Ways to tackle lad culture in the university environment

In September 2020, a group chat created by a number of male freshers at Durham University was exposed. The group chat was called ‘Durham Boys Making All the Noise’ and included explicit discussions of ways to use date rape drugs to sexually assault female students. The chat also revealed that the members intended to compete to ‘have sex with the poorest fresher’. 

Whilst shocking, the chat isn’t the first of its kind.  In 2019, the Warwick rape chat scandal exposed a similar group chat, where a number of male students at Warwick University engaged in discussion about raping fellow female students. In 2018 screenshots from a racist group chat, involving a number of male members of the Bracton Law Society at Exeter University, were revealed. The screenshots not only displayed racist behaviour, but also sexually explicit discussions about fellow female students. In 2014, footage emerged of freshers at Nottingham University performing a sexually violent chant on a bus about digging up a female corpse and having sex with it. 

These high profile incidents paint the picture of a deep-rooted problem in university environments, that of Lad Culture. In 2012, the National Union of Students (NUS) produced the first major report on Lad Culture at British Universities. The report defined Lad Culture as “a group or pack mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption and ‘banter’ which was sexist, misogynist, or homophobic.” In further research, the University of York offer anecdotal accounts on Lad Culture such as “‘slut dropping’ (where male students offer female students a lift home but then leave them stranded a long way from home) and ‘hazing’ (initiation ceremonies usually linked to male sports teams), as well as fancy dress parties with themes such as ‘pimps and hoes’ and ‘geeks and sluts’.”

The NUS report detailed that 50% of participants believed there to be “prevailing sexism, ‘laddism’ and a culture of harassment” at their universities. It concluded that “Sexual harassment and violence were found to be very much related to ‘lad culture’, including verbal harassment, ‘catcalling’, physical harassment and sexual molestation”, and that groping in nightclubs was a normalised part of going out. 

In 2018 the Revolt Sexual Assault Survey found that ‘70% of female students and 26% of male students have experienced sexual violence’. Similar findings were published by the charity Brook, which revealed that ‘56% of respondents had encountered unwelcome sexual behaviour, including inappropriate touching, explicit messages, catcalling, being followed, and being forced into sex or sexual acts’. The research by Revolt also found that ‘8% of female students said they had been raped at university’, which is double the national average of 4% for women across England and Wales. 

This growing body of research clearly details the specific issue of sexual violence in the university environment. This is, in part, due to a lad culture that is able to thrive in this specific environment, with unique parts of the university experience being going out regularly, a drinking culture, joining societies and sports clubs and living and socialising in groups of people of a similar age for the first time. However, it’s unlikely that these aspects of the university experience are going to change. Even with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is likely that student life will adapt, should it need to, to accommodate these aspects of the university experience. This in itself is not a problem. Not all those involved in a sports society or who go on a night out will engage in sexually violent behaviour, but looking at the evidence, there is undeniably an issue with lad culture being normalised in these social spaces. So how do universities tackle this issue?

Mandatory consent lessons:

At St. Andrew’s University in July there were 9 separate reports of rape against members of a US style fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi. The university came under fire for their handling of the sexual assault allegations, and in response are to provide mandatory consent lessons for all students. The consent lessons will be taught as a compulsory orientation module before students are allowed to matriculate. 

Perpetrators of sexual violence are often concerned with power and as a result of this, are oftentimes aware of the non-consensual nature of what they’re doing. However, recent discussions have revealed that there is also an issue with people not having a clear understanding of what is consensual and what isn’t. These consent lessons will be the first formal education in consent for many students, and will hopefully work to make students more aware that affirmative consent needs to be sought before any sexual activity. Ideally, mandatory consent lessons should be provided in sex and relationships education in schools before students reach the university environment.  

Positive masculinity workshops:

The Good Lad Initiative was founded by Dr. David Llewellyn. It is a feminist organisation aiming to create ‘positive, equal gender relationships’ and to transform ‘the behaviours, attitudes and skills of men and boys’ through promoting a positive masculinity. They offer 1 and a half hour workshops for students in university teams, societies and colleges. The workshops are delivered primarily to men, but there is a mixed gender follow up workshop, encouraging students to engage in a dialogue about gender and masculinity. They work within the context of preventing the growing numbers of female students who experience sexual violence at university. Although their workshops specifically tackle lad culture, Llewellyn makes the point that “blaming lad culture for all misogyny shuts many young men out of a conversation they need to be a part of.” The organisation revealed that ‘over three quarters of participants report that the workshops gave them a chance to reflect on their own values and actions, challenge group norms, and that they felt better equipped to act positively in complex gender situations’. This is significant because it shows the effectiveness of putting the onus on men, engaging them in the conversation and moving away from a narrative of victim blaming. 

Improve systems by which students report sexual assault:

The Revolt survey revealed that ‘6% of victims reported their experience to their university’ and only ‘2% of victims were satisfied with the reporting process’. Brook also revealed that of their respondents, only 8% reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault to the university. A number of university students at prominent Welsh universities like Cardiff and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama have come forward in recent months, detailing stories of university systems that don’t offer safety or support to survivors when they report their abuse. Universities need to establish better safety measures and reporting routes for survivors. The lack of these inadvertently supports a culture where ‘boys will be boys’, rather than sending a clear message and holding them accountable for their actions. 

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