I’ve been spending some of the last week in meetings with academics who are ridiculously excited about the prospect of another university year beginning. Jokes and attempts at cynicism aside, when autumn rolls round the anticipation on campus builds: we can’t wait to greet the new cohort and share a new year of exploring literature together. This is heightened by a nostalgia for our own time as students, remembering how thrillingly intense everything was in our freshers’ week. And in our first term. And in our first spring. In fact the whole business was pretty exciting.
Freshers’ week is a wonderful – and sometimes intimidating – blend of possibilities, a point from which almost any direction can be taken. There’s the crowds of new people to meet, the array of societies and clubs to sign up for, and of course the pubs and clubs. There are even some books around there somewhere, if you believe your tutors. One less enjoyable aspect of freshers’ week, however, is the frequent sexism which more and more people are calling attention to in the press. Laura Bates wrote in The Guardian today about the way many young women are treated in their first week at university, being faced with offensive posters, routine sexual harassment and “jokes” about rape.
I’ve written before about so-called lad culture in university, how it demeans both men and women, and how it often starts by leveraging people’s desire to fit into an exciting new environment. When the only club night on offer is themed “Geeks and Sluts”, or getting served at the bar involves running a gauntlet of sexist jibes, people are often understandably reluctant to cut themselves off from the social life of their newly-claimed university, even when they find aspects of it offensive. Female students shouldn’t have to make this bargain, accepting demeaning treatment in order to be accepted into the culture of their own institution.
After listening to students speaking out on Twitter about their anger over the way women are treated, I’m starting a blog series specifically to talk about sexism and misogyny in freshers’ week. The first post will come from Megan Clark, who has promised her thoughts (and possibly they will be ranty thoughts) about why this state of affairs cannot continue. I’d love to post pieces about people’s experiences of freshers’ week: how they found it, how they navigated the pressures, suggestions for how to improve the situation and any advice they might have for this year’s freshers. Who did you find it useful to talk to? What made you angry? What is being done to combat the problem? Please leave comments below, or if you’d like to write a post in this series, email me at: jem[dot]bloomfield[at]hotmail[dot]co[dot]uk