Student Experiences of Sexism

The issue of sexism at university cannot be measured in statistics alone. The real impact becomes apparent through the stories of those who have been affected by it.

Not all men engage in ‘laddish’ behaviour and the sort of pack mentality, often involving heavy alcohol consumption, may only be attributable to a minority of students. However, these ‘lads’ seem to dominate the social side of university life. Many of the respondents to the NUS reports (some 40 female students) emphasised that the social sphere was where campus culture was formed more generally.

Many of the women said lad culture had damaged their personal lives:

  • Misogynist jokes and banter circulating in friendship groups make them feel uncomfortable
  • Pressures to engage in profuse sexual relationships make it difficult to establish and maintain commitments
  • Stories of sexual harassment and molestation are common, as are accounts of sexual violence
  • Students feel they are unable to challenge the perpetrators and are unsure of where or whom to report to and get help.

One female student reported: "I’ve been silenced in a classroom by someone who is one of the lads if you like, because I didn’t agree with something he said. He essentially did a repeat of what David Cameron did, the whole 'calm down dear' thing. Even the teacher who was female didn’t challenge it. She just looked at her papers, shuffled them, looked really awkward. I knew she had heard, everyone had heard."

Another reported: “The boys in my halls used to sing a drinking song about rape, which obviously was just disgusting. I think there are a lot of jokes about women and a lot of so-called 'innocent' groping that goes on, which actually serves to make you feel very embarrassed, nervous and uncomfortable."

There are graphic accounts of the humiliating initiation rites carried out in the name of Freshers’ Week:

  • Boys scoring points for taking girls’ virginities, prizes for the ‘lad’ who collects the most bras from ‘sluts’
  • Parties with names such as the fancy dress ‘Slag ‘n’ Drag, or even ‘F*** a Fresher’
  • An event where girls lined up on stage and told to race to be the first to strip
  • A party where a girl was expected to down a bottle of beer that a man was cradling in his crotch

It is not just women who find this behaviour unpleasant. Unsurprisingly, many men feel uncomfortable around lad culture as they feel pressure to conform to social expectations amongst peers.

Polly Williams, a senior policy adviser at the Equality Challenge Unit stressed that “a dominant lad culture may also damage the student experience of many male students, who either feel that they have to conform, or become disengaged from campus life to avoid it.”

A first-year medical student from Yorkshire agreed, stating that “the lad/rugby culture is totally ridiculous and immature. I guess it would maybe dissuade some people from joining certain clubs and societies (rugby being the main one) or even from going to uni altogether!”

One Natural Science student said it was inevitable that peer pressure would influence the behaviour of students, and that men may go along with laddishness simply to avoid being considered uncool if they object. The student said he was concerned that belittling behaviour was “now so widespread that it was almost normalised at university.”

Many men have also been victims of sexual harassment.

A bioscience student spoke of his experience of being harassed: “I was followed around, stalked almost, by a group of cheerleaders who hung around where I lived and rang me up during the night. It was weird and uncomfortable and I didn’t like being singled out.”

Laura Bates, the author of Everyday Sexism, explores sexist behaviour at universities

Everyday Sexism abounds with tales of sexist behaviour directed from lecturers, ranging from physical groping, sexual advances and suggestive comments, to degrading remarks about the abilities of the female students. “On the first day at Cambridge University, an ancient don asked whether I'd had to ‘bend over’ to get in,” reported one. Several claimed that male academics simply ignored or else belittled them. One was told that “nice young women don’t ‘play with science'.”

Girl sitting huddled on the floor ©iStock/VojislavM

Sexist, misogynist and homophobic attitudes sometimes spill over into sexual harassment, humiliation and occasionally violence. In the NUS research one student said: “I don’t know anyone, any of my female friends who haven’t had some kind of encounter that was harassment whether it be verbal or physical since they’ve been at university.”

In a debating competition at the University of Glasgow, one woman reported being booed and shouted at throughout the speeches until finally one young male competitor shouted, ‘Get that woman out of my chamber!’

The study finds frequent examples of a sexualised culture on campus involving the objectification of women, jokes about rape and aggressive 'banter'. This was similarly reflected in Everyday Sexism: “Just got called a slag by two guys sitting outside the University of York library," said one woman. Another reported an article in a University of Exeter charity ball booklet in 2011 that revealed how many calories men could burn while stripping a woman naked without her consent.