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.

Sexism and violence in the neoliberal university

This is the text of a keynote speech delivered at the Sexual Harassment in Higher Education conference at Goldsmiths on December 2nd 2015. Content note for sexually violent language and descriptions of traumatic experiences.

I want to talk about markets. Education markets, institutional markets, sexual markets: brought together by similar modes of assessment and audit. University league tables; module evaluation forms; ‘sex charts’ in student residences. Hierarchies of performance (which are often hierarchies of masculinity) at national, institutional and individual levels.

Rate your university. Rate your lecturer. Rate Your Shag.

2013 saw the emergence of a number of Facebook pages under the latter slogan, linked to universities across the country. They offered a space for students to give sexual liaisons marks out of ten based on any criteria, and were ‘liked’ by about 20,000 users of the social network in the first 72 hours. The activity was supposed to be anonymous, but privacy quickly evaporated under the instruction to ‘name them, shame them and if you must, praise them.’

Name them and shame them. All the pages were rapidly deleted by Facebook, deemed to contravene its policies on bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is also very 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.’

Rate Your Shag forms part of a whole lexicon of activities which in the past few years have been grouped under the banner of ‘lad culture’. Sports initiations, ‘pimps and hos’ parties, the ‘fuck a fresher’ frenzy, for example. Such pursuits express traditional forms of sexism and male entitlement, but they are also inflected with something else. ‘Sex charts’ are appearing in student residences, to quantify and assess conquests. Women are being given grades and ratings for their physical 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.’ These forms of sexual audit evoke our contemporary marketised environment. ‘Lad culture’ and neoliberal culture are natural bedfellows.

Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is bullying and harassment. Contemporary ‘lad culture’ was defined by one of my research participants as a ‘hostile environment where everyone is judging everyone else.’ This also describes cultures amongst higher education staff, alienated by institutional and sectoral frameworks that constantly measure them against each other and against the curve. 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 criteria for assessment exercises such as the REF 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 staff in universities was rife. This reflects both traditional hierarchies and abuses of power, and newer forms of competitive individualism which lack empathy and ethics. The university has become a dog-eat-dog environment; this is reflected in both staff and student communities. We know less about the prevalence of staff-on-student harassment, due to the institutionalised power relations which work against it even being named. However, we know it exists: and high profile examples, mostly from the US, give a sense of how these modes of violence work.

Consider the case of famous Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, a potential Nobel laureate who persistently violated the institution’s sexual harassment policies between 2001 and 2010. According to one student’s account, she was at a department dinner when Marcy slid his hand up her thigh and grabbed her crotch.

For many women, this entitlement to touch is familiar. Such ‘everyday’ boundary-crossings are also central to ‘lad culture’, although more often performed in public as part of group one-upmanship. Many of my research participants described such ‘casual groping’ as part and parcel of a normal night out. Indeed, such behaviours have become so commonplace that they are often invisible: instead, the aspect of ‘lad culture’ which has captured the media and public consciousness is its cruel and shocking ‘banter’. This laddish language taps both the violence of hypermasculinity and the callousness of the neoliberal climate.

‘Uni Lad does not condone rape without saying ‘surprise.”
Non-consensual sex is ‘fun for one.’
I’m going out to ‘get some gash.’

The marketised university is a culture based on ‘having’ or ‘getting’ (grades and/or jobs), in which education has become a transactional exchange. This is reflected in the rather estranged ‘lad cultures’ I have studied, with older ideas about ‘having’ women augmented by newer notions of accumulating sexual capital. The principle of maximum outcomes for minimal effort which now underpins educational consumption also animates the quest for an ‘easy lay’.

I’m going out to ‘get some gash’.

In laddish ‘banter’, ancient expressions of woman-hating co-exist with more modern sexualised consumerism, packaged up in postmodern claims to irony. Such ‘banter’ has also been observed amongst some faculty cultures – for instance, the Being a Woman in Philosophy blog, a repository for stories of sexism in the discipline, recounts a comic containing a rape joke being sent to a junior faculty member by a philosopher at another institution, copied to all the other members of her department. In another entry, a recent philosophy graduate recalls a conversation about a job application essay with her previous head of department, in which chose to illustrate a point about how two people’s wills could conflict with the example of him raping her. Finally, in a post entitled ‘a sampling of minor incidents’, another student describes a faculty member stopping his lecture to ask her, ‘did you just flash me?’ because she adjusted her cardigan, and a famous professor discussing with male students which female students were ‘hot’ and which were ‘dogs’.

In this context, it’s perhaps unsurprising that University of Miami philosophy professor Colin McGinn, said to have subjected a female doctoral student to months of unwanted innuendo and propositions, defined the relationship as ‘warm, consensual’ and ‘full of banter’.

Don’t worry – it’s just banter.

What is the line between ‘banter’ and sexual harassment? In my research on ‘lad cultures’ amongst students, and also in media debates, the second has often been reduced to the first. There has also been a refusal to engage with how speech itself can be harmful, and how the realm of the symbolic can frame structural and embodied violence – instead, we often find ourselves on the back foot in debates about men’s rights to ‘cause offence’. Women are always getting offended by something or other.

In 2012, the Imperial College newspaper Felix published a ‘joke’ article providing male students with a recipe for the date rape drug rohypnol, as a ‘foolproof way’ to have sex on Valentine’s Day. The previous year an Exeter University society printed a ‘shag mag’ including an article speculating about how many calories a man could burn by stripping a woman naked without her consent.

When the Facebook page ‘Holyland Lad Stories’ (currently ‘liked’ by almost 30,000 users) was criticised on Twitter, its curators responded ‘get a fucking grip – we’re having a bit of harmless banter.’ Amongst the content highlighted as problematic was a post describing an incident in which a man had knocked a woman ‘clean out with one smack’ and left her for dead on the side of the road.

Get a fucking grip – it’s just banter.

To ‘offend’ with impunity is a function and exercise of privilege. This applies to the invisibilising and excusing of sexual violence perpetrated by middle class white men, and the insistence of all privileged groups that their ignorant, hurtful and harmful comments about marginalised people are ‘just my opinion’ or ‘just a joke.’ It is a cruel irony that only those with the social, cultural and political power to hurt other groups get to evade responsibility for it. This irony was recently painfully apparent when Goldsmith’s Welfare and Diversity Officer Bahar Mustafa was arrested and charged for allegedly tweeting on the #killallwhitemen hashtag. The discrepancy between the punitive treatment of Bahar and the amused indulgence of laddish ‘banter’ is a stark reminder of the ways in which ‘free speech’ is the property of some and not others.

Kill all white men.

It’s not rape if you shout ‘surprise’.

Structural relations of gender and race inequality render one of these a much more credible threat than the other. Indeed, they make the first statement an understandable expression of frustration about a racist and misogynist society, while the second is evidence of it. Nevertheless, the political hyperbole of ‘killallwhitemen’ became a crime, while laddish banter is defended as an exercise of freedom.

Oh, get a fucking grip – it’s just banter.

The privilege to offend is often wielded in response to privilege being threatened: in this, contemporary ‘laddish’ masculinities are marked out from working class laddism, which has been seen as more to do with alienation. The main players in the recent theatre of student laddism in the UK are middle class and white, progeny of the 1990s ‘new lad’ and the Bullingdon Club toffs. These rugby players, drinking and debating society ‘bros’ are also siblings of the frat boys in the US who are central to debates there about campus violence.

The aggressive sexism these privileged men perpetrate in student social spaces can be defined as a ‘strategic misogyny’. Sexual harassment very often functions to preserve masculine power and space. Our ‘uni lads’ enact the backlash against feminism, embodying populist and policy concerns about the ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the ‘feminisation’ of HE. Feminism has gone too far.

Contemporary laddism is a defensive strategy by those accustomed to topping the ranks, threatened by both the reality and the hyperbole of women’s achievement, the idea and practice of ‘widening participation’ and the increasingly blurred lines (no pun intended) of gender and sexuality amongst student and youth cultures. Laddism is an equal-opportunity offender, rooted in sexism but often incorporating racism, classism, transphobia and homophobia as well.

Feminism has gone too far.

Boys need to be protected.

There is evidence that in reaction to these ideas (and also in fear of their ‘disruptive’ working class and black contemporaries), white middle class boys are being hothoused by parents who see them as frail and imperilled. Boys need to be protected.

This propensity to feel threatened is palpable in both ‘lad culture’s unmistakable ‘woman rage’ and the way critics of laddish behaviours have been vilified as censorious, creepy and a menace to freedom. We must catch the grain of truth here – feminist initiatives, especially in the area of anti-violence, have sometimes been co-opted by prevailing moral panics and carceral projects. However, first and foremost laddish defensiveness is part of the anti-feminist backlash, and a dialectic between student communities perceived as excessively ‘politically correct’ because of their advocacy for the marginalised, and the privileged who experience this liberatory politics as oppression. They are not to be evaluated.

They just can’t say anything any more.

Oh, get a fucking grip – it’s just banter.

A similar reformulation of critique and resistance as oppression has been identified by Sara Ahmed in the way that some male academics have responded to equality initiatives in higher education. Anti-discrimination, sexual harassment and other diversity policies can be resisted alongside more problematic new managerialist reforms which threaten scholarly autonomy. Elite male professors become the victims within narratives of restricted freedom and nostalgia for a ‘simpler time’ when their rights to do as they wished were not curtailed. Feminism has gone too far. Political correctness is out of control.

As Ahmed argues, these critiques often settle on ‘complaining’ students who are seen as entitled and demanding, even in their appeals for equality. This location of neoliberalism in the consumerist student serves to hide the fact that, as Whitley and Page contend, academics also benefit from new bureaucratic regimes which cement their power over students and make it difficult for students to speak out.

The costs of speaking out are illustrated in a heartbreaking post by a PhD student on the Being a Woman in Philosophy blog:

I just want to caution those of you out there who are thinking about coming forward to report sexual predators. Expect your department to turn on you; expect your department to retaliate against you. Expect to be bad mouthed at every PhD program to which you apply. Expect to lose your committee. Expect to lose your letter writers. Expect your department to withdraw all support from you. Expect to become persona non grata. Expect to be de facto barred from all opportunities in your department. Expect to be gas-lighted. Expect people to be thrilled to watch your fall from grace. And, then, when you succeed, against all odds, and despite the prodigious efforts of your department to the contrary, through sheer force of will and talent, expect your department to exploit your success at every opportunity. Expect to watch as your success is used to further the career of the predator. Expect them to ignore your pleas to stop. Expect this.

In an article about being sexually harassed by her PhD supervisor, Susan Gardner writes that once she changed supervisors she was disappointed to find that her new one was not keen to support her or even discuss what she had been through, ostensibly for fear that it might impact on her ability to get tenure. In this country, similar structures of probation and performance management can make colleagues reluctant to step out of line. Furthermore, the developing ‘pressure-cooker culture’ for senior colleagues and fears about casualisation for junior ones have created an individualism which may mean that academics turn a blind eye to difficult issues while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst).

I began my research and activism on sexual violence against students around ten years ago, and was immediately struck by how difficult it was to get colleagues (of any gender) to show interest in, let alone take action on, issues which did not directly affect them. I have vivid memories of giving a talk to a meeting of mostly senior women, in which the customary noises of outrage failed to materialise as action. In contrast, shortly afterwards I was inundated with input and offers of help as I drafted a consultation document around maternity leave and the REF.

I am not taking the moral high ground or pointing the finger; there are plenty of issues I have overlooked. Individuals are not to blame for this, especially not women and academics from other marginalised groups for whom university life is still a struggle. The constant evaluation of the neoliberal regime makes it difficult for us look up from our desks, let alone take on the institution in what is usually a losing battle. Constant evaluation creates silence.

Higher education markets, epitomised by league tables, ensure that bullying, harassment and violence are minimised and rendered invisible. They become a PR issue, hushed up for the sake of recruitment and reputation. In a context of widespread denial, nobody wants to risk their campus being defined as ‘unsafe’. In the US, despite a legislative framework mandating the publication of campus crime statistics which is more than 20 years old, institutions continue to be criticised for covering these up, or encouraging students to drop complaints, in order to preserve their market position.

The result of this is what Ahmed has pointed out: bringing a problem to institutional attention frequently means becoming the problem. This operates at multiple levels, from departmental micro-politics to the rather grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ Feminist killjoys and whinging women are bringing the university into disrepute – as if the prevalence of violence in the higher education sector has not brought us all into disrepute already.

We are all in disrepute already!

Amidst this denial and silencing, it is not surprising that only 4 per cent of women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their institutions. Whitley and Page add that the stress and opacity of complaints processes is also a deterrent to reporting, and the demands of student support systems can make it difficult for victims not to just drop out.

Furthermore, trends towards the outsourcing of essential services such as campus security and student support threaten student safety and the quality of pastoral care. Commercial service providers tend to offer one-size-fits-all solutions, set within cost-cutting business models. This is a particularly bleak picture in relation to student counselling, already outsourced in Northern Ireland, where burned out practitioners on depressed wages are offering a reduced range of services in a context of growing psychological demand.

In the neoliberal university though, it’s all about the bottom line. Supporting students costs money. Complaining students cost reputation (and threaten income streams). There is a cost/benefit equation here.

But whose cost counts?

Sexual harassment and violence in higher education are situated within cost/benefit frameworks which prioritise the welfare of the institution. Incidents must be hushed up lest they jeopardise our recruitment. Incidents must be hushed up lest they damage our reputation. ‘A Star Philosopher Falls’ was the way Colin McGinn, who resigned after allegations of ongoing sexual harassment, was described.

Allegations of sexual harassment and violence pose a cost to the institution. But who pays the price?

Victims and survivors do: most of them women. This price is high. It could be the loss of departmental support for research, the breakdown of a supervisory team, or the inability to go on to campus for fear of running into the perpetrator. Often, the price is so high that it is less costly to leave. There is a term for this – institutional betrayal – and it has been shown to hugely exacerbate trauma. That’s the bottom line – we are betraying our students.

In an article in Time Magazine, Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who carried her mattress around campus for 8 months to protest against the handling of her rape complaint, described her experience as follows:

Every day, I am afraid to leave my room. Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me. Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though my rapist wasn’t in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating. As long as he’s on campus with me, he can continue to harass me.

We are betraying these students.

Institutional betrayal does not just refer to responses to sexual assault, but the fact that universities actively create conditions which are conducive to it. This can be experienced as a betrayal more acute than the lack of institutional response. As Sulkowicz said of Columbia: ‘they’re more concerned about their public image than keeping people safe.’

We are definitely betraying these students.

We are also shirking our legal responsibilities – according to the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the Public Sector Equality Duty and Human Rights Act both mandate universities to deal with gender-based and sexual violence.

How do we move forward? The student movement in this country is consistently showing us the way – under the leadership of and inspired by the NUS Women’s Campaign, we now have consent education initiatives, bystander intervention training, awareness-raising projects, ‘zero tolerance’ pledges, and an effort to develop better policies and procedures. However, most of this activity is student-run: many institutions have yet to take any action at all.

In September this year, the Business Secretary asked Universities UK to convene a task force to tackle ‘lad culture’ and violence against women on university campuses. This task force has been tasked with developing a code of practice for institutions to support cultural change.

Support cultural change. This is a big idea. We need to think big on this.

Sexual harassment and violence in the higher education sector is primarily about gender. We need to think big about gender, confronting misogyny and male entitlement in our university communities, and connecting them with gendered norms and inequalities in society at large. We need to think big about how gender intersects with other power structures and oppressions: the racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia of ‘lad culture’ are evidence of this. Thinking big about gender also requires us to acknowledge that although women are very often its victims, sexual and gender-based violence affects students of all genders. There is evidence from the US suggesting that transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming and gender questioning students who do not identify as women face high levels of risk: this is a gender issue.

We also need to engage with neoliberalism, as it shapes the higher education sector in general and institutions in particular. Sexual harassment and violence in higher education is situated within the culture of constant evaluation. Gender relations are practised via the marketised and managerialist structures of the university, which aggravate inter-group resentments, exacerbate the abuse of hierarchies, and intensify the silencing of victims.

We cannot tackle sexism and violence in the higher education sector properly without looking honestly at neoliberal values and how these shape dysfunctional and harmful communities. Constant evaluation facilitates bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is bullying and harassment.

Finally, we need to be aware of the risk that anti-violence initiatives will get caught up in, and depoliticised by, that culture of monitoring and evaluation. Let’s set a target. Let’s tick that box. Let’s run a workshop and put it in the Annual Report. We need to resist the temptation to get our house in order, to perform what should shake the institution to its core. Although effective advocacy often involves compromise, women have been put in enough compromising positions already. It will take more than this.

Let’s not just get our house in order. Let’s tear the whole damn building down. Who’s with me?

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.

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