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A project to investigate “lad culture” in British higher education is taking place over at Sussex University.  Funded by the NUS, it involves interviews with women all over the country, and focus groups in London, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh.  The study is interested in understanding women’s experiences of learning, extra-curricular activities, social lives, and how these are affected by campus culture.  (If you’re interested in sharing your experiences, it’s being conducted by Isabel Young and Dr. Alison Phipps, who can be contacted here.)

I’ve only been in British universities for ten years, but this study looks like an absolute necessity to me.  I don’t know whether campus culture is getting more sexist and hostile to women – impossible to tell, since you see different things as you change roles and the view from an office is very different to that from a club or canteen – but that’s hardly the point.  Universities certainly can be deeply misogynist environments, and if I catch glimpses of that as a male academic it’s surely just a brief sight of what many women on campus deal with on a daily basis.  The sexist slogans on hoodies, the faux-“ironic” misogynist language used in public to shut women up, the clubs nights whose advertising positions female students as “prey” – simply getting to lectures or the library must sometimes (all the time?) involve running a gauntlet of casual, normalised sexism.

The focus on “culture” strikes me as very important, too.  Many of the stories told in Laura Bates’ articles on sexism in freshers’ weeks underlined the way in which new students are presented with university as a coherent way of life.  Freshers’ events, departmental inductions and society pub crawls all hurry to assure people that “this is how we do it at Uni of X”.  Lecturing an auditorium full of first years last week, before addressing a similar room of second years, I noticed how the atmosphere of the second room differed.  It wasn’t that the second years had lost any of their individuality, or that they all dressed the same way, but they seemed a more coherent group, more confident in the ways they did things as students of a particular institution.  In fact, when I talked a bit about the presentation of the self in Tudor courts, and suggested that they could probably tell from gestures, clothing and other cues who had been around the university for a year or two, there were an unexpected number of nods and grins in the audience.

A lot of students aren’t just aware of their university’s way of life, they’re quite proud of it and pleased that it differs in small ways from other universities.  When new students arrive, it’s natural to suggest that “this is how we do things”, perhaps to over-stress the extent to which a university has its own entire lifestyle and attitude.  (I still vaguely remember which kebab van my college ate at, and what night it went to particular local clubs – or at least what the louder members of the college insisted “everyone” did.)  Some freshers, eager to distinguish this stage of their life from the last, or even to reinvent themselves to an extent, seize on these cues and reproduce them.  And if, at this stage, some of what they’re being offered doesn’t seem quite comfortable, they’ll be told they’re welcome to opt out.  But who wants to “opt out” of the university they’ve just joined?  Who wants to get a reputation as difficult, or unsociable, or “prissy” at the very beginning of their career – especially when doing so may mean missing events at which everyone else seems to be making friends?

Plenty of people are happy to, and making a stand because a club night seems sexist is commendable, but I don’t see why anyone should have to repudiate what they’re told is “their” university’s culture because it excludes or degrades them.  In some cases they may be “opted out” without asking: Laura Bates told the story of one woman who was refused entry to a freshers’ event because the students on the door told her she wasn’t wearing sufficiently revealing clothing.  They gave her the option of flashing them to “make up for it” or not getting in.  As a shibboleth, that’s an unusually blatant example, but the same principle operates more insidiously when students don’t bother to even attend events because they don’t want to follow a sexist “dress code”, or because the changes of being groped on the dancefloor are so high, or because they don’t want to be addressed all night as “gash” or “ho”.  “Culture” can be a nebulous word, but we all recognise that there are unspoken codes of behaviour for the ways we interact in public, and that these differ from place to place.  A lot of British universities have a problem if their female students don’t feel welcome or respected in public spaces from clubs to lecture halls.

“Culture” isn’t a massive hegemonic system which determines people’s actions, but it makes some actions easier than others, and it sets defaults as to what will be seen as acceptable if no-one challenges it.  When misogynistic language is used every day in the queue at the sandwich shop or outside the lecture hall, it can seem inevitable.  When yet another “theme” is arranged for a party which involves men being fully dressed and women wearing much less (see: school disco, CEOs and secretaries, uniform party, etc etc.), it can become “just the way things are”.  Speaking up can seem embarrassing, or pointless, or wearisome, and the shared life of university is given up to the worst and most exploitative impulses within it.  “Culture” can’t magically make people sexist, but it can encourage them to use sexist slurs, allow them to ignore women’s opinions, and not challenge them when they humiliate and offend other people.  It can normalise verbal and physical assault, and make it less likely that women’s voices are heard or taken seriously when they object.  “Lad culture” at British universities needs to be investigated because it is toxic and it is totally unnecessary.  I’m looking forward to hearing more from this project.