Lad culture has been in the news a lot recently. Numerous accounts of public displays of sexism, misogyny, and examples of rape culture – attributed primarily to male university students and ‘lads’ – have been very publicly and outwardly criticised within the last couple of years. Just a few weeks ago, a Cambridge University drinking society was in the news, under investigation from police over a rape chant that the members were singing as they paraded around Oxford. Various onlookers described the men as being drunk and intimidating, and recounted that they were chanting words such as “rape”, “she’s too young”, and “15 years”.
Meanwhile, the president of the Oxford Union, 21-year-old student Ben Sullivan, was in the news after being arrested on suspicion of both the rape and attempted rape of two undergraduates. After being reinstated just a week after his arrest, various keynote speakers due to talk to the Oxford Union pulled out in protest – all but A C Grayling, renowned philosopher and founder of the independent undergraduate institution New College of the Humanities, who defended the president, saying he was “innocent until proven guilty” – and an open letter calling for his resignation has been written by OUSU Vice President for Women Sarah Pine, and signed by several feminist activists. While it may be the case that he is innocent of any crimes, statistics state that only 3% of rape accusations are false, and as stated by Sarah Pine in her open letter that calls for Sullivan’s resignation, “it’s not about making a pronouncement of innocence or guilt; but about the principle that whilst still under investigation for sexual offences, an individual should not remain in office“.
In 2010, the NUS report “Hidden Marks” revealed that 68% of respondents had faced one or more kinds of harassment at university as a student, and one in seven female students had experienced serious physical or sexual abuse. Only 4% had reported it to their university, and only 10% told the police. Half of those who didn’t report the incident said it was because they felt ashamed or embarrassed, and 43% said they thought they would be blamed for it.
And that is something that has become a worrying pattern with regards to sexual harassment within lad culture. Victim-blaming and slut-shaming are so prevalent, not only within the culture but also in the media, their own social circles, and amongst authoritative figures, that it leads many victims to believe that even if they were to report their abuse, they would not be believed or may even be blamed. I spoke to a small group of current and graduated students about their experiences of misogyny within lad culture; one girl I spoke to, Beth Saward, a student at the University of East Anglia, wrote an article for the F Word in which she described the reactions she received when she tried to talk about an example of harassment she’d had.
“When I came to talk to my flatmates about it, I was told that if I hadn’t been flirting with him, or let him into our flat, he wouldn’t have got the wrong impression. It wasn’t just my flatmates either. It was the person appointed by the university to ensure we were all feeling safe and happy within our accommodation. The message I received from this incident was that if you’re a young woman and you talk to a man, you deserve everything you’ve got coming to you Because talking means sex. Surely”.
Everybody I spoke to agreed that one of the qualities of a stereotypical ‘lad’ was either a sexist attitude, or a sexist sense of humour. The problem with these qualities is that so many people are accepting of them. Most laddish behaviour is brushed off with the phrase “boys will be boys”, and things like rape jokes, misogynistic humour, or objectification of women are normalised as harmless “banter”.
Lad humour is not harmless banter. There is nothing harmless about the Imperial College newspaper Felix publishing a joke article encouraging male students to use the date rape drug rohypnol as a “fool proof way” to get laid on Valentine’s Day. There is nothing harmless about the promotional video for a Leeds club night called ‘Freshers Violation’ including sound bites from male students stating that the female freshers are going to “get raped”. There is nothing harmless about student fancy dress parties with the theme “rape victims”. There is nothing harmless about popular ‘lad’ websites like The Lad Bible, which has over a million likes on Facebook, objectifying women and encouraging men to see them as sex objects. There is nothing harmless about perpetuating rape culture. There is nothing harmless about lad culture.
“Lad culture is basically just an extension of ‘boys will be boys'” said one student I spoke to, Jenni McNulty from the University of Leicester. “It is attempting to absolve men of all the responsibilities for their actions because they’re lads and couldn’t help it as it’s just the way they are.”
It just isn’t good enough. Male feminist allies exist, as do men who go against the grain of lad culture. One male student at Leeds University admitted to the Leeds Student survey on lad culture that “I would not say that lad culture at the university is all in ‘good fun’. Lad culture is obnoxious and taken too far, potentially harmful.” Men are not inherently misogynistic. They are not born entitled.
In the nineteenth century, women were not permitted to go to university. The first UK university to allow coeducation was University College London in 1878. By 1895, over 10% of the graduates were women, and by 1990 the proportion had increased to 30%. In 1986, just two fifths of all full time undergraduates in the UK were women. Women overtook men as the majority of UK undergraduates in 1996, and by 2005, 57% of all first degree graduates were women.
Could it be, then, that lad culture is just another form of men trying to control women and to regain their dominance? Could it be that men are threatened by the fact that they are now the minority in an environment where they were, for a long time throughout history, the majority? Could it be that they are trying to compete against their female counterparts in a subconscious, subliminal way? “It goes hand in hand with women taking up more space, and men thinking that it means there is less space for them,” said Carmina Masoliver, a graduate from the UEA. “The more women have power, have an interest in feminist issues and have a voice, the more some men seem to want to challenge that“. Sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and rape culture are just a few ways in which lad culture presents itself in a university setting. They are all things that establish men as the dominating figure, giving them power over their female victims.
And what is particularly disturbing is how this power threatens modern feminism.
Take, for example, the concept of male entitlement. In believing and perpetuating the idea that women are simply there as sexual gratification for men, male entitlement objectifies and belittles the very existence of women. Lad culture takes this one step further, by disseminating the concept through ‘banter’ and suggesting that anyone who disagrees is stuck-up or incapable of taking a joke. It also challenges women’s sexual liberation, by taking the control out of the grasp of the women being targeted. Whilst it may be their choice to go home with and have sex with someone involved in lad culture, that choice is, in the eyes of the lad, predetermined and inevitable. “I was on a bar crawl with my course friends that ended up at our university’s SU bar. I noticed two guys standing at the edge of the crowd… what they were doing was picking girls out in the crowd, pointing them out to each other, rating them (by holding up a certain amount of fingers) and proceeding to make rude gestures. It was like watching lions preparing to prey on their victims,” recalled Jenni McNulty in her interview.
This ties into another example, which is that lad culture focuses primarily on appearance. Rating women in clubs is obviously degrading and demeaning, but what happens to the women that aren’t deemed attractive enough? In March of last year, two of the top-rated student debaters in the world faced heckling and jibes about their appearance as they competed in a prestigious competition at Glasgow University Union. “Banter shags”, competitions in which lads attempt to pull the least attractive women in the club, exist in several forms: from “fat girl rodeo“, where lads attempt to “grab ‘fat’ woman in a club, and hang on to her yelling “yee-hah”, until they throw you off, or dance up close to them, “acting nice,” aka pretending to be a normal human being, then whisper that they are ‘a minger’, and try to hang on for as long as they can“; to “pull a pig”, where they simply try to have sex with the least attractive girl they can find. This behaviour is influenced, no doubt, by the beauty and weight obsessed media, but it is extremely dangerous – particularly in a university setting. These women are studying alongside these ‘lads’ that are judging them based on their physical appearance and nothing more. These women are just as capable and able to become scientists, professors, artists, engineers, but are being humiliated and dehumanised by their male peers. These women are being given the message that men are meant for success and power, whilst women are condemned to be valued by their sexuality and appearance alone; that ugly women are destined for failure, simply for not living up to society’s standards.
In Naomi Wolfe’s The Beauty Myth, she talks about how “we are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement”. That book was written in the 1990s: the case is still the same today.
But, of course, lad culture doesn’t exist entirely of men. In situations where lads fail to one-up or intimidate their female competition, they instead draw them into the culture by giving them titles such as ‘honorary lad’ or ‘ladette’: if a woman can hold her drink or is complicit in sexist ‘banter’, she’s “one of the lads”. This influences the already-present internalised misogyny that exists in a lot of women, and encourages women to compete against, and degrade, one another to impress and fit in with the guys. “When I started university I wouldn’t necessarily even know something was bad due to the fact that it is so normalised“, admits Carmina Masoliver in her interview. Radhiki Sanghanin agrees in her article about her own experiences with lad culture: “It was just what everyone did, and even though we occasionally felt uncomfortable, we were spurred on by alcohol and peer pressure“. The alternative to succumbing to lad culture peer pressure is to be ritualistically humiliated and degraded.
This problem needs to be targeted. If it isn’t, women may be put off by the idea of going to university altogether, putting men in the position of power when it comes to education, job prospects, and money. Lad culture propaganda may successfully turn more and more women against each other in a battle of aesthetics and internalised misogyny. But what can actually be done to tackle lad culture?
In February, the National Union of Students called for a summit to discuss the findings of their “That’s What She Said” report, and have created a National Strategy Planning Committee to develop policies regarding sexism in institutions of higher education across the UK. The National Strategy Team (NST) is made up of students, student union staff, and organisations such as the Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3 projects.
Keynote speaker and National Strategy Ambassador, Laura Bates, said at the summit:
“It is absolutely vital to address the problem of lad culture at UK universities head on. Recent events, from the ‘Fresher’s Violation’ club night advertised with a video of a male student saying he would rape a female peer, to university drinking societies going out in casual rape T-shirts and playing ‘it’s not rape if…’ drinking games, to name but a few, make it clear that these are not isolated occurrences but part of a larger culture that risks having a serious negative impact on students’ academic experiences. For too long this kind of behaviour has been dismissed as ‘boys being boys’ but to describe it as such is insulting to the vast majority of young men, and unhelpful to the female students who desperately need support and real action. For this reason I wholeheartedly welcome the National Union of Students’ proactive response to this issue, from undertaking research to reveal the extent of the problem to developing a national strategy to tackle it. I am proud to be the National Strategy Ambassador”
As well as this, Feminist Societies at universities have grown in number significantly since the emergence of lad culture. And they aren’t just sitting around debating – they are actively protesting, and spreading feminist messages across the country. More than 20 universities banned Robin Thicke’s controversial song Blurred Lines last year due to the efforts of on-campus feminists. Bristol University’s FemSoc creates their own quarterly magazine called “That’s What She Said“, which addresses feminist issues, and also have a feminist radio station called FemFM. Nottingham’s FemSoc are currently drawing up a Lad Culture Pledge with their SU officers, liberation officers, sports team captains, and society presidents: “it is a pledge with a clear definition of Lad Culture, examples of and why it cannot be tolerated. We’re hoping to use existing harassment and discrimination (regarding gender, disability, race and sexual orientation) policy at the University to prevent and to sanction groups that contribute to ‘Lad’ and rape culture” explained Hannah Eachus in an email to me. Oxford University has introduced Good Lad workshops for their male society leaders, which attempt to “empower men to deal with complex gender situations and become agents of positive change within their social circles“. The UEA have one of the most active online presences of all of FemSoc groups in the UK, with Tumblr, WordPress, Twitter, and Facebook pages on which they frequently update their followers with articles, updates, and campaigns.
The online presence of these feminist societies is important. The internet is one of the quickest and easiest forms of communication, and allows news to spread quickly. The Leeds nightclub that held a club night called ‘Freshers Violation’ was subsequently shut down after online campaigners protested against the video. Movements like No More Page 3 and the Everyday Sexism project have catapulted feminist theory onto the dashboards and newsfeeds of millions of people across the web. News articles about lad culture are tweeted around the world. The best way to let UK universities know how we feel about lad culture is to let the whole world know first. The best way to draw attention to the problem is to talk about it publicly.
When a random pervert feels you up in the club, tweet about it. When a smarmy lad talks over you during a lecture, write a blog post about it. Send your stories to newspapers, feminist organisations, and projects. Get involved in your local feminist society and make publications, online petitions, and events that bring together women in your community. Tell your university why misogynistic environments are inappropriate for an institution of education. Make posters. Log onto sexist websites and argue your corner.
Campaign are being made, pledges are being written up, and while the opinions and thoughts of those involved in lad culture may not being altered immediately, the changes being written into higher education and gender equality policies have the potential to change the way people are taught, and therefore think, altogether. And those changes are being brought about due to the feminists that are making universities realise that this behaviour is unacceptable.