Understanding the roots of sexual violence and lad culture on campus

Half of female university students say they have been sexually harassed on nights out. Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Fresher’s Week is now in full swing at university campuses across the UK with thousands of new students celebrating the start of their university life. But while these initiations are seen as a big part of the university experience, it is important to remember there can also be a darker side to this process.

Over the past few years, the student experience has become heavily linked with “lad culture” with reports of excessive drinking, rowdiness and sexual harassment and violence almost becoming commonplace on campuses.

And questions are now being asked about how these behaviours have arisen in higher education, along with what universities are doing to tackle these attitudes and practices. Particularly in relation to casual sexism, sexual harassment and violence.

But “lad culture” does not simply arise in universities, it takes root many years before that in the primary classroom – where children can experience a range of sexual violence, including sexual touching and verbal harassment.

This was highlighted in a recent parliamentary report into sexual harassment in schools. The report showed that sexual touching, groping and taking and sharing nude photos without consent are everyday occurrences for some pupils. And our recent research shows that the attitudes and behaviours among university students are, in fact, very similar to those reported across schools.

Our research also found that sexual shaming, bullying and objectification in online and offline spaces is common in university settings. But quite often in both schools and in universities, these behaviours are dismissed by staff as “just banter”.

Feeling forced

My previous research on sexual harassment and gender violence suggests that not only is this “laddish” behaviour widespread among school children, but that some forms of harassment and violence are accepted and justified by young people themselves.

Young women in my research reported being pressured to watch pornography and engage in sexual relationships before they felt ready. And they talked about the intense pressure on them to conform to certain standards of appearance – being ranked and evaluated against porn stars and female celebrities.

Terms such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ are used towards girls on a regular basis. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

In other research, young people I interviewed said that it was “understandable” for boys to sexually harass girls in a range of circumstances – including refusal of sexual activity or perceived romantic or sexual rejection.

The use of violence against girls was also accepted in situations of presumed infidelity or dishonesty. And the pressure on boys to engage in harassment and violent behaviour was also clearly expressed. The performance of violent masculinity was seen as necessary to avoid being labelled as a “sissy” or worse.

Challenging behaviours

To fully understand why “lad culture” has “suddenly” become so common in universities, we need to look at how and where these behaviours begin. So it stands to reason that university initiatives to change “laddish” attitudes and behaviours need to build on what we already know about young people’s experiences of sexual harassment and violence.

We know that a key aspect of challenging “lad culture” at university level requires a “whole-institution commitment” to tackle sexual harassment and violence. And our current work aims to do just that – by educating university staff about sexual violence. This also includes staff understanding the impact on survivors, and developing their skills to respond empathetically and supportively to students who have been victims of abuse.

This forms part of the on-going work led, in the UK, by Brunel, Sussex and York universities – and simultaneously taking place at universities in six other EU countries. The work builds on existing research about sexual violence, to inform the development of education programmes for university staff. And the approach we are adopting in this work is key to understanding how such behaviours develop over the educational life course.

Drunken sexual harassment needs to be targeted in freshers’ week. wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

This represents a shift in higher education, where lad culture is often seen as the work of a “few naughty boys”. And where purely punitive approaches are taken to “dealing with” individual incidents, or where sexual violence is viewed as something which “doesn’t happen here”.

We need to accept that we cannot effectively challenge “laddish” behaviour at university without understanding the origins of gender-based harassment and abuse. And from there, it is essential that future university initiatives are informed by existing research about sexual harassment, abuse and violence. Particularly given the recent Women’s and Equality Committee report into sexual harassment in schools, which expresses the need to start work to tackle gender inequality and sexual violence much earlier – in schools.

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