Lock Up Your Daughters

19th September 2014

As this year’s cohort head off to university, the pressure to achieve is huge, for both sexes. Young women, though, face an extra challenge: sexism red in tooth and claw. Jennifer Lipman investigates, and discovers that the title of this piece might be both a crude slogan and a piece of sensible advice:

Club nights for ‘pimps and hos’… ‘Seal clubbing’ as a term for chasing female freshers… Songs about rape… Student websites celebrating sexist humour… Is this is the reality of life on campus in 2014?

On the face of it, it’s a good time for girls to dream of lecture halls and dissertations. The days of women being barred from higher education or mocked for their intellectual prowess are long gone. According to UCAS, 58% of applicants this year were female, a trend mirrored on part-time courses and at postgraduate level.

But while they may be on the ascendant academically, when it comes to sexual politics, are the ‘lads’ winning the day? In a report last year, the National Union of Students warned that so-called ‘lad culture’ has permeated every aspect of student life, giving rise to horrors like ‘slag ‘n’ drag’ parties, or ‘slut-drops’, where male students offer lifts home to women, then leave them miles away from home.

‘Female Finalists in University Debating Contest Left in Tears by Barrage of Sexist Heckles’ was one recent newspaper headline. ‘Uni Football Team Banned Over ‘How To Sleep With Women With Low Esteem’ Presentation’ was another. Meanwhile Uni Lad magazine, which has published articles belittling rape or explaining why chubby girls deserve to be loved, has more than 45,000 Twitter followers.

So how bad is it? The problem is being exaggerated, says recent Nottingham University graduate, Ella Rose. “I personally have never faced sexism on campus, and my friends have had the same experiences.”

Yet Emma, a second year Oxford student, describes objectification, groping and harassment as regular features of student club nights and says that sexism and misogyny remain big problems on campus. Some is overt, but much of it is subtle; male students dominating lectures or seminars; jokes about girls being sluts.

“People say ‘you only got the role because you’re a girl’,” says Hannah Jones, Vice-President for Student Activities at Brunel. As a hockey player, she also has to deal with ‘jokes’ around about the game being inferior to men’s sport. “It is not an exaggerated issue,” she says. “The media and NUS are right to highlight this.”

Some of the stories are truly shocking. Emma recalls a friend arriving at an event for male and female university athletes to find the boys had placed contraceptive leaflets on the table. “The implication was that they presumed they’d be able to have sex, and it was the girls’ responsibility to sort out contraception,” Emma says, aghast.

Alison Phipps, co-Director of Sussex University’s Centre for Gender Studies, tells me how appalled she was, while researching for the NUS report, to learn of behaviour like ‘under-handing’ – whereby the male “puts his hands inside a woman’s knickers on the dancefloor”. Worse, she says, was that women seemed to assume this was just “something that could happen on a night out”.

Having attended a top university in the 1990s, Alison believes that lad culture and its trappings are on the rise. The extent may vary between universities, but in general, student events are “very much focused on alcohol and at least the promise of sexual activity”.

The causes are unclear. The “competitive drinking culture” that is a mainstay of campus life, obviously plays a part, Alison says, adding “but I don’t think it creates anything that is not already there.”

Undoubtedly, social media has brought a new avenue for sexism. Female students are judged crudely on their Facebook photos, or harassed on Twitter for sharing feminist views. In one high profile incident, a Nottingham University student was forced to publicly apologise after directing a foul tweet to television classicist Mary Beard.

Meanwhile, offline, the demands from the media and wider society seem to be increasing. “The pressure on girls to look good and stay thin while studying certainly seems to be worse than the pressures on boys,” agrees Emma. “We are expected to be fun and go out – but not get too drunk, to perform well academically – but not get too arrogant, to appeal to boys – but not sleep around.”

Yet as challenging as these expectations are, many women are meeting them, scoring well in their degrees and graduating with top job offers. Alison, whose research focused on prestigious Russell Group universities, points out that men who once would have been certain of a gilded path, now “stand to lose out” to their high-achieving female peers. “These women are often seen as a threat,” she says. “Sexism is a way to put them in their place.”
That extends to the inevitable response to claims of sexist behaviour: ‘It’s just banter, we’re just having a laugh.’ As Alison says, “it’s a really effective way of shutting down criticism… of dismissing women who are uncomfortable”.

Is it just banter? Do these women just not know how to take a joke – to shrug off catcalls or worse – as, perhaps, their mothers did? “But if it goes too far and offends someone, saying ‘oh, it’s only a bit of banter’ is not a good enough excuse,” argues Hannah.

“Sexism is not ok, is it?” adds Alison. “These students could be doing other things with their time.” Even if these boys have no intention of veering anywhere near sexual harassment, why should female students put up with it?

In any case, critics are clear that the problem goes far beyond women ‘simply’ taking offence. Hannah points out, for example, that such sexism is rife in student sport clubs – hardly a way to encourage women to get involved. It goes beyond this too, influencing women’s lives 24/7.

“Lad culture and its effects are… having a real impact across all areas of student life; not just in sports teams or on nights out,” emphasised Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, at a conference on campus sexism earlier this year.

And it’s hard to argue that three years of this does a young woman any good – or, for that matter, those men who do not fit this Alpha Male mould. Moreover, dismissing it as hot-headed male students letting off steam means that nothing changes. Alison points out that the culture of “lads trying to outdo each other all the time” is self-perpetuating. “And the behaviours can get more and more extreme.”

For the NUS, we’ve reached a tipping point. In February President Toni Pearce announced the launch of an NUS committee on lad culture, saying it is “absolutely our responsibility to stand up and challenge” this. But they also want to see universities take a more active role in confronting campus sexism.
Already, universities have dedicated Diversity and Equality staff, and some have been admirably proactive. At some Cambridge colleges, for example, ‘consent workshops’ are compulsory for freshers. Likewise, after Uni Lads published a flippant article about rape, Plymouth University took disciplinary action against its founder, a student there.

“We have robust policies on discrimination and established procedures,” explains Brunel University spokesman Mark Howard. He acknowledges that isolated incidents can and do happen, but points out that having processes in place “does not mean the university authorities are complacent.”
Brunel, like most universities, is backed up by an active Student Union. “We have an Advice and Representation Centre to support students with any issues including sexism, along with a Welfare Officer,” says Hannah. In addition, they provide training sessions for sport clubs and societies on ways to tackle lad culture.

“I believe the university authorities would have been excellent should I have needed them,” says Ella. Likewise, says Emma “if there is ever an instance of sexism or lad culture, there are various support systems in place. The dean would not hesitate to ban a sports team from the college bar if they had acted inappropriately.”

Nevertheless, it remains complicated territory. At present, explains Alison, universities only take action if a crime is committed, and much of campus sexism – derogatory songs, objectification – happens within the law.

“It’s about universities taking responsibility for the kinds of campus cultures they are creating,” she says. “I don’t think that’s happening at the moment.” She suggests that most see this “as a PR problem, not one of student experience”, and would rather turn a blind eye. “No institution wants to be first to say ‘we’re tackling this’ because then they might get labelled as being worse.”

Meanwhile, the fightback is beginning. The social media generation is using their power for good to call out student sexism. That Uni Lads article on rape? It was taken down after outcry on Twitter, much of it led by outraged students.
“The majority of people [on campus] are definitely very anti-sexism, males and females alike,” reassures Emma. “If there is ever a scandal, it is always met with a huge backlash.”

Likewise, campus feminism is having another day in the sun, with students forming coalitions against sexist behaviour. Ella, Hannah and Emma mention the array of active feminist societies and women’s groups at their universities and stress that it is not necessarily treated as a women’s problem; plenty of men have taken up the fight. “The aim is to combat sexism, have debates on issues that arise, and provide a different perspective on issues surrounding sexism in order to challenge it,” says Hannah of this resurgent feminism.

As Alison points out, it may be unbelievable that sexism remains an issue in 2014, especially at universities “which are supposed to be places of equality”. But, as mother to a young daughter, she is optimistic. “These young women are articulate, intelligent and passionate,” she says. “And they are saying we are going to do something about this.”

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