This is part of a series in response to the publication of the Lad Culture Report, which began with a post called “That’s What She Said”. I’m eager to hear more of people’s reactions to the report, and how it reflects (or doesn’t) their experiences of sexism in higher education. If you’d like to contribute, please get in touch!
VJD Smith blogs as Glosswitch on her own blog and at the New Statesman. She spent 10 years in higher education, gaining a PhD in German, before fleeing to the world of publishing
Twenty years ago, when I first went to university, we didn’t use the word “banter”, at least not in its current form (sexism that bears the stamp of self-awareness and hence cannot be challenged). We did, of course, have other words. Young people always think they’ve invented these concepts when actually they’ve just changed the labels. We used words such as “irony” and “postfeminism” (the idea being that since we’re all equal, it’s okay to behave as though we’re not). We read magazines such as Loaded and FHM and laughed at the captions, just to demonstrate what good sports we were. We cringed at terms such as “Girl Power” but did little to counter them. After all it was inclusion, of sorts, wasn’t it? It was better than nothing.
Of course there were some voices of dissent but these were invariably rubbish. Older feminists and Daily Mail columnists alike fretted that young women were binge drinking and sleeping around due to some misguided attempt to be like men (and not due to the well-known fact that being drunk and having sex can be really good fun). In the world of pop, The Divine Comedy offered, if not the first example of mansplaining set to music, then certainly one of the finest (“generation sex / respects / the rights of girls / who wanna take their clothes off / as long as we can all watch / that’s okay”. The mere memory of these lines still makes me want to throw things, starting with my knickers). There was no respect for female sexual agency, just an obsession with objectification. You were either a sexless prick tease or a slut. That was the way things were (within this limited framework, I opted for “slut” and have no regrets whatsoever).
According to the NUS report That’s what she said, very little has changed. Female students are subjected to bullying, sexual insults, assault and mockery, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (that is, on a university campus in 2013, clearly not a suitable environment for a lady). The report saddens but does not surprise me. To go back to my late second-wave feminist roots, as Susan Faludi notes in Backlash, progress towards equality takes the form of a tilted corkscrew; our slow movement forwards seems destined to take an intermittently backwards, circuitous route. It is painful, and way too slow.
I’m pleased that this report has come out. It is incredibly difficult for female students to speak out. They may in many instances be in the majority, but presence in numbers doesn’t necessarily align with a feeling of entitlement. On the contrary, many will feel (as I did) that they’re merely lucky to have been born at a time when, providing you have enough background privilege, you’re given a chance to compete, the opportunity to pretend you’re as good as the men. The higher echelons of academia remain male-dominated and it’s hard to get rid of the sense that women have merely been “allowed” to join in, providing they play by the rules of a world that isn’t theirs. I think female students feel this, and I’m sure male students do, too. The presence of women in universities as social as well as academic environments may not be actively contested (much – when my partner arrived at Cambridge in the 1990s, male Magdalene students were commemorating the admission of women to their college with a fake funeral for ”academic standards”) but responses to it are mixed and often hostile.
When I applied to Oxford in 1992, I was the only girl in my school to do so (several boys did, most of whom did not get offered places). This discrepancy was pointed out to me. Other girls were genuinely curious about whether or not I felt “embarrassed” for sticking my neck out in this way. Well, of course I bloody did. I felt like an arrogant knob, even when I was offered a place. The college I chose had been admitting women since 1980 (almost a lifetime ago when you’re 18 but on reflection, the mere blink of an eye). The ratio of men to women was three to two, but it felt like more. We were all “equals” but if a woman so much as touched the remote control in the common room it was “jokingly” portrayed as an act of feminist aggression. Looking back, I remember an undercurrent of fear. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. Perhaps from the outside it would have looked as though we were all complicit in the joshing and joking, but there wasn’t really much choice (I remember two girls who did stand up to it, riot grrrl feminists, really lovely, brave people, and I also remember the college gossip sheet that went round describing them as fat, ugly slags and how it still had the power to make one of them cry).
How long has this been going on? Forever, it seems, if not in the same shape and form. My mother, a school librarian, once came across a book on Oxford written in the 1930s. In it, students of the ladies-only colleges were described in mocking, derogatory terms, the type of women “the typical Oxford student” (male, of course) wouldn’t spend the time of day with. He would seek “entertainment” (whatever that meant) with the local girls while the barren harpies of St Hilda’s would trudge miserably to the library, forced to work twice as hard as their male counterparts just to attain the slightest glimpse of what male genius simply acquires by osmosis. My mother and I laughed at this book. We thought, how times have changed. But they haven’t, not by all that much. Female students are still seen as interlopers, unwelcome intruders who are there on sufferance, obliged to pay their dues in subordination, whatever form this takes.
This is perhaps where I part company, ever so slightly, with the NUS report. I agree that this issue can be tied to the much-vaunted “crisis in masculinity”, based on the false belief that women have now “taken over”. But this crisis has been going on since, if not long before, women got the vote and therefore I worry about the specificity of a link with “lad culture” and “raunchiness”. Lad culture may well be “a response to [the crisis], emphasizing and exaggerating masculinity in the face of a threat to it” but I wonder whether this might not be a reason to focus less on what lad culture does (particularly the sexual elements of it) and more on our ongoing failure to accept women as equals in physical and intellectual spaces. One thing that has always struck me about lad culture is that, for all its reduction of women to mere sex objects, it’s actually pretty prudish. It took me years to work out that the easiest way to scare off a lad is not to talk boldly about your pretend “favourite position” and that not-remotely-secret desire for a threesome, but to mention that one time you had sex during a heavy period. They are disgusted by and scared of real female bodies and minds (which is perhaps why defending rape remains so popular; unconscious bodies are not real women, just spaces to occupy).
What worries me is that reports such as That’s what she said get interpreted and re-interpreted until they lose their impact, becoming integrated into a broader patriarchal message which is both cause and symptom rather than cure. Every newspaper report I read on campus sexism is accompanied by disapproving photos of “misguided” female students who feel “forced” to wear skimpy clothes and drink too much. What does the average reader think of this? Do they judge those who judge these women or do they merely join them? What message is the average female student meant to get from this? Isn’t she just being told not to be complicit in the prejudice she faces? Because let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be any easier for her if she decided to behave like a 1930s Oxford lady. The problem is not our attitude to sex and sexual expression per se; it’s our attitude to women. I am desperately keen for this to be kept to the forefront of all discussions on campus sexism. Otherwise we risk reducing an issue that’s linked to a wider failure to regard women as complete human beings, with the same rights to interact with and change their environment, to one of (to quote a famous rape apologist) “bad sexual etiquette”. It’s more than that. It extends beyond seminars and evenings out and ties in with how all women are perceived as people and how they perceive themselves. This is what we need to change – and in doing so, we need to engage with broader issues of entitlement. The space to think and learn should be open to all of us, not a select few, and while widening access matters, it’s worth remembering that even when a few doors have been opened, plenty of minds remain closed.