The culture of “laddism” in universities is linked to the transformation of education into a commodity, which shares responsibility for a failure to take seriously sexual harassment in higher education.
That was among the points raised at a conference on sexual harassment in universities, which also heard that those trying to bring the issue to the attention of institutions are too often dismissed as “feminist killjoys” or “whingeing women”.
Co-organiser Anna Bull, a researcher in the department of culture, media and creative industries at King’s College London, opened the event at Goldsmiths, University of London, by pointing to “the lack of specific expertise” on and the “relative invisibility” of sexual harassment of students by staff.
Tiffany Page, who is completing a PhD at Goldsmiths, wanted to know how many students “fail to complete their studies each year because they have been subjected to sexual harassment by academic staff”.
She also warned delegates about the way institutions often seek to “individualise the problem. A complaint is made about an individual, not a department, and not a culture. When sexual harassment is formally recognised, the institution treats it as a problem of an individual aggressor” – who may well go on to another institution where students “have no knowledge of the abusive behaviour of their new supervisor, their new lecturer”.
For Alison Phipps, reader in sociology at the University of Sussex, “‘lad culture’ and neoliberal culture are natural bedfellows”.
Everywhere we find “education markets, institutional markets [and] sexual markets brought together by similar modes of assessment and audit”. Students rate their universities and lecturers. Many also rushed to “Rate Your Shag” pages on Facebook (until they were taken down), where mainly male students followed instructions to “name them, shame them and if you must, praise them” in relation to their casual sexual encounters.
Anyone who sought to protest about harassment, Dr Phipps continued, faced huge obstacles. “Bringing a problem to institutional attention frequently means becoming the problem…[Those dismissed as] feminist killjoys and whingeing women are bringing the university into disrepute – as if the prevalence of violence in the higher education sector has not brought us all into disrepute already,” she said.
Sara Ahmed, professor in race and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, described sexual harassment as “a social justice issue”, since it functioned as “a means through which the academy itself becomes available only to some…[Those] who are harassed end up being removed or removing themselves: if the choices are ‘get used to it’ or ‘get out of it’, some quite understandably ‘get out of it’”.
It was not unusual, Professor Ahmed went on, for “academics who identify as progressive or radicals”, and are critics of “audit culture and managerialism”, to treat equality regulations as “a way of managing unruly bodies and desires…Feminism becomes translated as moralism; those who challenge sexual harassment are understood as imposing moral norms and social restrictions on otherwise ‘free radicals’.”
The conference also included the reading of a play called The Girls Get Younger Each Year and workshops addressing themes such as the legal framework, building inter-institutional links and the specific challenges faced by transgender and black and minority ethnic women.