep in.”

Lucy says that the bullying that followed was worse than the assault itself. “The guys in the room told everyone that I had slept with these two guys in front of everyone. It got back to my flatmates. The male flatmates were the worst. I stopped going out, but when they went out they would get home and shout abuse through my door. They would make loud sex noises outside my room, screaming my name, and the name of the guy who had raped me. Sometimes they even had one guy being the rapist, and the other screaming and crying, obviously meant to be me. They wrote insults on all my stuff, like if I left notebooks of uni work in the kitchen, I would get it back later with the word "slut" scrawled all over the front. They drew obscene drawings onto post it notes and stuck them all over my bedroom door. Some of these drawings would actually be accurate to how the guys had pinned me down on the bed.”

Lucy’s story is horrific and it is not unique. A third of male university students said that they would rape a woman if there were no consequences involved.

University campuses should be spaces of academic growth that are comfortable and welcoming for all students, not just the white, heterosexual male portion of them. As a response to sexism and lad culture, some young women join in with misogynistic banter and harassment, perhaps so that they don’t feel at risk of being on the receiving end of it. Others become withdrawn, policing their own behaviour, not speaking out in seminars, avoiding social activities and moderating the way they dress. Some victims of sexual assault, like Lucy drop out of their courses altogether. Oxford and Cambridge’s ‘consent classes’ are a step towards creating a healthy culture where enthusiastic consent is viewed by all students as an essential part of sex, but more needs to happen, and more quickly.  

It’s time to put an end to this pervasive atmosphere of exclusion and harassment on campus, to stand up to every inch of the sliding scale of sexism and encourage university tutors, administrators and union reps to do the same. Sexism, harassment, misogyny and abuse should have no place in higher education and both male and female students need to stand shoulder to shoulder against it.

*names have been changed to protect identities 

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