Originally published in The Guardian
Last week, Rob Behrens, chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, commented on the need for universities to do more to tackle “lad culture” among students. Discussing the problem, he associated it with a “drink culture in universities that leads to a loss of discipline and thought”. His comments were echoed across the national papers, which discussed “excessive drinking” and “lewd behaviour”.
That the OIA is taking sexual harassment in universities seriously is welcome and an important win for the NUS. But, as attempts to deal with sexual violence in higher education become institutionalised, we should avoid feeding moral panics. Behrens isn’t the only person to map “lad culture” and “rape culture” on to other perceived social ills. I have been asked in media interviews whether the problem is due to us accepting more working class students – in fact it seems to be the most privileged men in universities who behave the worst.
In workshops with university staff and managers I have heard invectives against casual sex and attempts to blame pornography in particular or the sex industry in general. I have also witnessed domestic violence being defined as an issue specific to Muslim families, an ethnicisation of violence against women which was echoed in a different form in the recent viral video about catcalling which edited out the white guys.
There is a long history of activism around violence against women being co-opted by, or becoming complicit with, problematic agendas. This is especially the case when attempts to deal with such issues result in punitive action by the state, for instance the carceral politics around sexual and domestic violence which disproportionately targets black and working class men. The campaigns against the sex industry which often end up criminalising the sex workers they purport to save are a further example. Taking a wider geopolitical lens, the definition of Muslim men as inherently more misogynistic and violent has underpinned neo-imperialist projects such as the war on terror.
In 2013 Isabel Young and I co-authored That’s What She Said, the NUS-commissioned study of lad culture in higher education which found that sexist banter and laddish activities could sometimes spill over into sexual harassment and assault. Other NUS studies have found a high prevalence of sexual violence at universities, much of it perpetrated by men against women and mostly unreported.
Since then, and largely spearheaded by the NUS, there has been an explosion of initiatives to address the problem, including consent training, bystander education, and workshops on “positive masculinity”. This work is valuable in its pedagogical approach and willingness to both name the issues at hand and engage with students of all genders as part of the solution.
But, as institutions themselves begin to tackle sexual harassment and assault, we should be careful that the issue isn’t hijacked by a political agenda. Our interpretations of the causes of sexual violence must move past moral panics about “excessive drinking and lewd behaviour”, and must not settle on the usual scapegoats.
While keeping the focus on gender, we must not ignore or worsen other oppressions related to issues such as race, class or the sex industry. Furthermore, we must avoid enabling institutions to blame particular students or activities for problems they themselves have had a hand in creating – we must push them to take responsibility for the existence of higher education communities where bullying and harassment of both students and staff is rife. We need a renewed conversation about civic values in the university sector, and to work towards communities where students and staff of all genders can thrive.