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Post #7 - The silent power of misogyny at university needs to be addressed

For most 18 year olds today, going to university is seen as the stepping stone to adulthood and a person’s first experience of true independence. But for female students, university is the first time the underlying misogyny of society comes into fruition.

Aside from the glaring sexism the higher education institution shows, such as the gap between the amount of male and female professors, there are underlying factors that contribute to the everyday sexism female students face. This is certainly not to say that girls don’t experience sexism before university (unfortunately it is pushed upon them before they can even walk), or that the young women who chose not to go to university don’t experience sexism, because they absolutely do. But their student experience is generally the first time young women are seen as ‘adults’ and sexualised as such. Therefore, the culture that modern universities in the UK create have led to the institutions becoming a breeding ground for casual sexism and normalised disrespect.

Unpacking the reasons for this culture of sexism at university can be categorised into three factors. The nightlife at university, the culture around sex and casual relationships, and the reluctance of universities to act on reports of sexual violence and abuse, and help survivors.

University culture needs an urgent makeover. Whilst it is clear that the underlying sexism that exists in society needs to change, this change can start with universities taking action. What is accepted by students and their unions/welfare teams needs to shift, for everyone to realise that sexual violence and abuse should not be tolerated at university (or anywhere). These instances need to be easier to report, and actually taken seriously when they do. Perpetrators need to be disciplined for their actions, instead of blaming the survivor and sending the message that what they wore or how they acted gave consent.

Probably the most common feature of a student’s university experience will be the nightlife. Whilst we are yet to see post-pandemic student nightlife, what female students have been subjected to over the last few years proves that this is where the silent power of misogyny at university manifests itself most clearly. For young women it is basically part of the practice of a night out to expect unwanted attention. We will avoid certain nightclubs and go about all kinds of safety measures to prevent harassment. A time from my own experiences that sticks out to me was once when, whilst I was getting out of the taxi we had taken to a nightclub, a man much older than me stared at my legs and made a comment to his friend, saying something along the lines of “ooh look at them” (“them” being my legs). I was not even a minute into my night and sexism had already ruined it.

Yes, you could class the groping, staring, catcalling and everything else that young women in nightclubs face as something not specific to universities. But something that undoubtedly is part of the university experience are the fancy dress themes that characterise a night out in Freshers Weeks and society events across the country. These themes come with sexist undertones, examples including the imaginative ‘Pimps and Hoes’ and ‘CEOs and Office Hoes’ {1} . Whilst sometimes this involves the incredibly forward-thinking idea that men will dress in the ‘female’ role, it still involves them dressing in feminine clothing, thus upholding the idea that women are sexualised and inferior.

This contributes to uneven power dynamics in student nightlife, already created by the harassment young women face from their male counterparts. Drinking, clubbing and partying are so ingrained into university culture, that this behaviour seems inescapable.

Another component of misogyny at university is the culture around casual sex and relationships. I won’t dismiss the concept of casual sex altogether, because as long as both parties are happy to partake this is a perfectly fine way to act. However this normalised behaviour that all students are happy to partake in this culture sets expectations on people and creates a dangerous precedent for sexual misconduct. So much as 28% of sexual violence and abuse cases at university take place in halls of residence, and 57% of cases happen where the perpetrator was someone the survivor knew {2}. This can only lead us to believe that these cases where consent was not given are due to this culture.

Alternatively, ‘lad culture’ often creates a pressure for young men to have sexual activity at university, all in the name of ‘gaining experience’. Not only does this treat women (assuming that this culture mainly applies to straight men) as just some ‘experience’ but it creates a pressure that not all male students may be comfortable with. In a survey from Revolt Sexual Assault, 31% of responders, of all genders, felt pressured into partaking in sexual activity at university. ‘Lad culture’ sets a standard for male students to live up to, but it also sets the standard for the way these young men talk about sex. Laura Bates in her book Everyday Sexism notes this, the language used to describe their experiences dehumanise the girl to essentially just her body parts. Bates argues that this is a part of “student culture promoting the increasingly militant silencing of girls’ voices and objections”. Therefore the modern culture at UK universities around sex and relationships sets a dangerous precedent for how these, and the women involved, are viewed by young men with their first experiences of sexuality. This is only continued later into their adulthood.

The most important enabler to the underlying misogyny at UK universities is the reluctance of these institutions to act on reports of sexual violence and abuse. Perpetrators are not disciplined for their actions, which sends a message to students that their behaviour is accepted, and more likely to happen in the future. This reluctance from universities reflects the same issue within the modern justice system; how most sexual violence and abuse cases don’t get reported because survivors don’t feel that any action will come of it. The lack of accountability contributes to a culture at university where catcalling and other small acts of disrespect toward female students are normalised, and so taking accounts of abuse seriously is the first step to tackling the issue. In a survey conducted by Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room, 62% of all students had experienced sexual violence and abuse at a UK university, that figure rises to 70% when only considering female students. Out of those students, only 6% reported what they had been subjected to at the university, and only 2% felt satisfied with this process. These statistics seem to be only rising every year, as an investigation by student newspaper The Tab discovered that sexual assault reports at universities have doubled over the last four years. You could view that as a positive, since more reports means more students feel comfortable to voice what they were subjected to, however students at these universities feel this is not a true representation of all cases.

One of the most notable cases of sexual violence and abuse on a university campus in recent years was the ‘rape chat scandal’ at Warwick University in 2018. A female student discovered a ‘lads’ group chat on her friend’s phone, the contents of which included graphic sexual descriptions of their own friends and threats of sexual violence. Once this was reported to the university only three students were expelled, and two were excluded for a year. Whilst this is a severe cases of how ‘lad culture’ feeds into sexual violence and abuse, it just shows the extremities that can be created when this behaviour is normalised. It also reflects how poorly the university responded to this, since two of the men who had received 10 year bans from Warwick had their sentences reduced to just 12 months.

The inaction of universities across the country on cases of sexual violence and abuse have lead to independent organisations providing what these institutions can not. Reclaim The Campus is a campaign led by students and survivors alike, aiming to overcome this culture. From their website, they claim that they want to ‘address the concealment, lack of accountability, and lack of transparency’ around this issue. In June 2021 the group published The Reclaim Report, which analysed the sexual misconduct policies of universities across the country. This shows that students have grown so disillusioned with the response from their institutions to reports of sexual violence and abuse that they have had to take matters into their own hands.

The reluctance of universities to make reporting cases of sexual violence and abuse accessible, and take the accounts of what survivors were subjected to seriously when they are shared is the biggest factor in the underlying level of sexism present in university culture. It discourages people from a young age that what they’ve been subjected to is not worth reporting, and at GINA we want to reassure you that that is never, ever true. Taking serious action on reports of sexual violence and abuse is the first step for universities to start tackling the culture of sexism that manifests itself in student nightlife and their culture around sex.

If this culture surrounds a person’s entry into adulthood, what kind of ideas must be created later on in their life?

By Alice Smith


[1] Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism

[2] Revolt sexual assault

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