On ‘Impact’

I really hate the word ‘impact’. It makes me think of things which are hard and aggressive: a meteorite colliding with the earth; a fist connecting with a face. It brings to mind the forcible contact of one object with another. In research terms, this is the way ‘impact’ is often done. We imagine it moving with velocity, in a linear direction. We conduct our research and only afterwards think about its impact – then we try to force our ideas out into the world, to leave our mark. We talk about ‘impact acceleration’. And once the impact has been felt, the crater has been made, we tend to leave it there and move on.

This model limits us in many ways. Les Back, in his article ‘On the Side of the Powerful’, describes how big research stars have been turned into ‘impact super heroes’ in Sociology, advising cabinet ministers and giving evidence to select committees. He argues that this tends to produce an arrogant, self-crediting, boastful and narrow public version of the discipline. Furthermore, Back contends, this orientation is more likely to produce reformist ‘empirical intelligence’ than radical ambition (probably because you can get policymakers to listen to you if you tell them what they want to hear). In his analysis of the 96 Sociology Impact Case Studies submitted to REF 2014, Back found that only 20 per cent involved speaking truth to power. Our meteorites don’t strike the earth as hard as we think.

I never set out to have an impact. When I joined Sussex as a junior lecturer in 2005, I almost immediately began receiving disclosures from women students who had experienced sexual violence. The institution (like many others) was fearful, and took refuge in denying the existence of a problem. Indeed, to borrow Sara Ahmed’s analysis, I became the problem: the ‘institutional killjoy’ who wouldn’t shut up. I reached out to NUS, and worked with them on Hidden Marks, the first national prevalence study of violence against women students. This established that there was, indeed, a problem. After this, NUS commissioned me to study the ‘lad culture’ which frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which had enough scope for sensationalism to pique the interest of the media. In the midst of a rather unhelpful moral panic, we started to build a community. Various student – and faculty-led initiatives developed. We collaborated with organisations from the women’s sector. After years of lobbying, last year we finally managed to get a Universities UK task force to demand institutional action.

During this time, I went back and forth between research and engagement, engagement and research, and each shaped the other. I became concerned with the weaknesses of ‘lad culture’ as a concept – its one-dimensionality, its lack of context, its capacity to create ill will. I was troubled by the punitive interventions being envisaged by institutions and some activists, and how these might exacerbate oppressions linked to intersecting issues such as race and class. I started to think about the cultures of the neoliberal university, how they frame violence and inhibit disclosure, and how individualistic, disciplinary responses seem to be the only ones available. My intellectual journey around ‘lad culture’ meant that when I was asked by Imperial College to come and deal with their ‘naughty boys’, I instead proposed a project on how their institutional culture interacted with gender issues. Another research and engagement journey began.

This is not the linear model of ‘impact’: I am not the meteorite making a crater. I would like to return to another word I have used consciously already – ‘engagement’. In contrast to impact, engagement is a two-way process. It implies dialogue. You engage people in conversation; you treat them as equals; you are part of a community of practice. You do not shoot your expertise down, like a meteor, from above. Engagement also means a promise – and as a survivor of sexual violence myself, I made a commitment many years ago to make our universities safer places to be. It is often said that impact and engagement are not the same thing. This is true, in REF terms – to demonstrate an impact, you need to show that something has changed as a result of your conversations. But to think you can achieve the change without an ongoing conversation carries certain assumptions about the scholar’s relationship to the world.

To enter the conversation of engagement also means being open to feedback, and I have noticed that once people start focusing on ‘impact’ they can lose the capacity to grow. When your big idea becomes a ‘brand’ this generates a whole set of concerns about its promotion, and you may become territorial and protective.

This could very easily have happened to me. Seven years after Hidden Marks, there is a lot of activity around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in universities. There are some fantastic feminists out there. However, while we try to make change we are also trying to make our own craters; Impact Case Studies are forming in the background of every discussion. I try to remember that when we are all about the impact, we lose sight of the ideas. We see competitors where we should see colleagues; we think less about the work and more about who gets the credit.

The way impact is framed by key higher education organisations is vague but not altogether unhelpful. HEFCE defines impact as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. In the Stern Review, it was pointed out that the academy (both institutions and REF panels) had interpreted this definition in very narrow and strategic terms. This ‘will to impact’, and the meteors it has created, perhaps says more about the cultures of the sector than it does about the impact agenda itself.

My advice: concentrate on doing the very best research you can, on issues you care passionately about. My work on sexual violence in higher education has been a labour of love. I still have hope that research can be ‘impactful’ and have radical ambition – but I think that probably happens when you are focused less on the demonstrable impact of your work and more on what you want to change. So forget about your crater and think about your community, however you define it.

Speaking up for what’s right: politics, markets and violence in higher education

This post was originally developed as a public lecture for 'Tackling Gender-Based Violence in Universities', a one-day conference held at Newcastle University on March 14th 2017.
Content note: this post contains reference to sexual harassment and violence.

Universities in the US, and increasingly in the UK, are finding themselves under siege. The far right is targeting academics and their social justice work, bolstered by a mainstream suspicion of ‘experts’ and ‘elites’, and a general rightward shift in politics and public opinion. With a white supremacist, alleged serial sexual harasser and abuser in the White House, a hardline English government, and a ‘new normal’ that involves overt and unrepentant sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, we’re in for a tough few years. I have previously written about the feminist classroom as a ‘safe space’, and the need to protect our most vulnerable students. I have also thought a lot about how the neoliberal university suppresses the very capacities required to do this. I have theorised an ‘institutional economy’ of sexual violence, exploring how institutional responses (or non-responses) to violence and abuse are shaped by neoliberal rationalities. In this post, I will attempt to sketch how the market framings of sexual violence in the university interact with our contemporary political field and growing hostility to progressive work.

Neoliberalism is a notoriously slippery concept. Wendy Brown has called it a ‘loose signifier’: a global phenomenon which is nevertheless ‘inconstant, differentiated, unsystematic, [and] impure’. Perhaps this is why it has so often become a ‘catch-all’ invoked to explain anything we feel is too big to understand or that we dislike. Harvey defines neoliberalism as an economic process by which capital has harnessed the power of the state to preserve itself, usually to the detriment of labour. In neoliberal systems, the role of the state is to safeguard the market through deregulation and privatisation: the rhetoric is that the social good will be ensured by the unfettered operation of market forces. This is part of a rationality in which everything is understood through the metaphor of capital. We are all expected to maximise our speculative value within numerous systems of rating and ranking: we become what Brown, citing Foucault, calls a ‘portfolio of enterprises’. Everything, including education, is configured in terms of enhancing future value, whether this is of the state, the corporation, or the self.

The university, then, is a key neoliberal institution. It supplies knowledge commodities for ‘self-betterment’, economic growth, and to support state relations with capital. It is not surprising that market logics have strong purchase here. Academics reading this will be well acquainted with the various metrics we labour under, the emphasis on higher education as an investment with a return, the ideas of student as consumer and lecturer as commodity. Of course, these sit alongside a continuation of older forms of governance: Louise Morley describes the climate of contemporary HE through a binary of archaism and hyper-modernism. Universities, like neoliberalism itself, deliver the discourse of a meritocratic free market but continue to work in favour of the ruling class. To paraphrase McKenzie Wark, this contradiction suggests that neoliberalism is not so much rationality as ideology, functioning to maintain the transfer of wealth upwards in the absence of growth through individualization, responsibilisation, and withdrawal of care.

Sexual violence in UK universities made its way on to the agenda after the 2010 NUS report ‘Hidden Marks’, which found that 1 in 7 women students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their studies, and 68 percent had been sexually harassed. Following this, NUS commissioned Isabel Young and I to do further work on the ‘lad culture’ that frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which commanded national media attention. Activities such as initiation ceremonies, nude calendars, sexist themed parties and wet T-shirt contests all came into focus in a ‘moral panic’ around alcohol, pornography, casual sex, and as the Daily Mail put it (without irony), the ‘sickening rise of the male university students who treat women like meat.’ More recently there has been an emphasis on sexual harassment by university staff, which has also seen dramatic media stories about ‘epidemic’ levels of this phenomenon. Opposing all this is a rather bogus politics around ‘free speech’, in which campaigns against lad culture and sexual harassment are positioned as an infringement of men’s rights. This chatter provides a backdrop to a wave of initiatives including policy work, consent campaigns, awareness-raising, disclosure training and bystander intervention, mostly student- and faculty-led.

This is also the political and cultural setting for university responses to sexual harassment and violence. I have argued before that these are preceded by ‘reckonings’ around potential risk and effects on future value: this brings us back to the higher education market, operating in a context of austerity and deepening cuts. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators – this is not news, or new. But the shift from university as community to university as commodity means that the impact of disclosure on institutional value must be projected and totted up. Markets in higher education operate via hierarchies of performance at individual, institutional, national and international levels. They are also subject to the vagaries of public opinion. We do not want to lose our star Professor and his grant income. We do not want negative media coverage to damage our standing with potential students or key international donors. In some situations, we may reckon these priorities up against each other.

In the case of sexual harassment and violence, we have often seen perpetrators being protected because their welfare is intimately bound up with that of the institution. The power of being a ‘four-star’ academic (or footballer, perhaps) can facilitate violence, and acts as a shield against disclosure. Compared to this, the survivor is dispensable. As one of my research participants said:

They will protect him because of his seniority or his perceived importance, they will protect him whatever he does. Now what I’ve described to you is kind of indefensible, and yet it was repeatedly defended over a period of years because of the REF. So if somebody is an important professor, they can do precisely what they want.

My eleven years of work on this topic has taken me into very different institutions, but what has struck me is their similarities in terms of how harassment and violence are ‘reckoned up’. In most cases, concerns with institutional value take precedence over care for survivors. The previous quote is from an elite English university, where a member of staff cited ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ However, a student from a radical 60s university similarly highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet…which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ The stakes are different – research profile versus student income – but the end result is the same.

The lack of care for survivors reflects how neoliberal cultures treat all of us: Stephen Ball, citing Margaret Radin, defines fungibility as one of four characteristics of commodification in HE. When things (or people) are fungible they are all capable of substitution for one another, with no inherent value of their own. Or almost all of them, perhaps: there are complexities here which need to be unpicked. In his discussion, Ball mentions the REF: and although he does not elaborate, it is certainly true that this is an exercise in which scholarly work is given a numerical rating and aggregate numbers determine the rank of a department or institution, while the people in it disappear. The life of such exercises within the university, though, is not about fungibility but differentiation. Systems of evaluation interact with traditional hierarchies (and often gender, race, class and other relations), to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently. Or at least, until the risks of protecting them outweigh the benefits, in institutional terms.

The impulse to protect perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence contrasts with situations where academics have been singled out for their political views or scholarship. Last September, the Middle East Studies Association wrote that the State University of New York had failed to protect a faculty member, raised and taught in Israel, who had been targeted for supporting the academic boycott of that state. This February, the American Association of University Professors said administrations needed to be more proactive in defending academics, after a professor at Sacramento State received a barrage of attacks for criticising President Trump. In England, a lecturer at Bristol was recently supported by Jewish colleagues after university management launched an investigation against her on grounds of anti-Semitism, following media coverage of a student complaint about an article critical of Israel. These incidents reflect a broader context in which the far right in both the US and England has pinpointed universities as hotbeds of left-wing indoctrination. This narrative is increasingly being adopted by the mainstream press and accepted by some of liberal persuasion, under the rubrics of ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom of speech’. Earlier this month, the Times published an article entitled ‘Lurch to left raises concerns for campus free speech.’ In February, in a piece entitled ‘The Threat from Within’, former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy argued that the university was ‘not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view’.

Appeals to ‘freedom of speech’ on the part of the far right perform a rhetorical sleight of hand. They locate legitimate political speech on the right of the spectrum: conversely, left-wing and progressive speech is not speech but anti-speech, a threat to freedom of speech in itself. This convoluted rhetoric (and its growing influence) only makes sense in the context of broader shifts in what is tolerated and found acceptable. As social justice gains recede, sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism and other prejudices are increasingly seen as mere differences of opinion, while work to tackle them is situated as intolerant and oppressive. A recent report by the Adam Smith Institute on ‘left wing bias’ in UK academia cited the (discredited) science in The Bell Curve around raced differences in intelligence, and Lawrence Summers’ remarks about women’s intelligence in relation to their under-representation in STEM, as examples of ‘politically incorrect’ ideas which had been subject to unfair condemnation. This discussion in the UK has reached its apex with the SpikedFree Speech University Rankings’, in which anti sexual harassment policies (among other initiatives) can get an institution a ‘red’ rating. The 2017 rankings were reported largely uncritically in English liberal media outlets, as well as in conservative ones.

The contortions involved in using ‘freedom of speech’ to protect bigotry and harassment echo earlier appeals to the notion of ‘banter’ as a shield against criticism of laddish behaviour. Similar rhetorical strategies can also be found amongst more progressive communities: Sara Ahmed uses the terms ‘critical sexism’ and ‘critical racism’ to refer to academics who identify as left-wing or radical, who have articulated noncompliance with equality and harassment policies as a rebellion against neoliberal audit culture and Victorian ‘moral panics.’ However, contemporary far right rhetoric around ‘freedom of speech’ is part of a broader struggle over social norms in response to recent political and cultural shifts, in which universities are targeted as sites of potential resistance. Ironically, this operates alongside the genuine threat of censorship which resides in the government’s Prevent programme: this includes in its list of ‘potentially extremist’ views criticism of wars in the Middle East, and criticism of Prevent. The resounding silence of ‘free speech’ campaigners around Prevent (it is not mentioned in the Spiked rankings, for example) is confirmation, should this be needed, that their politics is not about freedom of speech at all.

If these debates are not worrying to those of us who work on sexual harassment and violence in higher education, they should be. Our gains are not secure, because universities tend to function according to market principles alone. Both the protection of sexual predators and the lack of it for political academics reflect a preoccupation with public opinion in the context of what it is possible (and not possible) to airbrush out, rather than a consideration of the principles at stake. This highlights the apolitical nature of the neoliberal university, in which equality and diversity are not ends in themselves but subordinate to market concerns. Indeed, they are often performed for market benefit, for instance in schemes such as Athena SWAN, in which institutional airbrushing can require that bad practice is not addressed but covered up. Penny Jane Burke and Kathleen Lynch have both traced how the commodification of higher education shapes a loss of relational personhood, diminishing the value of care. This is evident in a growing exasperation, not confined to the far right, with ‘snowflake students’ and their demands for safer spaces: indeed, the care these students deserve increasingly goes instead to those who claim that principles of anti-discrimination stifle their ability to speak.

For Wendy Brown, in neoliberalism we are always homo economicus and never homo politicus. Business models and metrics penetrate every social sphere, and the world is governed by market forces, not elected representatives. Our democratic duty is to conduct ourselves properly in the market, and social and political issues have market-based solutions. When politics recedes, resistance can be repackaged as ‘complaint’. Sara Ahmed has highlighted how those who bring problems to institutional attention become the problem, rather than the issues they raise. Feminist, anti-racist and other social justice academics are routinely cast as ‘complainers’, and their concerns summarily dismissed. However, in far right campaigns against these (and other) political academics, another form of complaint is beginning to be deployed: student, or consumer, complaint. In a 2016 article in the US National Review, entitled ‘Yes, universities discriminate against conservatives’, David French argued that ‘parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars to send their children to glorified propaganda mills’. Calls for US academia to reflect the ideological balance of the population, now spreading to England and overseas, use the language of democracy but may ultimately send the message that the customer is always right.

In response to recent activism and policy work across the UK, most universities are taking a stand – rhetorically at least – against sexual harassment and violence. However, it is worth considering whether a showdown with the far right around the spectre of ‘left wing intolerance’ is somewhere in our future. Negative media coverage of consent workshops has already situated them as a threat to free speech. Is it possible that students might eventually demand protection while they parrot rape myths or talk about grabbing their classmates by the pussy? As has already happened in the US, could we see threats to withdraw government funding if we refuse to platform those whose hate speech has been redefined as merely ‘provocative’? If the ideological targeting of universities continues to influence the mainstream, this will shape institutional reckonings. Starting now, we need to challenge university administrations to recognise, and speak out against, these manoeuvrings for what they are. We must also ask our institutions to consider their values, and to recentre and reaffirm principles of equality and progressive social change. To support survivors – and other vulnerable people – we must all figure out where our lines are drawn, and then resolve to hold them.

Reckoning Up: an institutional economy of sexual harassment and violence

(Content note for sexually violent language and descriptions of traumatic experiences)

I want to construct an ‘institutional economy’ of sexual harassment and violence. What does this mean? These phenomena are often positioned within narratives about boys – or men – ‘behaving badly’. While it is crucial to hold individuals accountable for their actions, as sociologists we must go further. Sexual harassment and violence are of the social: produced and shaped by gender and other intersecting structures of inequality, and framed by the neoliberal rationalities which, as Wendy Brown argues, have seeped into almost all aspects of our lives. An institutional economy of sexual harassment and violence in higher education starts here.

Like schools, universities exist within a marketplace. As government funding dwindles, we increasingly compete for students and research grants in order to survive. We also operate internal markets which bring departments and staff into rivalry, and make us competitors rather than colleagues. I want students to register on my MA programme, not yours. How does our research stack up next to the department’s next door? Students now imagine they are paying us for a service, and while we give them their grades, they evaluate us in ways which have a demonstrable impact on our market standing. There are hierarchies of performance at individual, institutional, national and international levels, and the effects of this are seen in cultures amongst students and staff.

In my work on student ‘lad culture’, I have argued that this combines rather tired forms of sexism with newer modes of sexual audit. ‘Sex charts’ are appearing in student residences, to quantify and assess conquests. Women are being given grades and ratings for their ‘sex appeal’. Men are scoring points for sexual ‘achievements’ – such as ‘slipping a finger in on the dance floor’, and ‘bedding a virgin, with blood to prove it.’ ‘Lad culture’ and neoliberal culture are natural bedfellows.

In 2013, a number of Facebook pages emerged entitled ‘Rate Your Shag’, linked to universities across the country. These offered spaces for students to give their sexual partners marks out of ten based on any criteria, and were ‘liked’ by about 20,000 users in the first 72 hours. They were deleted just as quickly, deemed to contravene Facebook’s policies on bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is also often gendered – women are appraised, men do the appraising. Although students of all genders had been encouraged to post, much of the Rate Your Shag content consisted of men rating women on criteria drawn from heteronormative and objectified constructions of femininity.

‘Was like shagging her mouth, best blowjob in [the city]. Eight out of ten.’

‘Nought out of ten. Shit body and one heavy dose of Chlamydia. Get checked love.’

Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is also bullying and harassment. Contemporary ‘lad culture’ was defined by a participant in my research as a ‘hostile environment where everyone is judging everyone else.’ This could also describe cultures amongst higher education staff, many of whom feel alienated by processes that incessantly measure them against each other and against the curve. Again, this evaluation is gendered: men continue to hold most of the positions of power in the sector, definitions of ‘success’ prioritise research (coded as masculine) over teaching and admin (coded as feminine), and assessment exercises favour modes of scholarship and impact which reward the confidence, time and freedom to take risks and consistently self-promote.

A UCU survey in 2012 found that bullying and harassment between university staff was common, usually perpetrated by managers and disproportionately affecting women, BAME and LGBT people, and people with disabilities. Recent media and academic discussions have also focused on staff relations with students, with high-profile exposés of powerful US Professors who are serial sexual harassers feeding growing unease in the UK.

Sara Ahmed recently resigned her Professorial post at Goldsmiths in protest at the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment. Last December, I spoke at a conference at Goldsmiths where difficulty of even naming sexual harassment was brought to the fore. For a problem to be disclosed, it must be named. For it to be addressed, it must be disclosed – but our failure to address sexual harassment and violence prevents it being disclosed in the first place. We are caught in a vicious circle.

In any institution, disclosures of harassment and violence are situated within reckonings. What is the cost of naming and addressing this problem? ‘Cost’, however, is not neutral – and we need to think critically about how it is defined and calculated. In a neoliberal institution, ideas of ‘cost’ are shaped by marketised reputational games. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. This gives rise to the figure Ahmed has named the ‘institutional killjoy’ (a relative of the feminist killjoy), who ruins everything with their complaints. I have been one of these killjoys for as long as I can remember. In fact, you might even call me the ‘sectoral killjoy’ – my work on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in universities has led to many uncomfortable discussions, some of which I have been party to, some of which I have not.

The cost of sexual violence is totted up at multiple levels, from departmental finances to the grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ We do not want to lose our star Professor, or their grant income. We do not want a media frenzy around campus rape which would damage the university’s standing with potential students or key international donors. The airbrushing of the institution makes disclosures disreputable, rather than the acts of harassment and violence they reveal.

Disclosures are disreputable in neoliberal institutions where economic values have replaced civic ones. We have experienced, as Stephen Ball puts it, ‘a thoroughgoing commodification of university life.’ One of the characteristics of this, he argues, is the fungibility of staff and students: we are all capable of substitution for each other, with no distinct value of our own. Or almost all of us. Those who are reckoned up differently are often the ones who use that power to perpetrate harassment and violence in the first place. Disclosures, then, are problematic only inasmuch as they threaten their welfare, because this is intimately bound up with the welfare of the institution.

I have argued before that power works to cover some people up. As Heidi Mirza points out, some of us are used to revealing ourselves. The bodies of women of colour and LGBT people, for example, are often seen as public property; we are also often forced to commodify our experience in a world in which abstract thought is not for us. Others, however, are not to be exposed. ‘Laddish’ disclosures are made by men, but women’s bodies are laid bare: ‘lad points’ demand that women’s boundaries are crossed, their secrets told. Indeed, when these acts re-appear as women’s disclosures of sexual violence, they are minimised and denied.

When it comes to staff, some people are bundled up in layers of bureaucratic power. The manager who sexually harasses you at the Christmas party also allocates your teaching, assesses your requests for research leave, and conducts your annual appraisal. The Principal Investigator on your research project can either help you get your next fixed-term contract, or leave you to flounder. Your PhD supervisor has a key role in whether you get that first job at all. These bureaucratic power relations raise the stakes on disclosure, and also make it difficult to look up from our desks to support colleagues and students who are suffering. There are other bureaucratic layers, such as stressful and opaque complaints processes which mean it is often easier to keep quiet.

Some of these forms of leverage are not new: academic and institutional hierarchies have always facilitated abuse. In fact, the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University, after Carmita Wood resigned her post as a Professor’s administrative assistant because of his unwanted advances. But in a neoliberal institution some people are really snug: even swaddled by the equality policy frameworks which are less about tackling problems than giving the impression they are already solved. The developing ‘pressure-cooker culture’ for senior academics and the casualisation of junior ones have also created an individualism which may mean we turn a blind eye while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst). This normalises sexual harassment and violence because it inhibits disclosure. As Whitley and Page put it: ‘If everyone knows what is happening, and yet no one objects to it, then what would reporting it do?’ When boundaries are being crossed in the open, there is nothing to expose.

While heavy bureaucratic layers envelop some people, others carry the weight of sexual harassment and violence. ‘Carry That Weight’ was a performance art piece by Columbia student Emma Sulcowicz, in which she carried a 50-pound mattress around campus during her final year. Sulcowicz had alleged a rape perpetrated in her dorm room by a fellow student who was found ‘not responsible’ by a university inquiry. ‘They’re more concerned with their public image’, Sulcowicz said, ‘than with keeping people safe.’

Sulcowicz’s mattress represents the weight of disclosure within an economy of sexual harassment and violence that prioritises the cost to the institution. When we disclose within this framework we only expose and harm ourselves, leading to the ‘second rape’ or institutional betrayal which has been shown to hugely exacerbate trauma. While we lug our mattresses around, perhaps our disclosures do become the ‘peas’ under theirs, but it is hard not to be cynical about what ultimately stops them from sleeping.

It is not surprising, then, that only 4 per cent of women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their universities, and that sexual harassment by staff is so difficult to even name. This is not just an issue of ‘speaking up’: it is about how sexual harassment and violence are reckoned up; who calculates the cost, and who pays the price.

The university campus as ‘Hunting Ground’

The Hunting Ground is an incredibly powerful film. Its main strength is the testimony of the brave survivors who tell their stories on camera – tales of harrowing victimisation, and narratives of resilience and strength as they take on the machinery of their universities and help each other through trauma and recovery. I am full of admiration for these survivors – their voices break the silence around campus sexual assault, and in the process become part of a long feminist tradition of sharing experience to create political change. They are both male and female, although it is a shame the film does not refer to (and does not appear to include) people of other genders, since recent research suggests that genderqueer and non-conforming students, along with trans students, may be particularly at risk.

The personal stories of The Hunting Ground are raw and honest: however, they are positioned within a rather dubious argument and agenda, which begins with the film’s title. Together with the soundtrack provided by the Lady Gaga track ‘Till it Happens to You’, it transmits a clear message: that male students are predators and female ones prey, in campuses more like wildernesses or war zones in which sexual assault is inevitable. As educator and a feminist who both teaches and has been taught that discourse reflects and constructs reality, I am not sure whether I want to ensnare young people within this kind of narrative. I also question its function and intent in a film which seems to have been produced to generate profit, judging by the costs charged to university staff and student groups who wish to show the DVD.

The film represents its ‘hunters’ as a small band of men with stealth weapons, who deliberately and systematically pick women off. This is based on the often-made argument that campus rape is a calculated, premeditated crime (usually violent) committed by serial sex offenders. This claim comes from the research of David Lisak, who argues that campus offenders are violent sociopaths who ‘groom’ their targets and coerce and terrify them into submission. Lisak’s assertions punctuate the film: we are told that 90 percent of campus assaults are committed by serial rapists, and that these men average six rapes each. However, Lisak’s research, and its subsequent usage, has been challenged: his initial paper was based on four different student dissertations, none on campus sexual assault specifically. It also did not distinguish between assaults committed on different victims and multiple assaults on the same person.

In contrast to this picture of the violent serial rapist, evidence from the UK suggests that many acts of sexual violence at university stem from a variety of more spontaneous boundary-crossings shaped by particular cultures of masculinity. This is not to underplay the seriousness of these assaults: indeed, their ‘everydayness’ is perhaps greater grounds for concern than the idea that there are a handful of men perpetrating multiple attacks who can easily be removed from student communities to keep everyone safe. The 2010 NUS report Hidden Marks found that a whopping 68 per cent of women students in UK universities had been sexually harassed. Furthermore, the survivors who testify in the Hunting Ground to a huge number of students with similar experiences appear to confirm that the scale of the problem in the US may not be restricted to a handful of violent men either.

A key insight of feminist theorisations of rape is that it is not perpetrated by men who deviate from social norms, but by those who exemplify them. Initiated by the black feminists of the US Civil Rights movements and subsequently articulated by the radical feminists of the second wave, there has also been a powerful argument that sexual violence is not just an individual crime but a practice which reflects and reproduces structural inequality through racialised and/or gendered terror. Ida B. Wells situated rape as a means of upholding white patriarchal power, while allegations of rape were deployed to justify lynching black men as a form of social control. More than 50 years after Wells’ death, Kelly’s continuum of gendered/sexual violence defined a collection of behaviours, from sexual harassment to sexualised murder, with the same social and political function: preserving male power by making women feel unsafe. These structural analyses work at the roots of intersectional power relations: a far cry from the idea that you can just punish some ‘naughty boys’ and make the problem of sexual violence go away.

The retribution-restitution narrative of The Hunting Ground calls on universities to mobilise disciplinary apparatuses, with the ultimate aim being the expulsion of offenders. This works alongside the idea that the most appropriate channel for victims to achieve justice through is the criminal law. This narrative has serious implications, given the sheer scale and ‘normalcy’ of sexual harassment and violence at universities: it also detracts attention from the cultures of masculinity and myriad forms of bullying and abuse which are shaped by the rationalities and practices of the neoliberal institution. What if we punish those ‘naughty boys’, and others emerge to take their place? What if we deal with an issue ‘over here’, and find that it is also endemic ‘over there’? There are also important intersectional questions about appealing to carceral systems, either within or outside institutions, which may be riddled with racism, classism and other oppressive discourses. Who is more likely to be problematised and targeted by these systems, and why?

The most valuable element of the film is its clear message about believing and supporting sexual violence survivors. Indeed, its footage of survivors caring for each other is equally inspirational and heartbreaking, because of the exacting emotional labour involved in filling the chasms – these are not just cracks – in institutional provision. As a survivor myself I understand that the idea of punitive sanctions is gratifying amidst deep anger and pain: however, this may be an unsatisfactory or incomplete response in institutions which are supposed to have a pedagogical mission. Furthermore, carceral approaches detract from addressing institutionalised sexism and other hegemonies in higher education (including those of the neoliberal university itself) which shape and produce bullying and violence. The neoliberal framework is also what creates financial disincentives for universities to uncover and address sexual assault, positioning it as a PR issue rather than one of student wellbeing and social justice. The Hunting Ground might short-circuit this by shaming institutions into action, but punishing ‘naughty boys’ will not help us to create campus communities where people are actually concerned with being good.

Why sex workers should be part of sexual violence campaigns

CN: some of the articles this piece links to contain extremely offensive ideas about sex workers.

I have been asked a number of times how my work around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in higher education corresponds to my support of sex industry decriminalisation. The implication, which elicits arguments commonly made by abolitionist feminists, is often that the two are contradictory, that in supporting workers in the sex industry I am tacitly condoning the objectification of women and male sexual entitlement which feeds misogyny and violence. This may sound like good feminist common sense. However, I see it as a facile interpretation of both the causes of violence against women and what it means to support sex workers’ labour rights. This is problematic on a number of levels, not least because it betrays an exclusion from feminist anti-violence campaigning of some of the most vulnerable women in our society, whose primary demand is to be able to work in safety.

The conversations I have had about this echo the ways in which concerns around ‘lad culture’ have been linked to prevailing moral panics about pornography and commercial sex (as well as drugs and alcohol, and the opening up of higher education to the working classes). The argument from pornography, also made about violence in schools, draws on the historical association between feminist anti-violence work and sex industry abolitionist agendas, a connection which persists in initiatives such as No More Page 3 and Object. Such groups have been prominent in opposing misogynist and laddish representations of women, and position the sex industry as both a cause of sexism and violence against women, and a form of violence in itself. Object campaigns have sometimes involved protesting outside sex working venues, which has been experienced as intimidating and judgmental by the sex workers employed by them.

Of course, there are valid conversations to be had about gendered structures of sexual labour, discrimination and violence in the sex industry, and misogynistic representations in pornography and how these relate to young people’s sexual expectations and experiences – many of these are being had by sex workers themselves. However, contemporary mainstream feminist politics in this area is often simplistic and determinist, substituting symptom with cause (in the absence of any convincing evidence) and failing to appreciate the diversity and complexity of commercial sex markets. It also downplays the broader social structures and power relations of gender (which are reflected in, not created by, the sex industry), as well as other structural conditions such as neoliberalism, HE marketisation and austerity (which, I have argued, shape contemporary ‘lad culture’ in its various forms). This produces a monocausal, and frequently censorious and punitive, politics. Campaigns resulting from these frameworks often focus on futile attempts to ban particular representations and sexual practices (or indeed, the sex industry itself), instead of focusing on the multiple intersecting social conditions which give rise to sexism and men’s violence against women, and trying to develop or enact alternatives.

Such discourses also often position sex workers as the problem, as dupes of or collaborators with the patriarchy who incite the objectification of non-sex working women by selling sex as a service (and more often than not, who deserve the violence they get). In these interpretations, the humanity of sex workers completely disappears. They become rhetorical objects in agendas around ending ‘male violence’, while the motivations, attitudes and actions of clients, the symbolic meanings of commercial sex, and the safety of other, more privileged women in relation to these, take precedence. The only sex workers who warrant support are those who want to be rescued (the ‘good’ sex workers – which reinforces the idea that the ‘bad’ ones should be punished). This leads to a complete lack of validation, protection and care for people of all genders working in the sex industry who experience violence. Indeed, feminist campaigns for criminalisation, supported by many anti-violence groups, often appear content to sacrifice sex workers’ wellbeing in the service of their ideological priorities, and the interpretation of sexual labour as violence in itself (in tandem with the idea that sex workers sell themselves rather than selling a service) can produce the horrendous myth that sex workers cannot be raped.

In our work on ‘lad culture’ and violence against women students we need to ensure that we are not playing in to such exclusionary agendas. Especially because it is possible that student sex workers may be particularly vulnerable to problematic masculine behaviours – we already know that ‘lad culture’ incorporates hostility to women who express sexual agency, and a strong element of slut-shaming. While not subscribing to unhelpful characterisations of sex work as a form of personal sexual empowerment, there are clear relationships between this and anti-sex worker prejudice (or whorephobia) due to the connotations attached to commercial sex and the idea of the sex worker as somehow ‘fair game’ when other women are not. There have also been suggestions that in some laddish communities, the act of paying for sex is seen as ‘a bit of a laugh’ – if true, this may reflect or produce a lack of respect for women who provide sexual services. Finally, it is possible that strippers and erotic dancers in towns and cities with significant student populations may regularly be required to negotiate aggressive masculinities performed by large groups of ‘lads’.

Many sex workers are at high risk of violence, from clients, members of communities which stigmatise them, and the police. An increasing number of students work in the sex industry, and they are not being adequately supported by their universities. In fact, in a process which mirrors dynamics within feminism, these student sex workers are seen as bringing their institutions into disrepute. It would indeed be sad and shameful if campaigns around ‘lad culture’ failed to pay attention to their needs (or worse, constructed them as adversaries as well). Furthermore, if such campaigns conceptualise the sex industry as in itself a form of ‘male violence’, they will obscure violence against sex workers and could end up sidelining and oppressing some of our most vulnerable students.

Of course, tackling ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence means challenging men’s sexual entitlement – but we must do this without suggesting that sex workers are responsible for it. This argument is a particularly pernicious form of victim-blaming which lacks any analytical utility, merely demonising women who are trying to get by, like the rest of us, in a patriarchal society. We need to collaborate more closely with sex worker-led organisations on issues around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence, to conduct focused research into sex workers’ experiences of sexism and violence, and to improve their access to support. Above all, we need to make sure our work on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence does not position sex workers as the enemy and throw them under the bus. This is not the kind of anti-violence feminism I want to articulate – and it is not fit for purpose.

Universities, don’t conflate ‘lad culture’ with ‘drink culture’

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.

Universities are reluctant to tackle sexual violence for fear of PR fallout

Originally published in The Guardian

We have heard a lot lately about how UK universities have a problem with sexual violence. Nicole Westmarland, writing in the Telegraph on 20th January, cited a YouthSight poll which found that 1 in 3 female students had experienced sexual assault or unwanted advances, and described institutional inaction as a ‘national embarrassment’. My work with NUS, on the Hidden Marks and That’s What She Said reports, has revealed a high prevalence of sexual harassment and assault against women students, framed by a ‘lad culture’ which is increasingly normalised.

This January, a group including eight cross-party MPs and representatives of NUS and Rape Crisis published a letter asking Universities UK to develop guidelines on how HEIs should respond to sexual assault. At present, according to NUS President Toni Pearce, the most common response at institutional level at is a ‘not on my campus’ style of passing the buck. There are a few exceptions – for example, Sussex has developed a care pathway for victims and training for ‘first responders’, and the University of the West of England has created The Intervention Initiative, an evidence-based bystander education programme which can be embedded in the curriculum. But by and large, action on these issues is left to academics and students’ unions.

One reason for this is that developing policies and interventions on sexual violence is both time- and resource-intensive. Another reason, however, is that sexual violence at universities is seen primarily as a public relations issue. Institutions do not want prospective students and their parents, or potential donors, to be put off by stories about sexual victimisation, especially that occurring on campus. Furthermore, they are loath to take action in case by doing so they create the impression that their campus is worse than elsewhere.

Sexual assault is an issue of equality and social justice and this should trump any concern with public appearances. Moreover, the End Violence Against Women Coalition have advised that universities may be avoiding their responsibilities under the Human Rights Act and Public Sector Equality Duty by refusing to investigate sexual assault allegations. But if we entertain the neoliberal mindset for a moment, it’s also possible that we can turn the public relations argument on its head.

The problem of sexual violence against students is going to persist and has now achieved a high profile in the media. If they are not already, prospective students and their parents will soon be asking questions at open days, wanting to know if the university environment is safe and what support is in place if the worst should happen. There is now a general awareness that ‘lad culture’ and sexual assault affect all universities in the UK. Surely, it now looks better for HEIs to show they are doing something rather than sweeping the matter under the carpet.

Thinking more broadly, there is also a market argument for demonstrating that the values operating on our campuses are not just economic. My daughter will soon start primary school – and the values surrounding her education, such as respect, equality, trust and courage, make HE buzzwords ‘excellence’, ‘ambition’ and ‘enterprise’ seem rather blank. Of course, we are not running primary schools – but we are managing communities of bright young people in what has become a rather nihilistic setting. And although some universities do aspire to civic values, the prevalence of sexual violence and lack of institutional response suggest that these cannot be fully operational.

Continuing the market argument, augmenting economic values with civic ones in the HE sector would be an effective way for universities to develop their distinctive brand identities. Marketers and creatives advise that tapping into people’s feelings is key to branding – brand values need to be relatable (and commercial buzzwords are not). Refining the current set of economic generalities might also provide a basis on which universities could showcase their particular strengths.

For most universities, their biggest selling point will be their students. Ours at Sussex are political, feisty and fun – whether occupying lecture theatres in dispute with the management or staging ‘kiss-ins’ at Sainsburys to protest against homophobia, they are our best brand ambassadors. Sixth formers across the country and abroad can look at these bright, engaging young people and get an immediate impression of what Sussex is all about.

A set of civic values grounded in the unique character of each student community would be helpful in preventing violence, creating behavioural expectations and providing a basis on which universities could take action. The value of establishing such norms for conduct was recognised in 2011 by the Student Charter Report, which recommended that every HEI should have and publish a charter. However, although many universities do have such documents, the persistence of sexual violence shows that they are not going far enough in terms of embedding rights, responsibilities and community ideals. Soon, this will disadvantage them in market as well as moral terms.

Laddism is not just a working class phenomenon

This article was published in The Conversation with a changed title.

The world media cognoscenti have been on a crusade recently against a particular brand of misogyny. And their campaign has achieved some results. Controversial comedian Daniel O’Reilly just announced that he is retiring his “Dapper Laughs” character after footage emerged of him on stage describing a woman in the audience as “gagging for a rape”. This incident sparked an online petition signed by 60,000 people calling on ITV2 to decommission his show – which the channel subsequently did – and his UK tour was also cancelled.

Campaigners are hoping a similar fate will befall Julien Blanc, the US “pick up artist” whose seminars teach men to coerce women into sex. Blanc’s Australian tour was cut short after his visa was revoked in the wake of protests – an online petition is now urging the Home Office to deny him entry to the UK.

Censorship?

The furore in both these cases has prompted cries of censorship and accusations that the “chattering classes” are using their political clout against working-class culture. The first gripe is based on a basic misunderstanding of free speech. O’Reilly and Blanc have the right to hold forth in any space which will have them, but their opponents are also entitled to voice opinions, and TV companies and other organisations are allowed to decide not to give them a pulpit. This hardly makes them Mary Whitehouse.

But there’s no doubt that attempts to deny people like this a platform allow them to describe themselves as victims of “political correctness gone mad”. This bolsters their support and makes them appear much more credible than they actually are. Of course, it would be infinitely preferable if nobody watched Dapper Laughs or attended Blanc’s seminars in the first place – and we need to ask why they do.

Both defenders of and detractors from contemporary laddism have claimed that it is inherently proletarian. This is a facile and classist interpretation of sexist behaviour – and it not only feeds reactionary caricatures of the privileged woman who swoons at a joke, it also lets middle-class men off scot free.

The class war

This is not a “culture clash” between the cultivated and the puerile classes – the class war is at work in representations of working-class men as crass, crude and more misogynistic than the rest. The fight against sexism has been caught up in other social and political antagonisms, like the viral catcalling video in the US that edited out the white guys.

Blanc’s “boot camps” cost almost $3,000 – a price certainly not attainable for those in lower-paying jobs. “Lad culture” at universities is often the preserve of those at the top of the heap – rugby lads, members of elite drinking societies and debate teams.

This type of laddism can probably trace its lineage to Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club, recently immortalised in film in The Riot Club. The Bullingdon’s membership has boasted David Cameron, Boris Johnson and other famous toffs. At their informal gatherings women have been made to whinny on all fours while men brandish hunting horns and whips.

Hitting back

The Bullingdon and Dapper Laughs lads are all part of a broad cultural misogyny which currently has enormous power. It is connected to recent economic and social trends – recession, competition for jobs and resources and a backlash against increased gender equality. People have wondered why the “new sexism” is particularly attractive to the young – it’s partly because social media provides it with a nourishing pit of primordial ooze, but it’s also because young people of all genders are coming of age in the jaws of a competitive, individualistic neoliberalism.

There’s a reason why, alongside the rape joke, the most ubiquitous slogan of contemporary laddism is “make me a sandwich”. It’s a constant tussle out there, and one that women are believed to be winning. This means that some men feel the need to put them back in their place.

Gross sexism isn’t the only way to do that – women also face an ideology of “intensive motherhood” which makes us feel guilty if we can’t be “all in, all the time”, a “New Victorianism” which reclaims domesticity as the route to self-fulfilment, a bombardment of “brain science” arguing that men and women are indeed essentially different, and renewed threats to reproductive rights.

So the problem is much bigger than Dapper Laughs and Julien Blanc. Removing their platform to speak will not tackle it – we need to ask why people are listening and laughing in the first place. We all need to work together to create the kind of society in which the abuse of women is not hilarious. There are more positive models of masculinity out there, which should be supported and nurtured more widely. Otherwise we will soon be petitioning against another Dapper Laughs – because people still think he’s funny.

Lad culture thrives in our neoliberal universities

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

What’s driving the new sexism?

Originally published in the New Statesman

“Rape, rape, rape.” Last week saw news of police investigating a group of young men, believed to be members of Cambridge’s drinking society The Wyverns, who had been videoed chanting this while marching down Oxford’s high street. This came days after it was revealed that Premier League chief Richard Scudamore had exchanged emails with senior colleagues in which women were referred to as “gash”.

These incidents gave grist to recent discussions about whether sexism has become particularly vicious – for instance, Zoe Williams has described a “new nastiness, something gleeful in the anger…that amounts to the bullying of young women that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.” The recent BBC documentary Blurred Lines presented other examples, such as the now-ubiquitous rape joke and the Twitter abuse directed at high profile women such as Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez.

The growth of the internet and social media, alongside the backlash against women’s rights, seems to be emerging as a central theme in analyses of this “new sexism”. This was evident in Blurred Lines and a Guardian piece preceding it, in which five high-profile feminists discussed the internet as “a cauldron of hate and vitriol, led by men against women.”

There’s no doubt that the rapid growth of online spaces, together with their relative anonymity and potential for hair-trigger reactions, has contributed to sexist bullying, as well as that directed at other marginalised social groups. But we also need to use a wider lens, to capture the context in which the online world was born and exists. The internet isn’t the Amazon, after all – new technologies are deeply embedded in the structures and discourses of neoliberalism.

Neoliberal economics and politics focus on individualisation, privatisation and unfettered market capitalism. As Henry Giroux argues, this “legitimates a culture of cruelty and harsh competitiveness…wages a war against public values…saps the democratic foundation of solidarity…and tears up all forms of social obligation.”In a neoliberal world, we are all out for what we can get.

This contemporary cut-throat culture is the perfect breeding ground for the most brutal types of bullying. It’s everyone for him – or herself, with others positioned as threatening adversaries or whinging victims who have failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Neoliberalism tells us that we are all free to create our destinies through consumer choice. The flip-side is that we constantly fall short of our ideals, assess the competition and judge those who don’t measure up to the new self-improvement morality. The “chav”, for example, that alleged benefit-scrounger who uses their dole money to bathe themselves in bling, is persona non grata in neoliberal society.

The “battle of the sexes”, in this context, has become particularly ferocious. Women who have benefited from feminism’s gains (still largely white, middle class, straight, cis) are a threat to male privilege. In a hyper-competitive culture equality is a zero-sum game – gains in women’s rights are seen as being at men’s expense, with “boys’ underachievement” and the alleged “crisis of masculinity” often blamed on girls and women. In the words of Universities Minister David Willetts, “feminism [has] trumped egalitarianism” – women’s equality must be hurting men, because in a dog-eat-dog environment somebody has to get eaten.

Conversely, women who dare to point out that inequalities remain, especially for those whose gender intersects with other aspects of identity such as race, class or sexual orientation, are vilified. Feminist critique is dismissed as “political correctness”, or a form of “victim politics” which clashes with the neoliberal rhetorics of freedom of speech/expression and personal responsibility and choice. This happens in left – as well as right-wing circles, with left-wing antifeminism most recently finding its figurehead in Julian Assange, who on being accused of sexual assault by two women, claimed he had fallen into a “hornet’s nest” of revolutionary feminists.

All this adds up to a culture in which women are feared and despised as either menacing ball-busters who are too big for their boots or mewling martyrs who expect special treatment and can’t take a joke. Either way, they deserve to be taken down a peg or two – and in a world where the only principles that matter are market ones, there are few limitations on how that can be done. Intimate personal insults and rape threats? That’s just freedom of speech. Sexual harassment? That’s just “having a laugh”. Women can choose to be offended or not – because after all, it’s all about personal choice.

In an interview with Blurred Lines presenter Kirsty Wark, Mary Beard articulated some of the obstacles to women speaking out in such circumstances. And if these could potentially subdue someone of Professor Beard’s brilliance and gravitas (thankfully, they haven’t), what hope is there for the rest of us?

Fortunately some young women are refusing to be cowed, as the rise in feminist activity amongst students and other groups attests. Outspoken women of all ages deserve our gratitude and respect. And to fully appreciate what they are up against, we need to understand how the “new sexism” combines age-old forms of misogyny with contemporary free-market heartlessness.

Alison Phipps is Co-Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex and works on the politics of women’s bodies – she can be found on Twitter@alisonphipps.

Her book The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age is published by Polity Press.