This article carries a trigger warning for descriptions of sexual assault.
Last week, a female student wrote to me about the increasing sense of ‘rape culture’ amongst UK students and young people. She said: “I feel utterly hopeless. I feel that my hard work will always be wasted in the eyes of some, because as I am a woman, I am only good to have sex with”. She is one of hundreds who have contacted me with the same message since I wrote about the sexual politics of Fresher’s week only a couple of months ago.
When I use the term ‘rape culture’, I don’t mean to exaggerate or sensationalise. I am not referring to isolated incidents, but to a widespread trend towards articles, websites and events that sexualise, objectify and dehumanise female students and women in general. I am talking about entire websites where across hundreds of articles about women not a single female name appears; they are replaced with “wenches”, “hoes”, “clunge”, “skank”, “sloppy seconds”, “pussy”, “tramp”, “chick”, “bird”, “milf”, “slut” and “gash”. They are part of a growing culture in which the sexual targeting of female students as “prey” is actively encouraged, even when it verges on rape and sexual assault. It is an atmosphere in which victims are silenced and perpetrators encouraged to see crimes as merely ‘banter’ - just part of ‘being a lad’.
Many people are already aware of the infamous ‘Uni Lad’ website, which was temporarily deactivated after running an article that seemed to condone rape, saying: “85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds.”
On the new, supposedly ‘cleaned up’ site, a current article describes how to “get the girl away from her protective friends…and into your bed”, reminding readers: “She's hammered. She will believe anything.“
But Uni Lad is just one of a burgeoning plethora of sites, from ‘Confessions of a Uni Student’ (177,000 ‘likes’) to ‘The Lad Bible’ (1.2 million ‘likes’). And the trend seems to be growing, with around 70 ‘confessions’ pages for different UK universities on Facebook alone, many launched in 2012. Though the pages themselves are ostensibly unisex, the tone is frequently misogynistic. When a female user posted on the Confessions of a Uni student page, describing how she gave a false number to a man bothering her in a club, the responses included “I would’ve knocked her the fuck out!” (four ‘likes’) and “I’d kick her straight in the cunt for that” (12 ‘likes’).
National Union of Students Women’s Officer Kelley Temple said:
“The stories being posted on these confessions pages, in my opinion, are hate crimes. A lot of the time what they’re actually doing is boasting about sexual assault, and sexual violence and expecting a pat on the back for it – it’s part of rape culture.
“It’s publicly normalising a culture where people are gloating about committing crimes against women and that’s being seen as something funny, seen as something to laugh about, to share.”
The sites also implicitly encourage sexual pursuit of unwilling women. One Lad Bible “commandment” states: “Any female proving hard to bed shall be referred to as a Nobstacle course.” A current article describing a holiday ‘points system’ (5511 ‘likes’) includes 3 points if they “slip a finger in on the dance floor”. One comment on the piece reads: “Surely a straight 20 points for cherry picking. (Smashing a virgin) And having the blood stains to prove it”. Another story seems to echo the recent Ched Evans case in which a woman was raped whilst too drunk to consent: “Unfortunately my mates wench passed out due to excessive drinking, silly wench. Whilst i [sic] was getting some from my wench, I turn to find out my mate had jumped in bed with her friend.”
The overwhelming backlash against the rape victim in the Ched Evans case, who faced a barrage of online abuse from footballer Evans’s fans, is testament to the degree to which these attitudes are infiltrating wider society.
Emma Carragher, Chair of the Cardiff University Women’s Association, agrees: “This slut-shaming has very real impacts – firstly, it encourages sexual assault – it becomes ‘banter’ – and secondly, it stops women from reporting it. Because sexual assault has become so normalised…Report rates are so low not because sexual assault isn’t happening (ask any female student and she’ll have a story of a friend or a friend of a friend’s assault) but because women aren’t reporting it.”
Indeed, a recent National Union of Students survey showed that whilst one in seven women had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student, only four per cent of serious sexual assault victims reported the crime to their educational institution. In 60 per cent of staking and sexual assault cases, the perpetrator was a fellow student.
Meanwhile, Facebook site ‘Holyland Lad Stories’ (16,189 ‘likes’), which was condemned by the student unions of Queen’s and the University of Ulster, continues to flourish. This week, the site creators were even offered a column in the local newspaper, the County Antrim Post. When criticised on Twitter, the ‘lads’ behind the site responded “Get a f*ckin grip. We'r havin a bit of harmless banter!” A current post appearing on their Facebook page describes a graphic incident of a man knocking a woman “clean out with one smack” and leaving “her for dead on the side of the road”.
A student from Queen’s University told me “I don't find it funny. These pages are not pages for jokes. There are no punch lines. They are not sexist jokes, they are just displays of sexism, displays of misogyny… I find it threatening, I find it terrifying...This is not banter.” She asked to remain anonymous because “I am afraid of these people. I am afraid that these attitudes that we thought were ebbing away are coming back with force. I am afraid that by taking a stand against pages like this, I will mark myself as a target.”
And this disguising of misogyny and rape culture as ‘banter’ isn’t only to be found online. Earlier this year, the Imperial College newspaper Felix published a ‘joke’ article providing male students with a recipe for the date rape drug rohypnol, as “a fool proof way” to have sex on Valentine’s day “for cheaper than the price of a hooker”. Last year an Exeter University society printed a “shag mag” including an article speculating on how many calories a man could burn by stripping a woman naked without her consent. And in wider society, rape jokes abounded at this year’s Edinburgh fringe, whilst a recent Belvedere vodka advert appeared to make light of sexual assault.
Indeed, many stories in recent months seem to suggest that the online tropes and suggestions are spilling over into real students’ experiences.
One told The Everyday Sexism Project about a male peer who “outright told me I was having sex with him that night… he was calling me a slag, a slut, a whore, for refusing to sleep with him and wanting to keep my virginity.”
She continued: “a few days later in a club…he just appeared straddled himself across my legs and started pinning me against the seat forcing kisses on me, and putting his hand down my underwear…and said "Now I've got you"…my friends came over when they saw and he quickly fled.“
Meanwhile the normalisation of rape culture is extremely distressing for students who may have already suffered some form of sexual assault. One student wrote: “A boy in my year at university nicknamed "rapey". A small cosy room in the college bar commonly known as "the rape room". I got eyes rolled at me when I didn't laugh at this name, and asked why I objected to it. Not really something I want to have to explain.”
This atmosphere contributes to the behavioural norms students will take with them into the world of work. Camilla Turner, a recent Oxford graduate, says “Male students who think it's fine to make sexist remarks about women will continue to think its fine in the banks, law firms and businesses they will be working at in ten years time.”
These should be our best and brightest. We shouldn’t be losing them to a culture of misogyny sickeningly disguised as ‘banter’.