Tackling university culture’s underlying issue of sexism
Esther Huntington-Whiteley investigates the recent scandal involving freshers at Durham University and the deeper issues in society that need to be addressed regarding sexism and rape culture.
Content Warning: This article discusses issues around sexual assault
At the beginning of this academic year, screenshots from a Durham University freshers group chat titled ‘Durham Boys Making All The Noise’ were leaked online, revealing students joking about sexual assault. While the messages are shocking, they are not surprising; at least not to the countless university students with first-hand experience of the toxic ‘lad’ culture that continues to pervade our country’s higher education institutions. These incidents have happened before, and they will continue to happen for as long as we treat them as isolated events rather than a fundamental societal issue.
Some of the messages are worse than others, and while there is nothing illegal about, “posh lads competing on fucking the poorest girl,” language and sentiment such as this is deeply problematic. Comments such as, “I’ll just shag a different bird every night for a bed” and “can’t get enough since girls don’t put out”, may seem like harmless ‘fun’ to the people writing and receiving these messages, but they are enabling a far more insidious culture of slut shaming and victim blaming when it comes to the issue of sexual assault on our university campuses. Writing “so many ppl get accused of rape” followed by “I’m always worried about it after having sex with a girl” is an irony too dangerous to overlook. Consent in sexual encounters is not complicated, you either have it or you don’t. So, who’s going to tell him?
They are enabling a far more insidious culture of slut shaming and victim blaming when it comes to the issue of sexual assault on our university campuses
This behavior is undeniably shameful, but the shamelessness with which it has been adopted by so many proves that the issue does not lie solely with the people in question. One member of the chat wrote, “first rule about boys club, you don’t talk about boys club”, making a reference to the film Fight Club, while another advocated that, “everything we say should be taken with a pinch of salt, that’s what epitomises a lad or boy.” Presumably these students are still teenagers, but they have already decided to live their lives according to people’s very worst expectations of them. This desperate need to fit into harmful societal categorisations has severe consequences for everyone.
Since the group chat was exposed, students have expressed regret about choosing Durham University, and fear about attending. As you would if you knew that these were the people that you would have to call your peers. But how much longer are we going to pretend that this situation is exclusive to this particular university and these specific students, rather than acknowledge it’s going on everywhere else too? One tweet reads, “the worst thing about this Durham University lads group chat is that you’ll find the same thing happening at most, if not every, Russell Group uni across the country.” Whether this feels like a prevalent issue, Exeter no doubt depends on each individual student’s encounters, but the normalisation and subsequent dismissal of attitudes such as these makes it easy for us to deny that there is anything actually wrong.
It feels more important than ever to fight against the institutionalised patriarchy and sexism which inevitably underlies occurrences such as this
Evidently, this problem needs to be tackled far more effectively in order to make university a secure and comfortable environment for all students. University Youtuber and Durham graduate Jack Edwards tweeted, “@ durham uni, time to take serious action when current students and/or future freshers express racist and sexist views rather than only ‘condemning’ them on social media… it’s literally your job to make this uni a safe environment for everyone — do more and do better.” It seems unlikely that these students will face any serious punishment for their actions – just like so many before them – but even if they did, it would not change the fact that people still think and act like this. We all have a responsibility to do something about it: call out your friends and family, challenge your internalised prejudices, don’t ignore the voice in your head that tells you when something feels off.
Rape culture may be the university norm, but it doesn’t have to be. We have reached a point in our social conditioning where we should know what it means to be a good person, and so should constantly be considering how to implement this into our everyday lives and call out such behaviour. As we move forward into a future which is so uncertain, collectively and universally, it feels more important than ever to fight against the institutionalised patriarchy and sexism which inevitably underlies occurrences such as this.