University isn’t for men? No one told me or my students

Jem Bloomfield doesn’t recognise the picture of a higher education system that panders to female students and glories in marginalising their male peers

February 19, 2016
Male undergraduates
Source: iStock

Attempts to combat misogyny in UK universities are putting men off higher education. That’s the apparent drift of a recent blog post published in Times Higher Education. The author points to the disparity between men and women’s attendance at university, and links it to the programmes that have tried to reduce the levels of sexual assault, intimidation and gender discrimination at universities. The studies and initiatives from groups such as Universities UK and the National Union of Students designed to address a “lad culture” that makes female students feel unsafe have backfired by demonising male students and hounding them out of academic life.

According to this vision of campus culture, men have been targeted by a feminist establishment that ignored the actual completion of the equality project and went after more and more obscure forms of sexism, such as the over-representation of men at higher academic levels, or the culture of casual misogyny among some student groups. Young men have, based on these attacks on them and their interests, decided that university isn’t for them.

In producing a portrait of young men being victimised by a university system pandering to women’s demands, the author brings forward two pieces of evidence that strike me as particularly significant. First, young men are less likely to seek help from their tutors if they find themselves in difficulties, or to access campus support services. Second, certain student societies have been disciplined, or even shut down, because of evidence that they were promoting homophobia, misogyny or other forms of hate. This coalesces for the author – and no doubt for many people in this country – into a vision of a higher education landscape that discriminates against men and glories in marginalising them and their interests.

To me, it presents an almost exactly opposite spectacle. I certainly agree that the lower numbers of men asking for help (whether academic or pastoral) on campus, and the campus groups banned for hateful rhetoric about women and gay people, have a connection. But it isn’t an institutional scorn for men. It’s a toxic brand of masculinity that insists that to be a man is to be dominant, violent and uncaring. That’s what drives both a culture of treating women with aggressive disrespect and a refusal to admit vulnerability in intellectual or emotional terms. It’s an idea of men’s worth that depends on degrading and belittling others, while remaining totally invulnerable and untouchable.

I want to see the problems that men face at university solved. I want them to be able to access any pastoral or academic support they need. I want them to have the opportunity of a university education that enriches their lives and the possibilities that they see around them. I’m lucky enough to teach a lot of young men from various backgrounds who are intelligent, witty, thoughtful and respectful of the people around them. I have no difficulty seeing the value and contribution that these men make to university life. When I provide pastoral care for a young man who is struggling, or when I spend time in a university access workshop working with boys who might not otherwise consider attending university, it’s not because I have scorn for men and their potential.

It’s because I believe in them that I cannot accept the vision of university, and of the men within it, presented by articles like this one. If I did accept that vision, I’d be accepting that men were put off attending university by education on sexual consent. I’d have to believe that most young men see their social lives as a way of sexually exploiting and humiliating their female peers. I’d have to throw up my hands and accept that men are inherently violent. That the misogyny and homophobia we see on university campuses are natural parts of being a man.

I won’t accept that. I won’t be the one telling young men that their only value is in hollowness and domination. The world I offer my male students isn’t the one represented by a hazing ritual that leaves them injured, or a belittling of their feelings when they’re desperate. Misogyny and homophobia are scandalous aberrations of our culture, not natural expressions of every man’s personality.

If we genuinely thought that seeing sexism and rape culture being tackled at university put male students off coming to that institution, then we’d have to think very seriously about whether those were students we wanted to welcome on to any campus.

Luckily, I don’t think that. Let’s treat men at university as if they’re reasonable, responsible human beings. Let’s work to improve the provision of support services, and help men feel able to access them. The alternative – dismantling projects to improve the safety of other students in case men find the idea unappealing and don’t enrol – is an insult to all us men.

Jem Bloomfield is assistant professor of literature, University of Nottingham, and author of Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible (Lutterworth Press). He blogs at Quite Irregular, where this post was first published.

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Reader's comments (2)

I feel this is a very complex issue, which is not understood at all by our present, incorrect, genetics models. Yes, there are "a few Males" are acting out aggressively today. However, we as groups of women are being led to believe it is all men as a group. I have not seen this at all but have seen many more, wonderful caring men who are not at all like those few men. Also, we need to understand there is a much larger social change in our society today, again our false genetic models are keeping both men and women blind to this change. The belief Males should be strong allows more aggressive treatment of Males as early as one year, designed to create more layers of agitation, fear, and tension, so they will be prepared to fight, defend, and be tough. This is coupled with much "less" kind, stable, (very little verbal interaction) and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. It is this more aggressive, less supportive treatment that creates the toughness or maintained, higher average layers of – anger, fear, anxiety, preparation for defense, etc. This remains in the mind as higher average stress that take away real mental energy needed for academics. This increases over time and continued by society from parents, yes teachers, and others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance/distrust of others -parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; lags in communication, lower social vocabulary, poor sentence structure; also higher average stress: more layers of mental agitated conflicts and fears taking away real mental energy that hurt learning and motivation to learn. This also creates more activity due to need for stress relief from their higher average stress. It creates more defensiveness and wariness of others further limiting social and emotional growth. The higher average stress creates higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on the pencil and tighter grip) that hurts writing and motivation to write (hurting the writing and creating early fatigue). It creates much lag in development due to lack of care, creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also society gives Males love and honor (essential needs for self-worth) only on condition of some achievement or status. This was designed to keep Male esteem and feelings of self-worth low to keep them striving and even give their lives in time of war for small measures of love and honor. Males not achieving in school or other are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not an option for fear of coddling. Many Males thus falling behind in academics then turn their attention toward video games, and sports to receive small measures of love and honor not received in the classroom. This is creating higher maintained layers of mental work or average stress (new concept). Many Males are falling behind through their early years and so are not nearly as prepared for college work and success. As girls, we are treated much better and so enjoy more hope and care from society. Since we as girls by differential treatment are given much more positive, continual, mental, emotional/social support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls compared with boys. We enjoy much more continuous care and support from infancy through adulthood and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things: lower average stress for more ease of learning. We do enjoy much freedom of expression from much protection that makes us look less stable at times. Of course we can also use that same freedom of expression to give verbal, silent abuse, and hollow kindness/patronization to our Male peers with impunity knowing we are protected. We enjoy lower muscle tension for better handwriting/motivation; higher social vocabulary; lower average stress for reading/motivation; much more positive, trust/communication with adults, teachers, peers; and much more support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the more amplified the differential treatment from a young age and increased and more differentiated over time. Now with girls and women taking over many areas of society, we are enjoying even more lavishing of love and honor, while boys and men are still treated to be tough are failing more and so are being given even more ridicule and abuse by society and yes, also by girls and women using our protected freeness of expression and now, even from false feelings of superiority.
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