the limitations of ‘lad culture’

I am a feminist woman who has dealt with more than her (un)fair share of sexual harassment. Yet I still feel like I am being gradually worn down by the term ‘lad culture’ being brandished as the cause of all sexism and homophobia on campus. Everyone has heard of the term ‘lad culture’ yet it is still aggressively mainstream. I believe that this is because lad culture is symptomatic of a greater problem rather than the sole issue itself. Replace ‘lad’ with the word ‘rape’ and here we have the real and depressingly huge issue. Rape culture sounds far more daunting doesn’t it? Yet it is the bleak reality which many universities are totally complicit in.

What is lad culture? We need to separate the more harmful activities within lad culture from the standard aspects of university life. Many people, when they hear the term ‘lad culture’ recoil and defensively enquire “Whats wrong with liking a drink and hanging out with the lads?” Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. However university’s tame attitude towards rape culture allows ‘drinking with the lads’ to fester into something worse. With no zero tolerance policies or noticeable awareness/implementation of these policies there is nothing to stop the harmless aspects of lad culture dangerously spiralling.

The most recent NUS report suggests that only 1 in 10 institutions have a policy covering sexist and discriminatory behaviour in place, while many suggested to the victims to resolve matters ‘informally’ as opposed to seeking help from their institution or the police. Evidently then, universities are still harbouring an alarming reluctance to tackle lad culture for what it is: a weaker strain of rape culture. Here is how I believe we can eradicate sexual harassment on campus:

1. Be Specific

We need to work out which specific parts of lad culture are harmful, then we must name them, then we must stamp them out. As a for mentioned, throwing the term ‘lad culture’ around usually has one of two effects on those it is aimed at. The first being that ‘lads’ who benefit from or enjoy the harmful aspects of lad culture will simply take the piss out of the term and carry on unaffected. The latter being that so-called ‘good lads’, who genuinely don’t act in a harmful way, are likely to feel accused and therefore alienated by it.

For example, one of the key harmful aspects of lad culture is a distain for femininity. Hence why dressing up as a woman, pink fishnets and all, is one of the most hilarious things a ‘lad’ could do. What about using ‘feminine’ girls as fodder to be fucked and chucked in order to impress the lads while simultaneously dishing out abuse to ‘unfeminine’ girls? This attack on the feminine is also responsible, I believe, for the prevalence of homophobia ingrained in lad culture. Due to stereotypes of gay men exhibiting ‘camp’ behaviours – otherwise known as classically feminine behaviours – any man open about his sexuality is inherently more feminine and deserving of the same abuse directed at women.

In this example, the specific problem within ‘lad culture’ is called toxic masculinity. In order to eradicate this particular aspect, we must devote time to understanding how it is learnt and then come up with specific strategies for toxic masculinity to be unlearnt.

2. Empower Those On The Receiving End

All too often the solutions to lad culture revolve around ignored poster campaigns and ineffectual pleading with perpetrators to please, stop harassing women. All the while, those on the receiving end of the harmful aspects of lad culture i.e. sexual assault are waiting patiently for this ongoing onslaught of harassment to end. This is not good enough.

Universities across the UK must introduce zero tolerance policies to sexual harassment (and any other form of discrimination/abuse). Once these policies are firmly in place, serious money needs to be invested in ensuring 24/7 awareness of them. Ramping up awareness of these policies will not only empower more victims to come forward: it will also be a gentle yet firm reminder to potential offenders that sexual harassment will never be tolerated.

Furthermore, universities must ensure the reporting process is sensitive and supportive. This means allowing friends to accompany the victim, BELIEVING THE VICTIM, and treating them with total respect and honesty. It also means treating students reporting sexual harassment from the LGBTPIAQ+ community with the same respect and dignity. In other words, a complete departure from the horror stories of ridicule and alienation that I have been pained to hear about in the past.

3. Take action

They’re called ‘zero tolerance’ policies for a reason. Why should a student who admitted to groping a fellow student be allowed to continue their education in the same institution as the person they assaulted? Why must the victim feel wary, on their own campus, of bumping into that person again? Zero tolerance sets a strong precedent: if one offender is kicked out of uni and reported to the police over a seemingly ‘minor’ incident, such as groping someone, then the campus dynamic is gonna radically shift so that potential/actual offenders are the ones who will be wary rather than their victims.

4. Engage

There are some people (namely but not always cisgender men) who heartily enjoy the benefits of sexism and lad culture, who do not want to see it go. These people are vile and I will not waste any time trying to change their minds. I believe that there is a strong majority of men who do want to help in the fight against sexual harassment on campus. I also believe that we shouldn’t paint these men with the same brush as the former. Doing so will only lead to their alienation from a cause that they would have otherwise been ready to help out in. We cannot let that go to waste.

Ask any woman who calls herself a feminist what the most helpful thing a man can do to be a good ally and she will say ‘call out his friends’. Instead of lecturing sports teams about what consent means, we should be engaging with them and teaching them how to call out their friends behaviour within the realms of lad culture. We need to work together rather than relentlessly taking the piss out of one another.

In conclusion, although  ‘lad culture’ is a useful term for paraphrasing a severe problem behind closed doors, I believe it’s practical use has become too vague and therefore limited. It is my current priority (as Newcastle Uni’s Gender Equality Officer) to pressure my Student’s Union into implementing and raising awareness of existing zero tolerance policies against sexual harassment. I am a firm believer that, instead of endlessly pleading with sports teams to stop binge drinking, sexual harassment can be eradicated through providing it’s victims with easy reporting processes, action against the offender in question and, most importantly, unwavering support.

Hot Feminism (It’s A No From Me)

I was very down for ‘Hot Feminism’. I envisaged a feminist manifesto arguing that ‘hotness’ could be channelled and embodied by anyone. I thought, just maybe, I would feel better about my thighs after reading it. Although feminism has long advocated the right of women to look however they want (regardless of patriarchal standards of beauty), I can still understand why some women may feel the need to reinforce this particular aspect. After Polly Vernon’s set at Hay Festival, however, it became clear that Vernon’s new, exciting brand of feminism was just, well, the same feminism we’ve had for 100’s of years but from a confused, conceited and deeply privileged perspective.

Vernon (like so many others) has been exposed to the myth that feminists are angry, man hating, hairy legged shrews- who of course will berate a woman should she choose another path. A myth that was actually created through a reactionary barrage of misogynistic abuse in early 19th Century media as a way to ridicule and dismiss suffragettes fighting for the right to vote. Instead of deconstructing this myth, Vernon has bought into it and blames her discomfort with patriarchal beauty standards on these imaginary women – rather than the patriarchy.

She clearly thrives off the validation that subscribing to patriarchal standards of beauty invokes. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – nothing at all. My issue is that Vernon feels the need to tear herself away from the feminist movement in order to promote something that feminists have been advocating for years: choice. There was an awkward moment during Vernon’s set at Hay Festival where she asked the audience to raise their hands if they had ever felt ‘less of a feminist for liking salad’. Honestly, liking salad has never been something I’ve felt attacked by feminists for doing and the nervous laughter from the audience suggested that this was not really something that had ever occurred to us.

Vernon’s main beef is that feminism has become ‘anti female’ in that it shames other women for having differing views. She fails to make the distinction between shaming and criticising. There are ‘feminist’s’ who do not believe that trans women are real women, who believe it is their decision to decide whether or not Muslim women everywhere should be able to wear a Niquab, who refuse to take disabled women’s opinions seriously. This is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. We absolutely need to have arguments in the feminist community, we need to flesh this out. The ‘sisterhood’ is not and will never be a bunch of women sharing exactly the same opinions.

Vernon leaps on the idea that women shouldn’t be criticising other women- primarily because it acts as a shield for her. She admits that, yes, women can be dicks yet refuses to allow that any other woman would be warranted in calling her a bit of a dick head. God forbid anyone accuse Vernon of being a ‘dick’ then she will immediately label them ‘trolls’. It’s very important to make the distinction between trolls and critics. Trolls send you anonymous, intimating and usually irrelevant bile. Trolls are the internet’s reaction to women possessing agency. Critics, on the other hand, are rarely anonymous and provide genuine feedback from a point of interest. To dismiss critics (a.k.a anyone who disagrees with her) as a troll works perfectly for Vernon. Any woman seen to be disagreeing with her is therefore ‘letting the side down’ rather than expressing valid criticism of her work. In characterising her critics as scary trolls she is also perpetrating that old trope, afore mentioned, of the scary, man-hating feminists who demand that all women must mirror their militancy.

I refuse to become the scary, shaming feminist that Vernon so excitedly accuses her critics of being. She has a huge and valuable place in feminism but at the moment what she is selling is a tangled, vulnerable wreck of:

– Her enjoyment of practising traditional ‘feminine’ and idealised beauty
– The fact this does not make her immune to sexism
– Needing someone to blame for this
– Blaming feminists instead of the patriarchal, male dominated society.

Her act of blaming other feminists is, in itself, conforming to what the patriarchy wants her to do. I am not telling her to hate men; I am encouraging her to redirect her discomfort where it will have an impact. She speaks so passionately about women supporting other women yet at the same time tears down feminists for ‘excluding’ her due to her hotness. I absolutely believe that women should be able to define and revel in their own ‘hotness’. However I do not feel that feminism has ever been an obstacle to this. Feminism advocates looking however you want, regardless of, or in tune with patriarchal standards of beauty.