NUS: That’s What She Said!

Rosannah Jones
Louise Wilson

An NUS study published almost in conjunction with events that unfolded in the GUU debates chamber has shed light on the widespread nature of campus sexism and ‘laddism’ at universities across the UK.  The study found 50% of study participants identified “prevailing sexism, ‘laddism’ and a culture of harassment” at their universities.

The University of Glasgow suffered considerable criticism in the national media and was labelled as having a “misogynistic culture” as a result of the incidents that took place. Glasgow remains unaffiliated with the NUS but this report suggests sexism is part of a wider issue at many UK universities.

The report, titled ‘That’s What She Said: Women students experiences of lad culture in higher education’, shows a strong correlation with charges made against the type of behaviour that has been ascribed to the GUU. These findings include the ways in which the majority of students surveyed defined ‘lad culture.’ The study states that: “‘Lad culture’ was defined by our participants as a group or ‘pack’ mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption, and ‘banter’ which was often sexist, misogynist and homophobic.”

Such activity that has been excused under the term ‘banter’ is common within the university setting. On the ‘Sexism at GUU’ page on Facebook, one anonymous poster recalled: “On a night out at in first year, my flatmates tried to get us to play a ‘game’ called Fat Girl Rodeo. The objective was to grab a girl on the dancefloor, tell her you were going to rape her, and see how long you could hold on.” This type of behaviour is often seen as a joke, despite its sexist overtones.

Another research conclusion was the increasing potential of sexism in such environments as extra-curricular and sports to spill over into sexual harassment and humiliation. Nightclubs and their promoters were also blamed for such behaviour, as groping was considered to be part of a ‘normal’ night out and events such as ‘Booty Call’ held last year at Garage encourage such behaviour.

Heather Whiteside, GUU Debates Convenor, stated the findings of the NUS report matched her own experiences. She said: “I had a girl tell me that she expects to be groped when she goes to clubs, and that for me was the most upsetting thing. All the horrible things that have come out on campus, and on the internet, that was the most upsetting thing because I realised that I do too. I was ashamed of everybody in society and myself for not feeling comfortable speaking out about it, and not feeling like it’s something that needs to be talked about.”

These attitudes and behaviour are by no means confined to university campuses but there is a connection in the traditional activities the GUU facilitates and those that have been blamed in the report for encouraging ‘lad culture.’

The sexism debate scandal at the GUU has been presented in the press and particularly through social media as the culmination of a history of misogyny within the Union and the common perception being that such an event was predictable, if not expected to occur. The reaction of University of Glasgow students following recent events has shown that there is a strong degree of campus consensus that sexism has become normalised in the GUU or at the very least something to be expected. The response to the student-led ‘Rally Against Misogyny’ held on the same day as the release of the NUS report also conveyed anger that such behaviour has become accepted and widespread in circles of the GUU.

First-year student, Roanna Simpson, was involved in the rally and was also behind the creation of the ‘Reform the GUU’ Facebook group which has now attracted over 900 people. Roanna said that despite not having been the victim of sexism at the GUU she had numerous reasons for her involvement and stated: “I wanted to be in a position where I could help those women who have experienced sexism. I think quite a lot of people are very apathetic about it, but I’ve always been of the strong opinion that we shouldn’t just accept things. The reaction from the student body has shown that people do care and I do genuinely believe that if we can keep the momentum up with the campaign then we can change things.”

The ‘Reform the GUU’ group has gained a considerable network of first-year student support and this further validates the claims that even for students in their first year of university, often unaware of who control student unions and societies, sexism and misogyny is an all too familiar culture at university. The NUS report proposes a summit to discuss the problem of ‘lad culture’. This idea has been supported by a number of bodies used to defending women’s interests, such as The Everyday Sexism Project, The Equality Challenge Unit and the British Universities and Colleges Sports.

As a result of the events at the GUU Ancients competition, the University Senate are now investigating the events and such culture within the University. The in-house disciplinary hearing at the GUU, which was due to take place on March 20th, was postponed in order to allow University management to complete it’s own investigations.