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.