“unwelcome advances”: Sexual Harassment and Assault on Campus

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More than a third of student women surveyed by the National Union of Students reported “unwelcome sexual advances” on campus, defined as “inappropriate touching, bumping, groping”.  Female students were much more likely to report overtly sexual conversations which made them uncomfortable, intrusive questions about their sex lives, verbal harassment and sexual comments about their bodies.  Women were also more likely to feel that they couldn’t report these experiences because no-one would take them seriously.  Just under two thirds of all the students said they’d heard a joke about rape or sexual assault.  This survey, though it won’t come as a surprise to many people in British universities (least of all students), makes it clear that campus is a hostile place for a large number of women.

The survey is part of a broader programme by the NUS to tackle the sexist behaviour and atmosphere which have become known as “lad culture”. Their report last year, entitled That’s What She Said, explored women’s experiences of a sexist, hypersexualised and often misogynistic strain in university culture, and they are now launching a pilot scheme which will work with particular Student Unions to identify and deal with the problem.  The issues picked up in the survey are familiar from almost any British campus: sexualized advertising which makes female students uncomfortable, online groups like “UniLad” and “Lad Bible” which promote misogynistic attitudes, a club culture which assumes that women are there for men’s gratification.  I’ve seen all of these in my time studying and working at universities, from finding my graduate fresher’s welcome pack included a copy of FHM to sports teams addressing women as “gash” in the college bar.

This isn’t just boys being boys, or young people letting off steam on the weekend. This is a culture which regularly makes women feel threatened, degraded and excluded from university life.  As the NUS article linked above points out, that category of “unwelcome sexual advances”, which sounds a bit like an Edwardian circumlocution when phrased like that, covers acts which constitute sexual assault under British law.  Those are crimes, not badly-timed chat-up lines or inadequate club etiquette.  The sheer number of such incidents means they can often seem to be part of university life.  A bad part – like 9am lectures with a hangover, or not getting enough sleep in the weeks before exams – but part of what everyone goes through.  Except, of course, everyone doesn’t go through it.  Male students don’t expect to be sexually assaulted.  No-one expects them to gamble on having their body handled against their will in order to have a night out.  That’s a risk which campus culture expects women to bear.  And, judging by the survey, makes it pretty clear that if they are assaulted in some way then they needn’t bother to tell anyone.

If female students do experience a sexual assault, in whatever form, they’re more likely to hear a joke on the subject than to feel they could contact university services, their Student Union or the police. That combination of statistics should make us pause and think about women’s experience of higher education in Britain today.  The casual use of rape as a punchline to jokes is part of a broader trivialisation of sexual assault in campus culture, and one which surely has an effect on how seriously actual assaults are taken.  Rape jokes tell women that the society around them is on the side of the aggressor.  They gather the teller and the audience into the perspective of the attacker, reminding women listening that their perspective isn’t of interest.  They normalise violence and women, and set up a smoke-screen behind which perpetrators can hide.  After all, if everyone’s talking and laughing about rape, how can we hear the voice of the man who means it?  He just becomes one of the cheerful chorus of misogyny.  Safe amongst the lads.

This survey points out starkly how unsafe and unheard many women feel at university. It’s worth reading the NUS’ presentation, which spells out in detail not only how likely women are to be assaulted, harassed or intimidated, but how unlikely men are to know this is going on or consider it a problem.  As men on campus we urgently need to listen to women’s experiences, and help deal with the culture which is damaging the lives of female students.  It isn’t enough to protest that we don’t do these things, or that we disapprove of men who do.  We need to take responsibility for helping to change the situation, and to accept that women’s voices need to be heard as a first step in that process.

One particular response from men, which emerged in the responses to the survey, needs to be dealt with immediately. Amongst the “general themes” in the “further comments” was an objection to the fact that the survey assumed women were more likely to be the subject of sexism and discrimination.  A representative male student was cited saying “Although I have witnessed other men making sexual comments amongst themselves about a woman’s personal appearance, I notice that this behaviour amongst women discussing a man’s physical attractiveness is just as common and deemed much more socially acceptable!” This is understandable on one level, since the survey asked about concrete examples such as sexual comments about people’s bodies, or intimidation by people of a different gender.  But it is also unbelievably disingenuous.

Women may indeed talk crudely about men, or even suggest that they have sexual inclinations towards them. As numerous feminists have been at pains to point out, the sexual passivity ascribed to certain groups of women through history is a myth which shored up male control over them.  But the implications of a woman talking crudely about a man are simply not the same as the situation with the roles reversed.  If a group of women speculate loudly and drunkenly about a man’s sexual qualities in his earshot, that man does not usually worry that he might be raped.  If he is heckled or cat-called by women leaving a bar, he does not usually reassess his route home based on how well-lit it is.  Explicit comments on a man’s physique do not generally cause people to discount his intellectual or academic abilities, or damage his professional stature.  This kind of response simply underlines the deliberate refusal to value women’s account of their own experiences.  Women describe horrifically high levels of sexual assault, and men object that women talk lewdly about them, which is also sexism actually.  The imbalance would be comic if it wasn’t so bleak.  Listening to women, valuing what they have to say, and letting it change our perceptions of the campus culture which we share, is exactly what “lad culture” tries to stop us doing.  It would be a good place to start.

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