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

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + + uncapped commission + benefits: SThree: Did you ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits + uncapped commission: SThree: Did you kn...

Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence