[I have] a friend who had some guy that put his hand down her pants on the dance floor. And she was a really quiet girl and she didn’t say anything. I’ve heard of a few friends who have had things like that happened [sic] that have gone past a joke. I think guys think it’s okay to do that.
This anecdote depicts an experience which has become so common amongst young people that it has acquired its own moniker: underhanding. Usually occurring in bars and clubs, it was described in a Guardian article as a practice in which ‘a boy stands behind a girl and tries to put his fingers inside her’. It was one of the behaviours recounted by participants in That’s What She Said, an investigation into ‘lad cultures’ in higher education conducted in 2012 by Isabel Young and myself at the Sussex Centre for Gender Studies.
This NUS-commissioned research used focus groups and in-depth interviews with 40 women students in England and Scotland. It was timely, set in the eye of a media storm around practices such as sports initiations, ‘pimps and hos’ parties, ‘slut-dropping’ and the sexual pursuit of women freshers.
Echoing the press stories, our research participants reported misogynist banter and gendered objectification and harassment which dominate student social spaces, especially sports activities and nightlife. One described a member of her university rugby team at a sports social, wearing a vest reading ‘Campus Rapist’ on the front and ‘It’s not rape if you say surprise’ on the back. In laddish friendship groups, another participant said, girls are ‘passed around’ and ‘everyone [has] a go.’
‘Lad culture’, our respondents told us, is also characterised by assessment of these sexual conquests, revealed to be widespread in 2013 when a number of Facebook ‘Rate Your Shag’ pages appeared, linked to various universities, which were ‘liked’ by over 20,000 users in 72 hours. Women are appraised against benchmarks of constant sexual availability and a synthetic hyperfemininity embodied in a quip on the Uni Lad website in 2012: ‘in an ideal world, we’d all be bedding Barbie’. As one of our participants said, ‘there is no place for a diversity of attraction…it’s very narrow minded as to what a woman is.’ Laddish sex is a consumptive, rather than relational, act:
They think … the girl’s going to be up for doing whatever they want and the style of the sex as well, I think they imagine it’s going to be all them just proper going at it and the girl is just there for them to just go at … like women are the object, they are there just for them to use as they feel fit.
There is evidence that this lack of mutuality can be conducive to sexual harassment and violence, which two-thirds of our participants saw as a normal part of university life. This echoed the 2010 Hidden Marks survey of UK women students, in which over two-thirds had been subject to sexual harassment and one in seven physical or sexual assault.
In policy terms, our findings present a clear argument for statutory sex and relationships education which is gender-aware, focused on enthusiastic consent and teaches young people the difference between pornography and real life. Our study illuminates the new ‘battle of the sexes’: the young men sketched here are coming of age amidst increased economic competition and an antifeminist backlash rooted in the postfeminist myth that women now have it all. The ‘underhanding’ depicted in the opening quote is not an act of lust; it is the aggression of those who feel their privilege slipping away and need someone to blame. But equality is not a zero-sum game, and boys should be taught to see girls as equals, not adversaries.
Unfortunately the dog-eat-dog worldview is rampant in the neoliberal higher education sector, which is why student ‘lad cultures’ thrive. Universities have become communities in which only economic values matter, generating callous educational cultures based on a competitive individualism also reflected in the social and sexual spheres. An increase in bullying (and especially sexualised bullying of women by men) is an unintended consequence of the juggernaut of HE marketisation, and its future is foretold in the US, where education markets are entrenched and campus sexual violence is rife.
As in the US, it would be possible for policymakers to address this within the capitalist framework, holding institutions accountable for student safety and boosting pastoral care in the educational package. However, our next government would also do well to contemplate the functions of the sector and the long-term consequences of a market run amok. Universities perform a vital role in delivering research and human capital to industry, but through our students, we also shape tomorrow’s civil society. Surely we want citizens of all genders to partner each other with respect instead of ‘underhanding’ on the dance floor.