About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (a bad wordplay on Orwell's "double plus good" and old machismo - I'm the realest after all) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear' or 'Unripe language'), the umbrella of several 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. Why is this in English why everything else in Dutch? Because I want to gun for a much wider audience here. Also, my literary English isn't good enough, otherwise I would always write in English. In 2020, I released my debut novel 'Fragmentariërs' (it's written in Dutch, though who knows I may one day make an English translation).

Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Student life and sexism, revisited

A frat bro in the United States sends an e-mail to his bros how to 'lure rapebait' and apologises after the outcry. The @EverydaySexism channel was littered with demeaning and predatory remarks from British male uni students as freshers' week started. In Belgium and the Netherlands, a lot of student associations have long carried a reputation for boorish sexism in the name of 'tradition', with associated hazing rituals that some consider pointless and humiliating.

Last year, I already wrote a piece on sexism in student life, but I feel the topic is worth revisiting because of my personal experiences. I'm going to be focusing on Belgium here, but I suspect that a lot of what I'm saying will be true for the Anglo-Saxo and German-speaking world as well.


First notions

When I was 18 and started my first year at the university, my mind was filled with preconceptions about student life and student clubs. I thought the people involved with the club that was officially affiliated with my study program seemed nice enough, but never went to any of the events with a harder edge. Like most people, I only signed up because they offered a discount on our required reading list.

If you'd have asked me to make a semantic field around 'student club', it would have contained the following words: alcohol, hazing, humiliation, abuse of authority, sexual degradation, bullying, sexual predation, stupidity, pointless rituals and partying.


Formative years

Due to circumstances, I became close friends with one of the club's board members in the next academy year, and he slowly introduced me to everybody else. To my astonishment, I was proven wrong about most of my preconceptions (the alcohol and partying thing was totally true, though, and I have zero regrets about either).

In the following years and as I further matured as a person, I got involved in student life more deeply, and eventually spent four years on the board of my student club, one of which as president, overseeing the day-to-day affairs and planning of a club that counted some 800 members and a hard core of about 50 very active members.

As for many people, my university years were formative for the rest of my life. I developed some - hopefully - life-long friendships, gained more perspective on things, and developed skills that would prove to be essential for my professional life. My study program gave me insight and knowledge, but it was my time at the student club that taught me the most about human relationships, power, empathy and responsibility.


Rose-tinted view?

You might say here that I'm seeing things through rose-tinted glasses here. I mean, what about the stupid traditions and humiliations of freshmen? For one thing, our club didn't really do hazing - our study program tended to attract people who were revolted by or scared of the practice, and as a club, you're supposed to be there for your potential members.

Of course, during the 'cantus', arguably the most traditionalist aspect of Flemish student life, people who went out of bounds were invariably punished for it. But here's the thing: nobody was ever singled out for disproportionate punishment, and the nature of power dynamics during a drunken sing-along fest is always a subtle play between leader and audience, not a one-man show where a tin pot dictator rules the day.

Our mutual familiarity also ensured that we often knew where invisible boundaries were, how we could rile each other up or prank each other in good nature. To some, it may sound horrible that forced a fellow student to douse themselves in a cascade of beer, but we knew each other. He knew what punishment he was setting himself up for, the audience knew, and we'd shared drinks, food and stories many times before.


Youth organisations

At the end of the day, a student club is not that different from any other youth organisation. Practices and traditions between chapters vary wildly, but they all provide a context for people to gain a sense of belonging, have fun and develop skills that are important later in life.

So why are student clubs saddled with this highly negative image? Is nothing true of all those wild, lurid tales of excess and abuse? Let me get to that in a moment. As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, before I entered student life, my perception of student life was negative, too. I considered this in my years within the club, as well, and here are my hypotheses for this negative image:

- Sensationalism and alarmism. If it's got to do with young people and sex, you can bet the media love turning it into an overblown story about 'kids these days', a tradition that stretches back to the Sumerian civilisation. A good deal of slut-shaming may be involved as well.

- Fetishisation of students. As much as high school is sexually objectified in the US, so is university in Flanders. For many men, female students are either a fantasy throwback to their own university years, or a fantasy of something they could never have.

- Ignorance of higher education. The majority of people never went to university and has no clue how student clubs are run or work, or are even openly hostile towards the display of intellectualism and freedom they provide.

- Exclusion. Some clubs are exclusive in nature, or conversely, some people are afraid of signing up because of prejudices like I had, resulting in a weird form of mockingly jealous resentment.

- Visibility. The most extreme student clubs are also the ones that are most visible in the street. They don't even need to be extreme to be visible: during the 'cantus', a lot of people wear the typical worn lab coat, ribbon or cap in the street, and a cantus happens to be one of the most rowdy activities, so the association is quickly cemented to outsiders' eyes.


So what about the horror stories then?

As I've noted before, student associations are highly heterogenous in nature. Some have hazing rituals, some don't, some cling to sexist traditions that other clubs frown upon, some have a reputation for producing power-mad little tyrants, some are very accepting and horizontal.

There is no point denying that student life has a sad history of sexism. One need only to read some song lyrics from the official 'codex' used at the sing-drink festivities to understand this. There's also no point in denying that indeed, bad or indifferent leadership can give budding sexual predators the chance - if they aren't already in power themselves - to manipulate and humiliate young people.

This really is a point that student associations have to address. Be as it may that I've always tried to curb excesses - and so did many of my friends and fellow members! - there have been moments between individual members or members with some social clout that were clearly not okay. Stupid and sexist comments. People too drunk to resist advances (both male and female). They were the exceptions rather than the rule, but I still regret not having the clarity of mind then that I do now.


What to do?

Student clubs have made progress in the past decades. For example, most cities have a system of charters, procedures and controls for hazing rituals, and the steady influx of women and minorities has taken off a lot of hard edges. Within and between clubs, there are big debates about what aspects are worth retaining, and under what form, and what aren't.

More progress could and should be made. Tradition was and is never a good excuse for behaviour that is little more than power abuse and discrimination. Senior leaders in the student community should definitely be more vigilant, and not hand-wave away criticism as the bile of a few bitter people.

Many young people love to experiment and push boundaries, in all possible ways. A healthy, vibrant student club can provide a safe context, with like-minded people, where that is possible, whether an inexperienced student wants to start dabbling in politics, is curious about trying out new types of beer, or really looking for romance. It's all possible.


Take note

It would serve critics not to discount the lived experiences of many people like me. For us, our student time and our involvement with a student club was a formative experience in a good way, turning us into the resilient adults that we are today. Obviously, many student communities have glaring issues to address, but let's stop this confirmation bias that so many people have about student life.