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!
Nikki Rivers is a PhD candidate, researching the tensions between multiculturalism and feminism, exploring the possibilities for positive dialogues between the two and the importance of intersectionality in contemporary feminism. She’s also a part-time lecturer in English Literature.
I read ‘That’s What She Said: Women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ in higher education’ with mixed feelings. Firstly I was pleased and excited that this issue was being given serious attention, but also slightly depressed that ‘lad culture’ on campus had become enough of an issue to warrant this. Of course I’m sure there are plenty of people who would argue that ‘lad culture’ in our universities is not really a big issue and isn’t worthy of serious attention, but unfortunately that attitude is part of the problem. The idea that ‘lad culture’ is just a bit of fun and that those who feel uncomfortable due to the many overtly sexist ideals that it promotes are somehow missing the joke or lacking a sense of humour is part of what makes ‘lad culture’ so pervasive and difficult to challenge.
The report included the responses of forty participants (all women), which perhaps raises the question of whether the experiences of so few people can constitute a ‘culture’ and clearly points to the need for more extensive research in the area, preferably including the experiences of men too. However, many of the issues and experiences raised by the ‘That’s What She Said’ report resonated with my own experiences on campus, both as a student and part-time lecturer. I came to university as a mature student with a young child so I opted out of much of the social activity that the report suggests seems to both foster and promote ‘lad culture’. Despite this I was aware of its impact in seminars and on fellow students, irrespective of their sex or gender. For the women on my course it took the shape of missing lectures or seminars due to worries over their appearances or embarrassment over incidents that had taken place in bars and pubs the night before. The pressure to look a certain way looms large both off and on campus.
It’s ironic that the ‘ideal look’ for a seminar is supposed to be, or at least look, ‘effortless’ when in fact it often takes hours to perfect. As one participant commented, ‘The girls spend so long getting ready…and they come in as though they haven’t spent that long doing it…’ But in my experience the men were not immune to the pressures of this performance either. Often they were just as image conscious as the women and struggling to balance their identities as ‘lads’, both off and on campus, with the conflicting image of thoughtful and intellectual academics. Partly this seems to be a problem with what people expect from their university experience and student life. Many students seek to balance the idea that they should be having the time of their life, which seems to translate as drinking as much as possible and having as much sex as possible, with getting a good degree. In my experience these two ideas are not particularly compatible.
Many of the issues raised by the participants focused on university life off campus, nights out, pubs and parties. This is undeniably a large part of the student experience revolving around student nights at local pubs and clubs or Student Union bars. Part of the problem appears to be how these nights are promoted, often involving copious amounts of cheap alcohol and drinking games and fancy dress themes that encourage sexist or gender stereotyped ideas of men and women. The report cites ‘geeks and sluts’ and ‘pimps and hos’ parties. Although avoiding these types of parties doesn’t necessarily mean you can avoid being subjected to ‘lad culture,’ with its presence on the Internet and social media sites giving it a worryingly wide reach. As one participant states ‘Facebook has a Uni Lad group which regularly posts demeaning things about women and rape jokes, which I and my fellow female students find appalling. I have seen many male university friends have ‘liked’ this page.’ The issue then becomes, how do you work alongside people, in the supposedly equal environment of the seminar group, that hold such views? Can you keep the ideals promoted by sites like ‘Uni Lad’ outside of the classroom? The report suggests not. Participants talk about the gender inequalities that spill over into the classroom that often serves to silence women students.
The report states that men dominated classes, even on course where there were significantly more women. This was often linked to how much more confident male students were in expressing their opinions, their classroom identity becoming an extension of their off-campus ‘lad’ arrogance. However, as the report didn’t include the opinions of male students it’s difficult to say whether the perception of this behaviour tallies with the thoughts and feelings of those perpetrating it. Perhaps its just my inherent laziness that makes me question whether the amount of effort required to keep up this performance of hyper-masculinity can actually be anywhere near as fun and rewarding as websites like ‘Uni Lad’ and the ‘Lad Bible’ would like us to believe?
One of the most worrying issues the report raises is whether the attitudes promoted by ‘lad culture’ translate into actions. One participant is quoted as saying ‘I don’t know anyone, any of my female friends who haven’t had some kind of encounter that was harassment whether it be verbal or physical since they’ve been at university.’ Another says ‘it shows that the whole lad culture, people taking it not seriously, it can lead to things that are serious…I think there is definitely a correlation between all the jokes all the inappropriateness…’ Although it’s extremely difficult to conclusively argue that sexual violence or harassment can be linked to the kind of ‘banter’ that trivialises rape or promotes a culture of victim blaming, what is clear from the report is that it helps to create an atmosphere on campus that is uncomfortable and unproductive for women. Time and again the issue of ‘banter’ was raised by the report, leaving me questioning what it is that makes sexism and misogyny so funny? The attitudes towards women that ‘lad culture’ promotes are sadly nothing new. That misogyny and sexism are rife on university campuses is no surprise. What’s needed now is a way to combat these attitudes, to lift the veil of humour that is surely starting to wear a little thin.
On the plus side, almost all the participants cited in the appendices identified themselves as ‘feminist’. In these supposedly post-feminist times, that must be something to celebrate.