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.