Game of trolls: on pop culture and the public voice of women

Women who write online receive far more personal attacks than their male counterparts. When women are driven out of public conversations on pop culture, it harms all of us.

First published by Open Democracy, 9th June 2015

Women who write online receive far more personal attacks than their male counterparts.  When women are driven out of public conversations on pop culture, it harms all of us.


I recently wrote a piece for The Debrief, criticizing the presentation of sexual violence in the ever-popular HBO television series Game of Thrones. I expected there to be some backlash, mostly from die-hard fans of the show, but I wasn’t prepared for the tidal wave of vitriol that I received once my article had been published.

The majority of people who sent abusive and insulting tweets after the article was promoted online seemed to have skipped over the part where I said I was a huge fan of the show. I was accused of hating the programme, trying to ‘spoil’ it for other viewers, being a whining, sensitive ‘femtard’, and getting some kind of sick pleasure out of the violence onscreen, while condemning rape in a bizarre double standard. It wasn’t just me, The Independent’s Lucy Hunter Johnson wrote a similar comment piece and was tweeted that her article was the most efficient way of prompting others to call her a ‘cunt’ online.

It’s absolutely possible to enjoy media while simultaneously recognising that there are structural problems present in it. I purposely began the Game of Thrones article with a sentence about how much I enjoy the show, watching it every week and even wearing my Game of Thrones t-shirt to work. (It’s a casual office…) My love of Game of Thrones is exactly why I felt strongly enough to pen the piece in the first place. Pop culture is important, not least because it’s a language that we all share and can identify with. Music, films, television shows, games and advertising are a lens through which we see and understand the world. The kind of culture we consume says a great deal about our society and the kind of things we value within it. This is why criticism is so essential. It prevents us from becoming blind consumers of culture, too afraid of saying something unpopular to interrogate the media we’re presented with.

Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian has been subjected to some of the most extreme online harassment following her online series exploring the portrayal of women in video games. She lives with constant death and rape threats, and has previously had to leave her home due to very specific threats to her safety. The content of her Feminist Frequency video series is not controversial. Sarkeesian’s critique is thorough and well-researched, and no different from the cultural criticism that films and books routinely receive. The reaction to her work is so disproportionate and extreme, that when I explain the situation to friends who haven’t heard of Sarkeesian or Gamergate, they are initially disbelieving.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Sarkeesian said “the reaction is like I’m trying to say that all games are bad, or all games should be taken away, or that these games shouldn’t exist, instead of “Hey, we are complex and intelligent creatures and we can hold multiple ideas in our heads at the same time.” We can be critical of the things that we love. That is possible.”

Why are we unable to have a meaningful conversation about certain areas of popular culture that some men wish to claim ownership of? Out of all the people who tweeted their disagreement with my Game of Thrones article, not a single one wanted to actually engage with what I’d written by having a discussion with me about it. Most of them didn’t appear to even have read the piece, and simply reacted to the headline. This is indicative of a bigger problem, namely that sexist abuse is consider part and parcel of being published online… if you’re female.

Women’s voices are routinely discredited and seen as illegitimate and lacking in credibility. If you’re a female speaking in a public space (on twitter, in a newspaper, on a message board, on YouTube etc.) the likelihood is that you will be the target of misogynistic abuse. This is particularly true if you’re talking about feminism or attempting to become part of a conversation about a typically male-dominated field.

It was interesting to recognise a disconnect between how those sending unpleasant tweets seemed to view me, and what was actually happening within the situation. The angry men appeared to believe me powerful enough to be ‘fair game’, perhaps due to my platform online or the places I’ve been published, and they attempted to take me down a peg or two. The reality is, of course, that I’m just starting out as a journalist, am pretty powerless within the industry, and I was being piled on by a group of largely much older men. Navigating the fraught combination of power and powerlessness that accompanies being a young woman with any kind of public platform is highly off-putting, and I’ve personally been tempted to give up writing on several occasions after similar incidents.

Women who write online receive far more personal attacks than their male counterparts. Personal attacks are not disagreement or debate, they involve comments about the writer’s appearance, sexuality, gender, mental health, and personal life. I don’t mind being told I’m wrong or that someone else holds a different view point. What I mind is being told I’m weak and stupid and ugly (one commenter encouraged others to check out the headshot accompanying my piece to confirm my displeasing appearance).

I don’t doubt that there is a significant trend of would-be female writers being driven away from journalism and similar professions due to the fear of a misogynistic backlash. Why would you open yourself up to ridicule and abuse by daring to have a public voice? This culture of bullying is serving to further narrow public conversation and reduce the diversity of voices that we can engage with via print media and online. It represents a loss to public life as a whole.

Female voices in journalism are also repudiated on a wider level. There’s an obvious gender imbalance in terms of the topics women are invited to speak and report on, and women are rarely positioned as authoritative experts. In 2013, a study by Women in Journalism found that 78% of front page stories in national newspapers were written by men, and 84% of those quoted as sources or experts in lead stories were men. Moreover, women and writers of colour are disproportionately encouraged to write about their personal experiences in style that is often dismissed as ‘confessional’. The male voice is consistently positioned as rational and universal, and “when people who identify as women write about their own lives it is more likely to be dismissed as ‘trivial,’ ‘oversharing,’ and ‘gossip’ ”.

Dawn Foster, writing for openDemocracy last year, asserted that “women, far more than men, are expected to put themselves at the centre of stories, or plunder their own lives for material. Male experience is treated empirically, and straight reporting seen as the norm, whereas women are expected to have, and share, first person experience, often at the expense of their own privacy.”

This is has been absolutely true in my experience, with many publications refusing to let me write unless I exposed details about my own life. Writing about the personal is a double-edged sword, because in one way, it becomes a kind of ‘emotional labour’ that women and people of colour must perform and suggests that their domain is first person narrative due to a perceived lack of expertise, but cutting out personal experience altogether denies its political importance. When writing her latest book, Unspeakable Things, journalist and activist Laurie Penny proceeded in a dry, academic style, only to realise that“courage was missing” and that she had “spent so much time working and writing in a world where women’s experience was treated as trivial” that she had assumed her own experience must also be trivial, rather than politically charged and deeply necessary.

I have acquiesced to the requests of editors from several publications and written intimately about my struggles with type II anorexia, depression and Borderline Personality Disorder, because I believe it’s the best use of my public voice. If I can help destigmatize mental illness even a tiny bit by documenting my own experiences, then it will have been worth doing. Unfortunately, this has opened me up to more targeted abuse:

The relatively poor representation of women in ‘serious’ areas of journalism and the way women’s personal experiences are ‘othered’ and trivialized, are both intimately linked to the way female writers are treated by an online audience. If we agree to writing about our own experiences, we may open ourselves up to even more specific, personal attacks online. If we do not, we deny the fact that important experiences, particularly of discrimination, violence, structural inequality, sickness and poverty, are deeply political and deserve to be valued as such.

My piece on Game of Thrones is just a drop in the ocean in terms of the numerous examples of how women’s opinions and analyses are dismissed, and drowned out by angry internet voices. I was accused of being oversensitive about sexual violence in Game of Thrones, but that seems ironic coming from a bunch of grown men who can’t take some online criticisms of a fantasy television show.

Which British party is making the most meaningful commitment to women’s issues?

As the British election approaches, political parties are trading in the discourse of ‘women’s issues’. But do any of the parties actually meaningfully address women’s rights and needs?

First published by Open Democracy on 27th April 2015
As the British election approaches, political parties are trading in the discourse of ‘women’s issues’. But do any of the parties actually meaningfully address women’s rights and needs?
Women make up 52% of the electorate, and nine million women did not vote in the last election. Perhaps this is why the Coalition felt safe enough to wage all-out war on Britain’s female population with a series of austerity measures that disproportionately affected women in a negative way.
Research by the House of Commons Library has determined that nearly 75 per cent of budget savings since 2010 have targeted women’s incomes, and areport by the Women’s Budget Group found that the May 2012 budget primarily leads to women losing out.  One fifth of women have an average income consisting of benefit payments, and the planned £10 billion of cuts from welfare spending by 2016-17 will hit women the hardest. Women also make up two thirds of public sector employees, and the 30,000 planned job losses between 2011 and 2017 and proposed ‘regional pay’ rates will have a devastating impact on them.
If austerity is a gendered attack, then it is essential that female voters turn to a party that will protect their interests when they enter the polling stations on May 7th.
Harriet Harman describes the Coalition’s impact on women in Britain as aturning back of the clock, citing tax and benefit changes as the reason why women ‘have paid almost four times as much to bring the deficit down by 2015 even though they still earn less and own less than men’. Labour’s awareness of the gendered nature of austerity is encouraging, as are their promises to introduce a primary childcare guarantee between 8am and 6pm and provide 25 hours of free childcare a week for working parents with three and four-year-olds, worth £1,500. The latter will be paid for with a new levy on banks, which seems only fair since they plunged us all into the mess of recession and austerity in the first place.
Research released by the Fawcett Society shows that since 2008, almost a million women have moved into insecure, low paid work, and female underemployment has nearly doubled. Labour plans to give a tax break to businesses that introduce a living wage, consequently raising the wages of thousands of low paid women, and raise the minimum wage to eight pounds an hour. The Labour ‘Women’s Manifesto’ also pledges to protect the SureStart budget (decimated under the Coalition), open an additional 50,000 childcare places and put tackling violence against women and girls ‘at the heart’ of government. These promises are encouraging, but they are far from radical.
Women have suffered disproportionately from the Coalition government’s tax and benefit strategy, with analysis by the House of Commons Library showing that a net 3.047bn (21%) had been raised from men and 11.628bn (79%) had been raised from women. The Coalition’s criminalization of revenge pornography in 2014 definitely deserves commendation, but generally, meaningful positive change for Britain’s women has not manifested from Cameron’s residency in Number 10. Some rather cursory attention has been paid to women’s rights issues, but any benefit from this has been largely cancelled out by the effects of austerity. For example, a 10 million fund for women’s refuges was earmarked by the Coalition, but they failed to ring fence funding nationally at a time when local funding cuts have seen mass closures of specialist women’s services.
The Conservative manifesto promises to extend the tax-free childcare scheme from all children under 7, to all children under 12, and increase the scheme from 1,200 to 2,000 a year, per child. It also pledges to introduce a new, more flexible system of parental leave, so parents can make the decision of how to best divide up paid maternity leave between them. A new strategy for tackling violence against women has been proposed, that involves better training for police and professionals on the front line, and more focus on preventative work in schools.
Liberal Democrats
As part of the Coalition government, the Lib Dems have plenty to answer for in terms of the gendered nature of austerity and the heavy price paid by women. They have also been spectacularly unsuccessful in increasing female political representation, with just seven women among their 56 MPs. Nick Clegg did not give any women a Cabinet position during the Coalition, and chose not to reshuffle his team before the general election; a move that would have allowed him to promote a woman.
The Lib Dem manifesto pledges to extend the 15 hours of free childcare per week for two years old, and provide the same amount of free childcare to all children between nine months and two years, providing their parents are in work. Overall, the Lib Dems’ focus on equality and women’s rights seems rather lacklustre, with more attention being paid to what they have already achieved rather than what they will do if elected. The assertion that the Lib Dems have encouraged businesses to put more women on boards is flimsy at best, and totally unsupported at worst.
The Greens have a long-established commitment to women’s rights, and are the only mainstream political party dominated by women. First elected MP and former leader Caroline Lucas has been an outspoken campaigner for women’s issues in Parliament, and the Green Party promise to introduce ‘strong measures’ to tackle gender inequality in the UK, including a law requiring the boards of large companies to be made up of 40% women.
Under the Greens, rape crisis and domestic violence centres would be funded from core budgets, and women seeking asylum due to ‘forced marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, rape and other sexual assault’ would have their needs better understood and cared for. This is a truly radical policy and could pave the way for the end of female detention in facilities like Yarl’s Wood, where female asylum seekers are verbally and sexually abused by guards, stripped of their privacy, and many inmates quickly become suicidal.
Much has been made about the ‘women-friendly’ nature of UKIP’s manifesto, published on 9th April, particularly due to the pledge to scrap the unpopular tampon tax. Women’s sanitary products are currently classified as ‘nonessential luxury items’ and are subject to VAT, whereas men’s razors are not. Under current EU law, items that have previously been taxed cannot have tax completely removed from them.
Head of Policy Suzanne Evans asserts that “no other party can pledge to take this simple step” as leaving the EU makes up the foundation of UKIP’s manifesto. UKIP has managed to conflate women’s issues with their negative view of the EU, a tactic that seems particularly cynical when coming from a party that has such a terrible track record regarding women’s rights. A few examples of this include Farage’s branding female city high-flyers as ‘worth less’ to employers if they have children, and MEP Stuart Agnew’s comment that women don’t have the ambition to reach top professional positions because babies ‘get in the way’. UKIP MEPs have consistently failed to represent women’s interests in the European Parliament, voting against or failing to turn up to votes on equal pay, tackling FGM, and eradicating violence against women.
Although it can be argued that the term ‘women’s issues’ is something of a misnomer, it’s essential that we remember that there are issues that disproportionately affect women. If we lived in a more equal society, where women did not shoulder the burden of austerity, face workplace inequality, experience a pay gap, or live their lives at a greater risk of domestic violence and sexual assault, there wouldn’t need to be ‘women’s issues’. There would just be ‘issues’.  Childcare, parental leave, and the low pay of care workers should be a priority for both men and women, but this is currently not the case, and as Helen Lewis writes in New Statesman, ‘robbing us of the right to call [care work, childcare etc.] a “women’s issue” is robbing us of the right to speak at all’.

Sex education in the UK: time for a far-reaching overhaul

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?

First published by Open Democracy, Tuesday 31st March 2015

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?
I don’t remember much about my own sex education lessons, other than an overwhelming sense of dread. We were taught about the terrifying prospect of pregnancy and about numerous sexually transmitted infections, with accompanying graphic images on laminated pieces of card. I was terrified that the teacher was going to talk about same sex relationships, knowing that it would lead to shouts of ‘dyke’ and my peers putting chewing gum in my hair. I realise now, of course, that if LGBT relationships and their validity had been discussed, the nightmare of homophobic bullying I endured during high school could’ve been dealt with much more effectively.
Everyone has a different story about their experiences of sex education, but the thread that runs through all of them speaks of inadequacy. Too little, too late, too biased, too focussed on the mechanics, too weird, too awkward, too many gaps. When 40% of teenage girls have been pressured into sex, and 22% surveyed by the NSPCC said that they had been subjected to physical violence by a boyfriend, including punching, slapping, strangling and being beaten with an object, it’s pretty clear that our approach to sex education needs an immediate and far-reaching overhaul.
The NSPCC’s report also found that the UK had the highest rate of children and teens sending explicit sexual images. 40% of the girls who had sent sexual pictures to a boyfriend said that their partner had then shared the images with other people. 39% of boys admitted to watching porn regularly, and 25% were shown to harbour extremely negative attitudes about women. In order to tackle these issues, sex and relationships education urgently needs to address them. The epidemic of sexual harassment and assault on our university campuses doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If children are taught early on about the essential nature of enthusiastic consent, and about the harmful culture of victim-blaming and rape myths, I believe that the prevalence of sexual violence can be combatted effectively and young people of all genders can be mutually supportive, rather than in opposition to one another.
Grace attends a selective state school. She wishes there had been more than a very basic model of safe sex and some ‘gory’ STI photos discussed, and describes her sex education as “totally penis-centred, with the vagina barely mentioned, let alone the parts labelled”. She says “there was absolutely no talk about consent or even what consensual sex means, or mention of anything other than heterosexual couples. Consent should be the most crucial thing when teaching young people about sex and when things like foreplay aren’t even mentioned, it’s unsurprising that teenagers turn to porn to answer their questions”.
Porn is currently a point of contention in the debate over what should be taught to children and teenagers in their sex education lessons. A leading Danish sexologist is calling for pornography in be shown in classrooms as part of a healthy, well-rounded sex education curriculum, so that teenagers can be“conscientious and critical consumers” who can tell the difference between fantasy and real relationships. Although there are those who think that young people are more than capable of separating the fantasy of mainstream porn, with its false focus on spontaneity and predilection for showing women in a subordinate and submissive role, if sex education is inadequate, it’s likely that porn will be used to fill in the gaps.
Anyone who opposes the expansion of sex education in the name of protecting childhood innocence is living in a fantasy land. Unless you cut your child off from all forms of technology and contact with other children (and their laptops and smartphones), you cannot prevent children from accessing or being shown pornography.
Teenagers need to be equipped with the critical tools that will allow them to view commercial sex as exactly what it is, rather than a guide to how they should behave in the real world. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes in the Guardian, that “young women have told me how surprised they have been when, during sex, hands have been placed around their necks, their hair has been pulled so hard they’ve wept, their faces and breasts have been ejaculated on without consent”, citing these stories as examples of how pornography has infiltrated the relationships of teenagers.
It’s also important to consider the differences in the kind of information given at faith-based schools, as opposed to the sex education curricula taught at non-denominational, secular places of learning. Claire attended a Catholic school in the 1990s and remembers attitudes to contraception being very poor. “There was a page missing from our biology text books and when we looked in the index to find out what was missing, it was the page on contraception. Our main sex education was delivered during an event called “family day” at a nearby convent where we mainly talked about adult life, getting jobs, having a family etc. This included a very uncomfortable talk from our form tutor who talked about how God only approves of the kind of sex that can make babies… so using your mouth or hand is very bad.”
Little appears to have changed in terms of how sex education is delivered at faith-based schools. Charlotte left school five years ago, and remembers her sex education at a Catholic school as “extremely biased and confusing, particularly to people who didn’t define as heterosexual. We were shown abortion videos and given a slut-shaming talk by people who told us we had to wait until marriage to have sex”. Female oral sex was never mentioned, but Charlotte was told that “giving your husband a blowjob is the most intimate thing you can do”. The teacher described this as part of a wife’s “emotional responsibility” to her husband.
There’s obviously a conflict of interests here. Some parents will inevitably choose to send their children to religious schools because they want them to receive teaching that is influenced by religious doctrine. Unfortunately, this is extremely harmful when it comes to sex education, as teenagers are often provided with information that is objectively false, that leaves out crucial material, and is inherently detrimental to young women when they are shamed for showing an interest in sex or becoming sexually active. All children and teenagers, regardless of whether they come from Catholic, Church of England, Muslim or secular backgrounds, deserve to receive unbiased information about sex and relationships, so that they are able to make their own, informed choices about their lives and bodies.
If teachers aren’t correctly trained to deliver a meaningful sex and relationships curriculum, it’s essential that schools employ outreach and youth workers who can pick up the baton in this area. Schools should be equipped to provide honest information about LGBT relationships and gender identity, so that gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender students are not excluded from sex education. Teenage years are full of exploration and are often the time when young people are discovering and coming to terms with their sexuality.
It’s important that we don’t overlook the interest teenagers have in the fundamental questions about sex and relationships. Young people need to be aware of the building blocks that will help them form healthy, mutually pleasurable relationships, including creating foundations of trust and respect. Otherwise, the myth that sex is something men should attempt to get from women (at all costs) and sex is something women should withhold from men (to prevent them being denigrated as ‘sluts’ or ‘easy’) will continue to be perpetuated.
The government’s plans to introduce the teaching of consent to children aged 11 are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough? The series of lesson plans on the meaning and importance of consent, produced by the Personal Social Heath and Economic Education Association (PSHEA), were backed by ministers but not made a compulsory part of the curriculum. This means that teaching of consent may be cursory or sporadic, and some schools may choose to ignore the lesson plans altogether.
The need for a more comprehensive sex and relationships curriculum is urgent. By providing young people with unbiased and broad-ranging information on consent, mutual respect, mutual pleasure, pornography, and the meaning of rape culture, structural problems of sexism and sexual violence can be challenged early on. It’s essential that teenagers are able to navigate sex and relationships in a safe and informed manner, so that their personal lives can be fulfilling and independent, and free from harmful misinformation and abuse.

It’s not just banter: the epidemic of sexism on university campuses

University campuses should be the most progressive places in Britain, taking a revolutionary approach to gender politics and sexual equality, and aflame with a vibrant intellectual culture.

First published by Open Democracy, 10th March 2015
I was on a Manchester Magic Bus at 11:30 on a Friday night. It was packed with boozy students, travelling from the student district of Fallowfield to the city centre for a night on the town. I usually try not to take too much notice of what’s going on around me on the bus, but it was so noisy that I had no choice but to pay attention.
A young man was standing in the middle of the lower deck of the bus, taking a selfie. When asked why, he shouted that he wanted to ‘get the freak in the picture’, referring to a girl sitting behind him who was dressed in a steampunk-style ensemble. The guy’s friends found this absolutely hysterical, and suddenly it felt like the entire bus was laughing at one girl, dressed differently, sitting alone, her head bent and cheeks scarlet. The young man responsible took his seat again and proceeded to show his mates pictures of girls he had allegedly slept with, shouting sexual details about them, while the group loudly rated them out of ten.
It wasn’t a huge incident, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I’d witnessed bullying, pure and simple, of a girl on her own by a loud-mouthed sexist who had no qualms about sharing pictures of and intimate details about girls he’d *maybe* bedded. His behaviour and that of his friends turned the public space of the bus into their space, where they could bully and behave like sexist dicks with impunity. It felt like an unpleasant microcosm of the worst of student behaviour; where the privileged control a space that’s meant to be for everyone, and show utter disrespect for women and anyone who is different from them.
University campuses should be the most progressive places in Britain, taking a revolutionary approach to gender politics and sexual equality, and aflame with a vibrant intellectual culture. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The prevalence of sexist attitudes of campus and the quotidian nature of harassment and assault means that the university experience is sullied for many attendees.
There is an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault occurring on university campuses across Britain and it must be recognised and dealt with as a matter of urgency. One in five women in the UK are victims of sexual offences, and one in three female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances or sexual assault, yet universities seem reluctant to deal with the sexism rooted in campus culture, like a malignant cancer.
University lecturers are not exempt and can contribute to the drip, drip of sexism that students are exposed to. Hanna* attended a prestigious film school, where female students were told to ‘marry rich, girls’ during a talk on how to set up a successful business. Tutors would also refer to some male producers are ‘difficult’ while difficult female producers were ‘ugly’ or ‘bitches’.
Jess* was raped in her second year of university, by her boyfriend, while she slept. “At the time, I knew what he’d done was wrong, but I wasn’t brave enough to call it rape. At 20, I saw rape as a very black-and-white situation- I pictured rape as women having to be held down and screaming, – and I thought maybe it didn’t count.”
She didn’t report the experience because she didn’t think the university administration would take it seriously. “So many people are judgemental, and do see rape victims as attention seekers or lovers of drama, and I am still too scared to face what others think of me.” The toxic nature of rape culture at university means that rape is treated as a source of amusement and in some cases, the police and university admin figures are complicit in silencing students who have been assaulted. The majority of sexual assaults in Britain are not reported, with 80% of participants in a 2012 Mumsnet survey choosing not to go to the police.
I can’t talk about campus sexism without mentioning ‘lad culture’. The NUS’‘That’s What She Said’ report on campus sexism explores the nature and impact of lad culture more comprehensively than I am able to in this article, but a few points bear repeating. One of the key aspects of lad culture is a focus on sexist ‘banter’, speaking about female students (particularly female sports players) in a denigrating and disrespectful way, and making women feel excluded and unwelcome in public and campus spaces. The more that female students are dehumanised and viewed as things rather than people, the easier it is for male students to justify acts of sexual abuse and violence. The NUS research shows that 50 per cent of participants in the study identified ‘prevailing sexism, laddism and a culture of harassment’ at the universities they attend.
Let’s not forget the famous Uni Lad article entitled ‘Sexual Mathematics’ that included this: “If the girl you’ve taken for a drink… won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds … Uni Lad does not condone rape without saying ‘surprise’.” Or the Oxford University Ruby Club email that encouraged members to spike the drinks of their fresher dates.
Arriving at university as a fresher, I was warned about second and third year boys ‘sharking’ on newbie girls, as getting to ‘fuck a fresher’ gained them serious ‘points’. My male fresher friends were given no such advice. Throughout my three years of undergraduate, I laboured under the misapprehension that in a club, it was totally normal to be groped by strangers, and to move around the venue with friends, ‘hiding’ from the guy who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Now, I feel horrified and upset that a stranger grabbing my body uninvited was just a regular part of a night out.
‘Lad culture’ on campus is often excused as harmless, as simple bonding among male students, or as ironic ‘banter’. Some dismiss critics of lad culture as classist, attacking a particular strain of working class male behaviour, when in reality lad culture has very little to do with social class. I attended an overwhelmingly privileged university, where proponents of lad culture were largely privately educated and wealthy.
When Lucy* moved to university, it was the first time she’d lived away from home. “A couple of weeks in, I met this second year guy, and we started seeing each other casually. Then one night, a couple of months in, I was out for a friend’s birthday and he said he had loads of friends staying and they were continuing the night at his, and I should come back too. I’d stayed at his before, and he always made sure I got home safe, so I thought it would be fine.
After we all hung out for a while, we got set up for the night. It was like a proper sleep over, with all the guys in sleeping bags and everything on the floor. I got to sleep in the bed with the guy I was seeing. Lucky me.
It was the guy I was seeing and his best friend who raped me, with four other guys in the room, none of whom stepped in to help me. At one point, I vaguely remember one of them telling me to shut up crying because they were trying to sleep. The guy I was seeing actually asked his mate “are you finished with her?”, and then handed me his joggers to sleep in.”
Lucy says that the bullying that followed was worse than the assault itself. “The guys in the room told everyone that I had slept with these two guys in front of everyone. It got back to my flatmates. The male flatmates were the worst. I stopped going out, but when they went out they would get home and shout abuse through my door. They would make loud sex noises outside my room, screaming my name, and the name of the guy who had raped me.
Sometimes they even had one guy being the rapist, and the other screaming and crying, obviously meant to be me. They wrote insults on all my stuff, like if I left notebooks of uni work in the kitchen, I would get it back later with the word “slut” scrawled all over the front. They drew obscene drawings onto post it notes and stuck them all over my bedroom door. Some of these drawings would actually be accurate to how the guys had pinned me down on the bed.”
Lucy’s story is horrific and it is not unique. A third of male university students said that they would rape a woman if there were no consequences involved.
University campuses should be spaces of academic growth that are comfortable and welcoming for all students, not just the white, heterosexual male portion of them. As a response to sexism and lad culture, some young women join in with misogynistic banter and harassment, perhaps so that they don’t feel at risk of being on the receiving end of it. Others become withdrawn, policing their own behaviour, not speaking out in seminars, avoiding social activities and moderating the way they dress. Some victims of sexual assault, like Lucy drop out of their courses altogether. Oxford and Cambridge’s ‘consent classes’ are a step towards creating a healthy culture where enthusiastic consent is viewed by all students as an essential part of sex, but more needs to happen, and more quickly.
It’s time to put an end to this pervasive atmosphere of exclusion and harassment on campus, to stand up to every inch of the sliding scale of sexism and encourage university tutors, administrators and union reps to do the same. Sexism, harassment, misogyny and abuse should have no place in higher education and both male and female students need to stand shoulder to shoulder against it.
*names have been changed to protect identities