‘Lad cultures’ in the neoliberal university

Alison Phippspost by ALISON PHIPPS
University of Sussex

[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.

11 thoughts on “‘Lad cultures’ in the neoliberal university”

  1. Hey, great post.

    I can’t help but think of how “laddish” masculinity was traditionally anchored in working-class culture, and how maybe it’s shifted a bit but even among middle-class students being a “lad” is still about affecting a traditional working-class type of physicality/sociability(/overt misogyny). You spoke about men “coming of age amidst increased economic competition and an antifeminist backlash” – which I think is exactly what’s happening (male privilege blindness) but do you think that any of this might also be driven by the drive to get everyone into university that we saw from Blair onwards? The actual demographic shift of who is entering university and the increased % of “unreconstructed men” to the point where they’re no longer viewed as a deviant minority? Of course I’m not pretending that sexism wasn’t rife in unis when it was the preserve of the middle-classes, just that it was perhaps less overt?

  2. Thanks Joe and I think that’s an interesting theory – although it isn’t borne out by our research, as most of our participants were from Russell Group universities and most of the men they talked about were the archetypal ‘rugby lads’ who tend to be from upper-middle class backgrounds. I think it more likely that there are just as many ‘unreconstructed men’ amongst the middle classes (as you say) but they have been able to hide it better, and what this socioeconomic climate has done is provide the conditions for this latent sexism to emerge.

  3. My concern with the approach currently being taken to this problem is that there is rarely any attempt to quantify, or even acknowledge the existence of, that proportion of male students who do not condone the ‘lad culture’ you describe, or who actively abhor it.

    This lack of acknowledgement allows negative generalisations about young men, and even boys, to become an acceptable part of the debate.

    The Times actually ran a front page article earlier this year under the headline ‘Boys need to be taught how to treat girls.’ The piece gave an uncritical airing to the views of campaigners who appeared to believe that boys exist only as the perpetrators of abuse against girls. http://goodmenproject.com/opeds/cac-teaching-boys-respect-girls/

    Even your own statement that ‘boys should be taught to see girls as equals’ rather suggests that there are no boys out there who already think that way.

    I don’t doubt that the issues you are describing need to be addressed with greater urgency, but any calls for reform which appear to centre on the idea that boys need to have their inherent unpleasantness educated out of them are only likely to alienate many people who might otherwise have been supportive.

    1. I think working for a culture of mutual respect will also make it easier for those nonlad culture men you describe to thrive. They might go”of course, how else” when told to respect women, but still will be happy about it because now they can do it without risking loosing social status.

  4. “Surely we want citizens of all genders to partner each other with respect instead of ‘underhanding’ on the dance floor.”

    Depending on the we in that quote I am not so sure about that. There might be enough people who want an aggressive culture to better exploit people.

  5. Hi John and thanks very much for reading and engaging with my piece. I want to respond to you on two different levels:

    First, of course you’re right – although ‘lad culture’ has a lot of social power there are plenty of men who don’t engage in it and many who find it bemusing or downright abhorrent. In our full report and other longer pieces we’ve mentioned some great examples of men combating this type of behaviour (for instance the Oxford University Rugby Club’s ‘Goodlad’ project or the #imnotthatlad Twitter chat curated by NUS Scotland and the White Ribbon Campaign). I absolutely agree that we need a dialogic approach which brings young men on board, and I’m hopeful that this has begun.

    Secondly though, I think we do need to be able to talk about structural sexisms and behaviours which constitute dominant forms of masculinity. Stephen Dempster has described ‘laddish’ masculinity as the contemporary template for young British men – which means that they often have to actively choose to reject it rather than it being only one of an equivalent set of options. The NUS Hidden Marks survey found that 68% of university women had been sexually harassed, most often by men from their own institutions. Our research also found that ‘laddish’ discourses have been picked up by Students’ Unions and club promotions companies and have started to influence popular culture, which gives them even broader reach. It may well be a minority of men who engage in the excesses of ‘laddish’ behaviour, but the pervasiveness of the discourse (and the fact that many men don’t feel able to challenge it, even if they don’t themselves participate) can create an environment hostile to women (and men who don’t fit in).

    I don’t see acknowledging this as demonising boys and men, I see it as highlighting problematic forms of masculinity that they also have to struggle with. There are huge numbers of good men out there – but part of that goodness is their acknowledgement of privilege and refusal to take that for granted, and willingness to challenge sexist structures and behaviours that they benefit from. This critical engagement with masculinity is what we need to encourage in our boys, and as Tina comments above, this will be helpful to all. Not all white people are intentionally racist – but we all benefit from white privilege and have a duty to examine it and make sure we are not doing things (consciously or not) or overtly or tacitly condoning things which contribute to racism in society. The response ‘not all men’ (or ‘not all white people’), while on some levels true, unfortunately also serves to derail such structural analysis and critical engagement.

    1. Hi Alison,

      Thanks for your reply. It’s good to hear that you have discussed some more positive examples of masculinity and male culture elsewhere.

      I don’t disagree with your point about the pervasiveness of ‘lad culture.’ Nor do I disagree that young men need to be engaged in a debate about this and other issues of structural sexism.
      However, I think that the kinds of generalisations I commented on previously can only make it more difficult for anything constructive to emerge from that debate.

      Regarding the acknowledgment of male privilege, my own opinion is that this is no longer a useful notion when talking about the reality of boys growing up in the developed world today.

      We have had a significant ‘reverse’ gender gap in most areas of education for over two decades now.

      Earlier this year the head of Ucas, Mary Curnock Cook, warned of a “huge sociological and widening participation issue” due to the disproportionately low numbers of young men now applying to higher education.

      Although there is no concensus on why this is happening, there is some evidence that aspects of western education systems may be weighted against boys.

      In a world where male concerns were invariably privileged one would expect this particular gender gap to generate a disproportionately large outcry, but this really hasn’t happened.

      Instead it is acceptable for political commentators and academics to regard it as a positive development, or to dismiss the problem with opaque phrases such as ‘boys are too busy trying to negotiate their masculinity’ which, insofar as they have any meaning at all, seem to place the blame on the boys themselves for the fact that the education system is failing them.

      The Global Gender Gap Index, which is produced annually by the World Economic Forum, and whose conclusions are repeated in headlines around the world, uses a methodology which results in the educational gender gap in the developed world simply vanishing from the index altogether. Its disappearance does not seem to have merited one iota of concern from anywhere within the mainstream media.

      Of course, none of this lessens the seriousness of the issues of sexual harassment and violence towards women that you are highlighting, but I think it does suggest that the approach being taken has the potential to be counterproductive as it relies on boys being prepared to acknowledge a version of male privilege which, I suspect, many would not recognise as being a reflection of their reality.

      I believe that boys and young men growing up today face problems and disadvantages which are specific to their gender and which are not just the result of patriarchal pressures and expectations placed upon them, but also the result of flawed strategies aimed at achieving equality.

      I think an approach which recognised this would not necessarily distract from the issues you are seeking to address but could instead make young men more willing to engage with you on them. As you say in the article, equality does not have to be a zero sum game.

  6. I think all of the issues you have identified for boys, John, emerge from crushing gender norms that emerge out of patriarchy. Indeed I really don’t share your analysis, and I would argue that patriarchy is stifling for all genders in that it limits the possibilities both in own individual ability to act and limits the gendered expression open to us, but it also structurally positions us. So yeh, that includes the ‘good men’ too- patriarchy is pretty rubbish for them as well as for everyone else. I don’t think anyone would argue that patriarchy (or heteronormativity) was about individual ‘winners’- rather than structural group privilege and a limiting and subordination of others that plays out in different ways at different times. Alison’s excellent research shows some of the fault lines that play out in sex-gender cultures within young people’s lives. Concerns about some cultures of masculinities at school contributing anti-school, low school engagement or a need to hide effort – a kind of ‘laddishness’- has been looked at elsewhere in work by Carolyn Jackson and Becky Francis – to name but two scholars.

    The other question is which ‘boys’ that you think are the ‘victims’ of ‘failed equality strategies’ – not all ‘boys/ men’ surely? Perhaps if you can point to some broader sociological work that evidences this effect on young men across the socio-economic spectrum? There are some real issues about how ‘race’ and social class play out in the UK education system. However, if we look at post educational outcomes, for example, in the continuing pay gap between men and women in work (including in top management roles)- I am not sure that I see men being structurally disadvantaged because of their gender.

    Anyway back to the blog at hand- Alison- I really enjoyed reading this post- as it reminded me of the first day I started work at a large university. The campus had been plastered with posters up for a unofficial national University beauty pageant- with different versions themed around ‘ethnicity’. All the girls featured were in bikinis/ underwear. I was shocked as this was so different from the campus culture of my own undergraduate years in the early 1990s- and I was struck how depoliticisation of the student union in that case- meant that the Union was seen as only a site for pleasure rather than politics – and this included eroticisation of publicity advertising night club events both on and off campus. This was interesting particularly at Universities with large faith communities, because obviously not all the students are drinking and clubbing. Even so, in the early 1990s whilst the occasional drunken lech may stumble into you on the dancefloor dancing to The Smiths – we certainly didn’t have a name for such an activity. Thank you for your analysis. It would be certainly interesting to see how this plays out not just at Russell Group universities, but also the large multi-faith city based campuses – and I am in agreement that respectful SRE within schools, colleges, youth settings ( and continued via promo campaigns within HE) are a must. Indeed, returning to my earlier theme, I would note that (patriarchal) (heterosexist) (heteronormative) sex-gendered cultures aren’t good for ‘men’ or ‘women’ and providing young people the ability to reflect and critique how these cultures work, and how the privilege displays of power and aggression and limit other ways of interacting and being a ‘good man’ (?)(!) is so important.

    1. Hi Finn,

      In your response to my comment you say that “patriarchy is stifling for all genders” and that it does not benefit all men equally.

      You also say that race and class, in addition to gender, will play a part in determining educational outcomes.

      I don’t really disagree with you about any of this. The difference between us is that I do not believe that every instance of gender bias can be traced back to an omnipresent patriarchy.

      You ask for an example of a flawed equality strategy that has caused problems for boys. An obvious one would be the strategy to correct the under-representation of girls in STEM subjects by making this almost the sole focus of the gender imbalance debate rather than just an important part of it.

      In 2009 the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report analysing male and female participation and outcomes in HE. The report looked at factors such as student age, type of HE institution, ethnicity and socio-economic background. It concluded that “on virtually all measures women outperform men.”

      This rather suggests that, when it comes to this particular gender gap, it might be more difficult to identify an equality strategy that can be said to have worked.

      None of this is incompatible with the idea that we still live in a society where patriarchal values are hugely influential, but I think it is incompatible with the idea that the patriarchy is all-encompassing.

      Moreover, the notion that all pressure to conform to gender roles, all gender discrimination and every form of sexism must always be the exclusive responsibility of the patriarchy leaves feminism, and the wider movement for gender equality, in a rather odd position – they must either have no influence at all or they must be the only political movement in history to have never got anything wrong.

      One only has to look at the pronouncements being made by some radical feminists, either about men in general or about transgender men in particular, to see that patriarchal values are not the only ones capable of producing “crushing gender norms.”

      My original reason for commenting here was concern over the way in which the debate about SRE is being conducted, in particular the kinds of generalisations that are frequently made about boys. This point has not been directly addressed, so I’d like to emphasise again what I think the problem is.

      There is a world of difference between saying, for instance, that boys need to be helped to resist the influence of ‘lad culture’, and simply saying ‘boys need to be taught how to treat girls.’

      The latter does not clarify that the problem lies with an external culture
      rather than an internal predisposition.

      For comparison, one might perhaps agree that schools could play a positive role in helping Muslim children resist the influence of radicalising elements, but one would not simply say ‘Muslim children need to be taught how to treat non-Muslims.’ Even the Daily Mail might think twice about putting that statement into a headline, and yet The Times put ‘Boys need to be taught how to treat girls’ on its front page.

      Is this approach likely to produce the kind of respectful and constructive debate on SRE that is undoubtedly needed?

  7. Many thanks for your blog Alison. Really important and shocking. I’m sure I’m not the only person who was unaware of how extreme the situation is and I’d like to hear more about how prevalent the practices you describe are – as I think that would help us all to make the case for the SRE you describe.

    What I’m less clear about is what lies behind your hypothesis in the penultimate two paragraphs that this appalling activity has economic causes. I’d be interested to know what led to that view.

    I also think John is right to warn of the dangers of presenting this behaviour as universal, since it risks further normalising it. Instead we need to make it clear that lots of men do not do this and that there are other ‘masculine’ identities out there – otherwise the myth that it’s just ‘what men do’ risks being exacerbated.

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