Originally published in The Guardian
“Now she’s dead but not forgotten, dig her up and fuck her rotten,” so chanted this year’s freshers at Nottingham University, in an incident hot on the heels of the revelation that the LSE men’s rugby team had distributed a freshers’ leaflet full of racist, classist, homophobic and sexist slurs.
As the academic year began, these episodes were reported as emblematic of student “lad culture”, defined in a National Union of Students (NUS) report as a competitive male chauvinism disguising itself as “harmless banter”.
Isabel Young and I co-authored this report, which showed how such sexist “tomfoolery” can easily spill over into harassment and violence.
This September, an NUS survey revealed that 37% of women at UK universities have been subject to unwanted sexual advances, and the 2010 Hidden Marks report found that 1 in 7 had experienced serious sexual or physical violence and 68% had been sexually harassed.
“Lad culture” is a problematic term – it can attach a veneer of respectability to what’s really “sexism with an alibi”, and produce fatalistic “boys-will-be-boys” dismissals.
The extremes of laddism may well be the preserve of a minority, but unfortunately this is often the powerful and privileged: rugby players, members of elite drinking societies and debate teams. Laddish discourses have also been co-opted by companies marketing to students (nightclubs, events organisers) and social media sites like Uni Lad and Shag at Uni, which gives them broad cultural reach.
There’s a feeling that lad culture at UK universities is on the increase, and if that’s the case, it’s the product of several intersecting trends.
Our students are coming of age in a demanding economic climate, with intense competition for jobs and a housing bubble that means financial security is pie in the sky.
Furthermore, postfeminist mythology teaches young men that women have the upper hand, that they “want it all” even in austerity.
Laddism is an equal-opportunity oppressor – racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia are all part of its portfolio – but the viciousness of its sexism (exemplified by this article’s opening quote) reflects a conviction that women need to be put in their place.
The rape jokes which are its apotheosis don’t represent uncontrolled lust – they’re the aggression bred by lost entitlement and the need for someone to blame.
Neoliberalism creates this dog-eat-dog mindset, which is rampant in the higher education sector where lad cultures thrive. The marketised university is a place where only economic values matter, a callousness mirrored in student social life.
Popular social media portals Rate Your Shag and Spotted, replete with laddish banter, showcase modes of sexualised audit which reflect this market absorption. Laddism has waxed and waned over the decades in response to particular contexts (and often linked to shifting gender roles), and is currently being nurtured on the consumerist campus. Its future is foretold in the US, where higher education markets are entrenched and sexual violence is rife.
The neoliberal university is also a difficult place from which to speak out. NUS President Toni Pearce recently accused UK institutions of ignoring lad culture, and in the highly marketised US, universities are often criticised for covering up violent crime in order to maintain enrolments.
The pressure-cooker culture among academics is creating an individualism which means that we turn a blind eye while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst). The outsourcing of essential services such as campus security and student counselling may mean there are fewer qualified people to listen to students who are victimised.
With this in mind, the recent press interest in the issue of lad culture, and the campaigns, research and initiatives inspired by the NUS reports or led by its national strategy team, present an opportunity to hold universities accountable. As more tales of student sexism materialise, institutions should be pressured to:
- Create and publicise clear reporting and referral pathways for students of all genders who experience harassment and violence.
- Develop targeted prevention work (there are a number of potential models, such as Oxford’s Good Lad workshops, the consent education being delivered at Cambridge and the bystander intervention initiative at the University of the West of England).
- Reflect upon institutional values and how these are expressed in campus communities. Even if marketisation is now an unstoppable juggernaut (and I question this assumption), we can resist its assault on our collective consciousness.
Alison Phipps is director of gender studies at Sussex University – you can follow her on Twitter @alisonphipps