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 / Trainee Sales Executive

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate/Trainee Sales Executive is re...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer - Peterborough - £18,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Cambridgeshire - £23,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Front-End Develo...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Application Support Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Independent Dating

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

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower