About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Student life and sexism

I posted about this on another forum, too, but I also wanted to share it on this blog. It's a reaction to the outrage on this article:
Last week, the Everyday Sexism Project received a message from a student about to start her first year studying physics at Imperial College, London.

The message included a forwarded email, which she said had been sent by the Physics Society to all first year physics students. It read "Freshers' Lunch...This will be mainly a chance for you to scope out who's in your department and stake your claim early on the 1 in 5 girls."

For female students to be sent an email from a university society marking them out as sexual prey before they’d even started their course seemed extreme and inappropriate. But a few days later, we received another email, this time from a freshers' week volunteer. He wrote of his distress at the "horrific normalisation" of sexist attitudes and sexual pressure during the week’s festivities.

He described a group of excited male first-years who told him about “slut dropping”. The process, they explained, involves driving around town with friends in the early hours of the morning and offering a lift home to a young woman they deem a “slut” (usually a woman in a “post-club state”). After asking her address, they drive as fast and as far as possible in the opposite direction before forcing the woman out of the car and using a camera to film her “standing by the side of the road as they drive away”.  It’s difficult to know how widely this has occurred but the concept is reminiscent of a disturbing new trend of ‘slut-shaming’. On one occasion, the first-year added, it had taken the girl eight hours to get home. When asked how he knew, he explained that they were ‘friends’ on Facebook.

Another message came from a student distressed about the inclusion of a “Slag ‘n’ Drag” themed club night as part of the freshers’ week festivities at the University of York. The university’s student newspaper, Nouse, describes the event as “the one night of Freshers ‘…where a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it’”. It goes on to say that “the girls rock out in their best bra and French knicker combo [sic]”.

A quick Google search demonstrates that such events, where male students are given the opportunity to dress in a humorous way whilst girls are expected to dress sexually or arrive scantily clad, are far from rare fixtures on freshers’ week schedules. Themes range from ‘Tarts and Vicars’, ‘Rappers and Slappers’ and ‘Geeks and Sluts’ to ‘Golf pros and Tennis hoes’.

The Lancaster University Students’ Union website boasts an event entitled “Slut-droppers vs Moshers” and the Women’s Officer at the University of Sheffield Students’ Union wrote an open letter to complain to local club Carnage about a “Pimps and Hoes” themed night, which she said seemed to be “exclusively aimed at students”. This hasn’t stopped a “Pimps and Hoes” event being advertised on the University of Derby Student Union website, or the similarly inappropriately named “Cherry Popper presents…” event appearing on the University of Wolverhampton Students Union site, while Dundee University Students’ Union proudly announced its own “CEOs and Corporate Hoes” themed night.

Perhaps the intention is light-hearted. But it is sobering to consider that these fresh cohorts of new students, perhaps amongst them the CEOs of the future, both male and female, are being sent the message by their own universities that men are CEOs, Pros and Geeks – powerful, talented, intelligent, whilst women are condemned to derisive sexual valuation alone.

Meanwhile, female first-years at the University of Kent were “horrified” when their freshers’ week culminated in a show by a hypnotist who allegedly made them perform lap dances and told them “When you wake up, you will think he touched you up just now.”

When we asked about freshers’ week experiences on Twitter, responses came thick and fast:

“At our [Student Union]…girls had to suck the choc off a kit kat chunky placed between a blokes [sic] legs”.

“Contest where girls had to dance on stage. Most cheers win. Girls encouraged to take off items of clothing. No guy version.”

“I think sex acts are a big 'funny' thing at uni. My friend was asked to deep throat a hotdog for free drinks.”

One woman wrote to tell us that the sexual pursuit of female freshers was nicknamed “seal-clubbing” at her university, effectively highlighting the worrying dynamic of vulnerability added by the fact that many students are experiencing their first week away from home. Pressure to take part in sexual situations and ‘make a joke’ of serious issues impacts male students too, with one particularly disturbing report we received reading:

“Flatmate quit lacrosse team when given team 'rules' stating that members don't date - that was what rape was for.”

Another wrote: “men's hockey team had fancy dress party at Student Union bar. Theme was rape victims. So awful its [sic] unbelievable but its [sic] true”

A 2010 study conducted by the National Union of Students revealed that of a nationwide sample of 2000 female students, 14% had been seriously physically or sexually assaulted, 68% were subject to sexual harassment and nearly a quarter had experienced unwanted sexual contact whilst at university. Given the severity of these statistics, it might be time to try a new theme for freshers’ week.

Author’s note:  The third paragraph has been amended to clarify that there has only been one reported incident of 'slut-dropping'.

Student unions and associations all over the world seem to have a serious (image) problem with this. Allow me to weigh in with a little experience from inside such a union - I was a member for four years, and on the board for three years, one year of which as president. Of course, you may also take my opinions and experiences with a grain of salt because I'm a man, and maybe doubly so because I'm from mainland Europe (though I doubt the latter really matters).

- Media love, love, love to report in the grossest and most sensasionalist terms about young people and sex. Whether the take is that young people risk disease, sexual predation or a prediliction for unhinged experimentation, there's always an undertone of apocalytpic fervour about it. That's not to say excesses don't exist or some trends can't be worrying, but their proportional occurrence is usually overstated. For instance, a few years ago, local media reported a craze where girls would insert vodka-soaked tampons into their ladyparts to speed up alcohol absorption. The story was widely debunked afterwards, but it stuck with many people as an example of "degenerate youth".

- Student life in particular seems to carry that twisted undertone of being young and getting to have as much sex as you can or want, while for the majority of students, it's anything but. Most sudents are somewhat shy, not that experienced and yes, curious, but most guys certainly aren't embryonic rapists waiting to hatch from their Nice Guy shells, and neither are most girls okay with being objectified for the sake of social acceptation. I don't doubt that what the article says is all true, but in my experience, stuff like that was not the norm, and mostly occurred with student unions that were already populated for the largest part by guys (most unions here are co-ed), or unions that had a seedy reputation to begin with, and thusly only attracted seedy people. Not that it makes it okay or that it shouldn't receive any scrutiny, but I do want to point out that it's not the norm, at least where I'm from.

- Since 2002, the student union I was part of annually hosted such a 'pimps & hoes' party. One of the reasons for its success was that most of the girls who came felt comfortable with it was because they knew the majority of people there personally and as such, had a good idea in advance about which guys could be trusted and which were sketchier. The union kept doing it every year because of the huge success. In 2005, the union restricted it to members only (and only if they were dressed up), or early ticket buyers. We'd done this because the 2004 edition had attracted a lot of wrong people, mostly mid to late 20-something guys, not dressed up, who'd come to ogle scantily clad girls and did not know anyone there. I'm not denying that the whole party theme is open to criticism, but I'm saying that dress-up parties like that don't have to be a raunchy free-for-all. Since 2005, creepers never really had a chance, though I don't know what it has been in the last few years since I'm not a student anymore and too old to attend anyway.

- If you're in the middle of it, it's sometimes really hard to see your own privilege. I think we did a lot of good things (no hazing rituals, going out our way to make people feel welcome and not being exclusive), and my predecessor (who was a woman), myself and my immediate successor clamped down hard on the old school sexist attitude of a lot of guys, but I do also see that we let people get away with things that were definitely not okay. That's the flip side of that comfortable context: some people feel more at ease and less judged for experimenting and 'going wild', but some people are pressured into going farther than they really want, and that's not cool.

- I'm not sure whether there is an upsurge of misogyny in student life or not because I'm not part of it anymore, but it wouldn't surprise me. However, I think the fundamental discussion after this article should how society/media seem to be judge, jury, accused and defendant when it comes down to creating attitudes like that: create the impression student life is going to be all about no-consequences sex, then shame everyone involved for doing it by breathlessly reporting on the excesses of that attitude.