Last week, the University of York’s Dr Vanita Sundaram conducted a talk alongside the York Union on lad culture in higher education. Dr Sundaram explored the emergence of lad culture in higher education, targeting what it is, what causes it and what universities can do to address it.
The issue of lad culture within universities has been making headlines throughout mainstream media for some time. Newspapers such as The Telegraph have questioned whether universities can ever get rid of “boozy, sexist, lad culture”. Dr Sundaram has conducted leading research into these questions and began her talk by explaining how easy it is to access websites that promote “lad culture” behaviour.
Dr Sundaram pointed to websites such as Unilad that have a big following on social media. The website is said to regularly promote behaviour that could be considered a form of ‘lad culture’. However, Unilad chief executive Liam Harrington told the The Guardian in an interview last year that “We [Unilad] are absolutely not a lads’ mag” and “sites like ours are social enterprises that are catering to everyone, as opposed to the lads’ mags, which were catering to the niches.” The original Unilad.com was founded in 2010 but was closed down in 2012 after a controversial “sexual mathematics” article which included the line, “Unilad does not condone rape without saying surprise.” Harrington insists that his version of the website (launched in 2014), has no association with the original brand.
Dr Sundaram pointed to reports by the NUS that studied female students’ experiences of harassment and sexual assault. She highlighted the 2012 Hidden Marks Report where one-third of respondents felt unsafe walking back to college/university after dark. A follow up to this report was the 2013 ‘That’s what she said: women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ in higher education’. In this report, ‘lad culture’ was said to have influenced ‘banter’ on social media, student club nights and university sport team initiations.
Dr Sundaram has carried out research regarding university staff’s perspectives of ‘lad culture’. The staff, from 6 different institutions, characterised ‘lad culture’ in a similar way to students. They said it can come in the forms of physical, sexual, demeaning or humiliating behaviour, sexist jokes and unwanted sexual touching or assault. Staff and students had overheard humiliating comments made towards female students such as, “She has an implant – she must be a slut” and had described females as being treated like a property or “trophy prize” by some of the male students.
There were also reports of sexualised feedback towards female staff from students. Some lecturers received comments such as “MILF”. Dr Sundaram believes that it is inaccurate to think that sexism is just enacted by ‘naughty students’ and that staff can also reinforce laddish culture. This could be one of the reasons why there is an underreporting of sexist accusations within institutions.
Other research suggested that there was almost an acceptance of lad culture in higher education and some female staff did not see it as worrisome. Instead, seeing it as a joke or ‘banter’. Dr Sundaram believes that staff need to be more educated on this topic, there is now training across European universities to achieve this. The aim is to deliver training on how to tackle lad culture to academic departments in the North of the country next year.
The topic also centred around female students’ involvement in lad culture. Dr Sundaram stated that it can be an issue referring to it as ‘lad culture’ as it seems to exclude women, although women can join in on this type of behaviour. She felt that women can engage in sexist language and behaviour although, in general, a lot of sexist behaviour is often targeted towards female and trans students on campus.
Audience members and Dr Sundaram agreed that there is a pressure on men to be masculine and engage in this type of laddish behaviour, male students often fear that they’ll be isolated if they do not. However, Dr Sundaram felt that all students should still express a complaint if they see any type of sexist behaviour. She also felt that we should not demonise university sports club for sexist or ‘laddish’ behaviour. It is the practices that are the problem, not the clubs themselves and blaming them isn’t helpful.
The overall message from Dr Sundaram is that more needs to be done to tackle sexist behaviour. There needs to be more awareness of other practices that are sexist, and not just a focus on heavy drinking and nightclubs. “There is nothing wrong with people drinking lots and having sex” said Dr Sundaram, “When it gets oppressive, that’s when it’s a problem.” She believes that universities could do more to shift the focus away from heavy drinking during Freshers Week and that there needs to be more encouragement for students and staff to call out sexist behaviour in a culture where there are misconceptions that “you can’t take a joke” or you’re simply overreacting.
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