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Sexual Harassment and ‘Lad Culture’ at University

  • Opinion

Florence Goddard, BA Politics

Last month Business Secretary Sajid Javid wrote to UK universities, ordering an inquiry into reducing violence against women at universities, concerned that ‘lad culture’ is ruining women’s university experiences. According to Javid, the taskforce will ‘ensure that universities have a plan to stamp out violence against women and provide a safe environment for all their students.’

On the face of it, Javid’s plan is great. The fact that the Tories are even acknowledging the damaging effects of lad culture is certainly an improvement – and anything that will reinforce the message to universities that this behaviour is not ok has got to be a positive.

Over the last academic year the NUS carried out an analysis of lad culture in universities across the UK. The results were predictably disappointing. Just 51% of institutions surveyed had a formal policy on sexual harassment, in a country where over 25% of female students reported having been groped or touched inappropriately whilst studying at university. One university handbook even encouraged students to speak to their attacker first in order to resolve the issue ‘informally’. It’s clear that our academic institutions have a problem.

But in practical terms, Javid is really offering nothing new. We already know that this is a huge problem. We don’t need another inquiry; what we need is action. He hopes his taskforce will lead to new ways of dealing with harass-
ment, such as legislating against it. What he doesn’t seem to realise though is that sexual harassment is already legislated against: it’s illegal.

Suppressing this behaviour at university is impossible when it is so insidiously prevalent in the rest of society. Javid told the Guardian newspaper ‘We do not tolerate this behaviour in any part of society and I’m not prepared to let it take place on university campuses unchecked.’ The problem is, though, we do tolerate it. Violence against women is widespread throughout the UK, regardless of class, age or occupation. This is not an issue that starts at 18 and ends at graduation. It doesn’t come from nowhere.

Research from UK-based charity End Violence Against Women estimates that around three million women each year experience violence. Evidently this goes far beyond university. Lad culture and violence against women may be more concentrated in some universities, but it is just a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women, which are reinforced in education, the media, the law and cultural attitudes every single day. This is an issue that starts way before university; when young girls are told that being chased and harassed by a boy is a sign that ‘he likes you’; where young women are told they should feel grateful or flattered when they are catcalled on the street.

And it goes far beyond it too; from the gender pay gap to the 80,000 women of all ages who are raped in the UK each year. Whilst I welcome the fact that Javid recognises violence against women is an issue and is committed to dealing with it, I can’t help but feel pessimistic about what he’s really going to achieve. To combat violence against women and change society’s attitude towards women is going to require a much wider approach; from the way in which we educate and bring up our children to how we deal with sexism in the media, politics, law and everything in between.

It would be brilliant if he were able to bring about real change in the way in which women are treated in higher education – but right now I’m not holding my breath.

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