The shadow of misogyny in higher education


University sports teams have been emailing, socialising, and wearing shirts recently. Sadly, not the usual forms of communication, entertainment, or attire, but displays of misogyny. Many students stressed these were “isolated incidents”, but isolated incidents can still evidence cultural norms and entrenched values.

NUS statistics show that UK students are reluctant to report abuse, a fact corroborated in my locale by Cherwell’s survey of sexual violence in the University of Oxford. This is despite the passionate and engaged work of unions, feminist groups, and initiatives like the Good Lad Workshop. A culture of victim-blaming and woman-shaming in UK higher education contributes to this.

Most students are vocally appalled by these events. But misogynistic behaviour casts a shadow that demands separate confrontation. Often, the character of informal discussions about various reported incidents, whether on or offline, serves to sustain the very culture that cocoons “isolated incidents” of uncontestably shocking behaviour.

Lately, I have been following the reaction to one comment piece published after the Oxford story broke. The article discussed events in my home institution, but the spectrum of rejoinders to this piece highlighted several issues.

Many people conceded that Oxford student life has misogynistic elements, but claims that the problem is no worse than in other intuitions. Rhetorically, these remarks allude to the thought (or unconscious desire) that things cannot be so bad in Oxford as a consequence. This attitude casts misogyny as a comparative concept, like tallness, which is only newsworthy in its extreme incarnations.

Others worried that to write about misogyny in one institution is to deny it exists as a problem elsewhere, or that to focus on some men is to problematically ignore the good lads.

Still others rightly highlighted the positive initiatives being introduced to tackle misogyny, but then argued that since action is being taken, the problem cannot be that severe. Of course, this line of thought neglects the fact that action is taken because the culture for women is so bad to begin with.

Some responses to those who speak out about egregious behaviour are more deeply a part of misogyny’s shadow. They usually take the form of psychologized claims against an author and their intentions, not the issue they write about. Headlines, such as this - “Is Oxford University a Training Ground for Misogyny” - are decried as sensational, with authors subsequently being depicted as self-serving. Or an author is addressed personally. Women are frequently portrayed as “misandrist, or as needlessly aggressive and confrontational.

Much of this critique is gendered, and the ways some students respond to those who write about misogyny subtly reinforce its cultural force. A female author is not simply an equal but inaccurate interlocutor in shared debate, but belittled as aggressive or awful. Why: because she writes forcefully about misogyny. Women, it seems, are not supposed to make a fuss.

More generally, the claim that female responses to misogyny are sensational or aggressive lie in tension with the linguistic ingenuity frequently wielded to assert that misogynist emails or rape jokes are “banter”, “not intended to harm”, or “exaggeration”. Apparently, men can mobilize un-nuanced language for their amusement, but the timely and impassioned deployment of rage or rhetorical tropes by a woman prompts scorn. One good justification for a “sensational” headline is that it describes sensationally horrible events. Another powerful reason is that people are wilfully blind to the darker underbelly of their institutions and need rousing.

Part of the problem is that students are too defensive of their institutions. Perhaps we are more deeply invested in safeguarding our reputational capital, now that we have to pay more for Higher Education. Whatever the causes, however, too often students and alumni over-identify with their university, or college, and so cannot countenance that things are not good for everyone.

“If things are so bad, why are you there?” they ask critics, maybe to avoid asking why if things are so bad, why they themselves are there. But if good friends or engaged citizens can level criticism with affection, so can students. Let’s learn to parse our anxious impulses and defensive agitations. We can safely praise many features of our institutions whilst contesting misogynistic culture; we can respond to arguments without stepping into misogyny’s shadow.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Software Developer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing software co...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate / Digital Account Exe...

Guru Careers: Junior Designer / Design Graduate

£18k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Junior Designer / Design Graduate to join...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager / Graduate Trainee

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Key Sales Account Manager/Graduate Trainee i...

Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas