The Lad Culture project, undertaken by Dr. Alison Phipps and Isabel Young of Sussex University, has just produced a report entitled ‘That’s What She Said: women students’ experience of ‘lad culture’ in higher education’. The project involved investigating the scholarship around “lad culture” and the perceived “crisis of masculinity”, examining how far British universities have a coherent “culture”, and interviewing a sample of students about the way their lives are affected by it within higher education. The report makes for very interesting – as well as depressing – reading, and I’m hoping to host a series of posts on Quite Irregular in response to it. If you’d like to write a piece, however long or short, please get in touch. I’m looking for academic commentaries on the report’s approach and conclusions, discussions of the way class, gender, race, religion and disability play into these issues, personal reflections on how the stories told in it chime with people’s experiences – or any other reactions you have. Does the picture it presents of university life make sense to you? Have they missed something crucial out? Has it got worse or better since your time in higher education? I’d love to hear from a variety of perspectives.
A few things jumped out of the report at me, personally. Firstly, the extent to which “lad culture” was created and maintained by the social side of university life. Phipps and Young talked about the way universities didn’t have a single dominant “culture” in the sense of one set of clubs, activities, social groups or ways of living. Rather, people going to the same university can enjoy totally different hobbies, classes and lifestyles. Nonetheless, all of the students they talked to felt there was a strong presence of sexist, demeaning “lad culture” in the university, which they couldn’t avoid by simply not taking part in it. There might not be a single universal “culture” at a given university, but the general social life of the place was infused with sexist imagery and conversation. Lad culture isn’t something female students can simply ignore or decide isn’t going to affect them. The shared social life of an institution isn’t something you can opt out of – nor should anyone have to.
But a shared social culture isn’t something that just exists in a university, unconnected to people’s actions and conversations. Lad culture seems to be partly a set of assumptions about what is acceptable and unacceptable, shared by students who differ widely in other ways. Assumptions about how it’s acceptable to talk to women, for example, or whether it’s worthwhile listening to them. What topic it’s OK to make jokes about, or what is a “real subject”. On a grimmer level, there are also tacit assumptions behind a lot of “lad culture” about how much consent is required from a prospective sexual partner, and whether there’s a difference between “taking advantage” of a drunk and vulnerable person who’s unable to stop the situation, and “real rape”. These assumptions don’t exist in a vacuum, they’re created and reinforced by the jokes people tell (or laugh at), the people they pay attention to, and the actions they choose to praise. ‘That’s What She Said’ presents an image of a shared culture in which damaging attitudes to women are supported by a lot of sniggering, tacit acceptance and open admiration.
Linked to this is their insistence that “lad” is not a static, rigid identity which some men have and others don’t. Instead they talk about it as a specific form of masculinity, which may be adopted (especially with a sheen or protective “irony”) at times, and discarded at others. They suggest that there are only a minority of serious misogynists at most universities, but that “laddish” attitudes are acted out by a much larger number, often depending on the situation. This is borne out by the anecdotes told by their interviewees, and stories I’ve heard from female students. There seems to be a sense amongst a lot of men that different rules apply on a night out: they might not ever consider addressing a woman as “gash” or “ho” in a lecture hall, but they don’t see a problem with doing that when out clubbing. Or they might assume that being in a club means that a woman can’t object if she gets groped. It’s not uncommon to hear that female students avoid their male friends when they’re out with a large group – especially a sports team – because those men behave totally differently even towards female friends in that situation. One woman told the research group that she broke up with her boyfriend after seeing how he acted with his friends at a wedding: before that point he had never let her see what went on nights out with the lads.
The reasons behind this kind of “laddish” performed identity are traced in the report to the so-called “crisis of masculinity”, a feeling that traditional forms of masculinity have been challenged by the shifts in gender relations over the last decades. Shifts such as women demanding equal pay for the same job, or speaking out against sexual harassment, or simply entering higher education in greater numbers. The widespread perception that women have “made it” over recent years, somehow at the expense of men, has been linked by many observers to the aggressive assertion of certain aspects of traditional masculinity via “lad’s mags”, “ironic” sexist jokes and TV shows which lovingly depict previous eras of male dominance (Life On Mars and Mad Men spring to mind.) These perceptions are in fact wrong, as the report points out. Though women now make up a numerical majority of the student body, they are still repeatedly undervalued by higher education institutions, appear less frequently in leadership roles, face sexism in the seminar room, and are frequently ignored or silenced in social contexts. Nonetheless, the belief amongst much of the media and wider culture that women have “made it” or are taking men’s roles in education and business, provides a compelling explanation for resurgence in exaggeratedly “masculine” behaviour. Certainly the “ironic” banter heard regularly on university campuses, which so often revolves around the idea that women should “make me a sandwich” or “get back in the kitchen”, seems to literally express a fear that women have taken over male public spaces and need to be pushed back into the domestic realm.
I’ve picked out a few elements of the report which particularly cluster around men’s attitudes and behaviour, as they connected most immediately with my experience in university. I’ll also be following up the comments on class, race and commercialisation in later posts, as they provide illuminating angles on how sexist attitudes thrive. I think the aspects I’ve concentrated on here should actually really encourage men at university, in two particular ways. It should encourage them because – as so often – a feminist report appears to have a far higher opinion of men than lad culture does. Feminism doesn’t believe men are all inherently violent, immature rapists. It’s lad culture that tells men that what they really want is to hurt women sexually, that they’re naturally designed to scare and humiliate other people. Feminism insists that this behaviour is nothing to do with any “natural” male impulses and that it’s a revolting perversion of men’s potential as human beings.
But the report should also encourage men to take more responsibility for dismantling lad culture, and to admit that it’s not something that a few awful sexist men indulge in. It should encourage university men to recognise the ways in which we enable this culture; by laughing at certain jokes, by staying silent when someone tells a last-time-we-went-out-it-was-crazy-I-met-this-slag story which sounds a lot like rape, by not trying to stop it when the group starts shouting at a woman in the taxi queue. If many women find the shared culture of university profoundly uncomfortable and threatening, then it isn’t a shared culture at all. This report should encourage men to start working to make the ideals we would claim we espouse – equality, respect for people, valuing intellect and creativity – into a reality within British universities.