Many of us experience sexist ‘lad culture’ as an unavoidable part of student life. Maya Jones discusses how she underwent this sad realisation in Freshers’ Week.
Two years ago, my mother packed me off to university – or rather, drove me four hours – with far too much food and an important piece of advice: what you learn about life and about yourself will be as important as your academic success. So it was this, the first of many life-lessons, that jumped to the forefront of my mind when an accommodation rep pointed out a woman as his ‘project’ on my first night out. Ejected from my naive bubble, I found myself confronted with the ugly culture of sexism and the sad realisation that learning to tackle it would form a part of my university experience.
There is no need for me to recount the many examples of sexism that I experienced during this first week. The fact that they are numerous is enough to prove that this is a systemic problem. And I was lucky; despite the wandering hands, I had a great time. Others were not so lucky and because that first week at university has the power to alter the whole experience, we must work to ensure that the trend to view sexism as acceptable in a university environment is eliminated.
The first step to tackling any form of prejudice is to acknowledge that it exists. This may sound simplistic, yet there are many in society who refuse to believe that a privileged university student could engage in such a demeaning culture. Bristol is a respected university, after all. Class and racial prejudice mean society has created a predetermined image of what a sexist male looks like and it is not your average Bristol student. They are all educated; they can’t be sexist. I am reminded of the disgusting Brock Turner case and the fact that he now walks free because he doesn’t look like a rapist. He’s a white, wealthy student from Stanford University; he has privilege on his side.
Going back to the word ‘project’ is an easy way of introducing the wider problem that I will call ‘lad culture’. This trend, which often excuses racism, homophobia and sexism in the name of ‘banter’, flourishes at university when groups of male students club together and compete for group acknowledgement. Those on the receiving end are cast as objects or aims, which are either desired or ridiculed, in order to validate the group’s own importance. In doing so, it can only come from a place of insecurity. Here, the irony is clear: lad culture prays on the insecurity of its victims to mask the fundamental anxieties of its perpetrators.
Freshers’ Week, in particular, is a breeding ground for this casual sexism, which is so abundant that sexist remarks and advances come to be treated as the norm. You are thrown into a tiny kitchen with forty strangers and someone is bound to make a joke at the expense of another. Thankfully, it never gets worse than this first week. You stop going into that kitchen and you start walking away from those people. But being a fresher is terrifying enough without having to be constantly on guard for unwelcome attention, and this is precisely the problem. Sexism is so ingrained into a university culture that we expect it.
When faced with a ‘lad culture’ that is fundamentally sexist and the raging hormones and expected sex that Freshers’ Week entails, a language surfaces that makes it acceptable to talk about ‘scoring points’ by ‘banging’ women. Sex moves from the controlled personal to the public and talking about women as sex objects becomes the norm. At the same time, women are expected to suppress their sexuality and remain passive, as amplified when I witnessed a fellow student labelled a slut during a game of ‘never have I ever’. When I found that the only way to deter unwanted advances in a club was to kiss my boyfriend, I realised that lad culture will only respect men. It’s aim is to form homosocial relationships between men and thus women are only ever a tool for this outcome.
To plug a well used saying, we all lose out when it comes to patriarchy. And so we all lose out when it comes to lad culture. Admittedly, male students face a dilemma when they are forced into a culture where they must either conform as a heterosexual male on the pull or risk exclusion. We need to work together, students of all genders, to provide an alternative to this lad culture. University should be about learning and not about closing your mind with prejudiced views.
Image taken at the University of Bristol Feminist Society Freshers’ Fair stall (2015)
This article is an updated version of Maya Jones’s Freshers article printed by TWSS in 2014