In the last week the issue of sexism on campus has become particularly sharply focused, since freshers’ week involves both a lot of socialising and the elaborate display of social norms to which students are encouraged to conform. A lot of different groups – halls of residence, academic department, sports clubs and societies – have been greeting thousands of new students and explaining what’s expected of them. Those organisations will provide a widely differing (and at times clashing) vision of what university should be like, but they have all spent the week promoting their own version of “how it works” here. From induction packs to chants on the bus to the club, and from taster lectures to themed parties, students are offered a set of blueprints for their years at the university.
With that in mind, here’s another post which details some of what has been going on since I started the series. The piece I wrote on misogyny and sexism in freshers’ week has just been reposted over at the press office blog of Nottingham University, as part of their response to the discussions happening online via the #FreshersWeekSexism hashtag and in student media. The University of Nottingham publicly stated on Twitter that “There’s no place for #FreshersWeekSexism here. Uni and UoN Student Union won’t tolerate it, neither should our students”, a stance which was recognised by the Everyday Sexism Project. The Student Union also reiterated their Zero Tolerance policy on harassment.
The banning of Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines by Edinburgh University’s Student Union acted as a focus for discussions about what constituted an ethical student culture, and where gender issues might fit into that picture. One article argued that it was no part of a Union’s job to determine what media were consumed on its premises, whilst another piece suggested that the song had to be seen as part of a larger culture which normalises sexual violence, and that neutrality wasn’t an option.
A Twitter account purporting to represent one of the halls of residence sent out a pornographic picture and joked about the new female students. A JCR representative quoted in the story don’t see any particular problem with this, classing it as “banter” but other students have condemned it. One of the science departments published an official guide for returning students which listed a “CEOS and Corporate Hoes” party as one of the events. They have since removed that phrase from the document online and strongly suggested to the students organising it that the theme be changed.
Amidst all the evidence that sexism is ingrained in university culture, there is some cheerier news: a new group called University of Nottingham Feminists, identifying “smashing the UoN patriarchy!” as their goal. Affiliated with the university Women’s Network, they “aim to promote feminism as a positive thing within Nottingham University” and “eliminate the stigma attached to the F-word” because “we’re bored of it being a radical notion.” They have already gained support on social media and held photoshoots with students and faculty members holding up the famous “I Need Feminism Because…” boards familiar from campaigns at Oxford and other universities.
All of which varied activity suggests the importance of campus culture, perhaps more than official statements or policies, in the creation of a safe and supportive environment for all students. The declarations from official bodies are extremely welcome, but they can only construct a scaffolding within which campus life takes place. Changes in attitude and behaviour can only really take root in the everyday parts of the university: in the canteen lines, the corridors outside lectures, the bars and the common rooms where we live our lives. It’s great to hear that there is a “zero tolerance” policy for sexism, but the fight to make that policy into a lived experience goes on.