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Freshers’ Week is a daunting experience for many people, as they leave home and start to forge their own identities as adults out in the big wide world; to get an understanding of their self-worth and maybe begin to see where it comes from. It’s also a time to come together to form a collective identity as part of a new social group, a college, a university. Unfortunately, in many cases for women it is the time when the messages confronting them are ones that emphasise exactly how society will see them; where their appearance and their sexual readiness are what matter and what they will be judged by, held in esteem for or ridiculed for. Often these messages are presented as “just a joke”, but they can have a lasting effect on women and on what behaviour is deemed acceptable.
We see this in various instances – from comparatively subtle comments and jokes, to women experiencing harassment or sexual assault during a week that can already be tough for the majority of people. The Everyday Sexism Project was set up to demonstrate the impact of these kind of comments and behaviours on the women involved, proving that seemingly casual instances of sexism have a much wider impact. More seriously, jokes that stereotype groups of people can lead to violence and crime against those groups being excused. A topical example of this is recent events in Ferguson, where the racist profiling of a black man meant he was unjustly killed. But this is often the case in crimes against women too, where rapes are excused due to the perceived characteristics of a woman. The events of the last year at Lancaster demonstrate the detrimental impact sexism during freshers’ week can have for women involved on their week and on their enjoyment and engagement with university life as a whole.
Just over a year ago, as I was nervously awaiting my freshers’ week at Lancaser, LUSU passed a Zero Tolerance policy and a motion on everyday sexism, making clear their stance that sexism in any of its forms would not be accepted. But then, only weeks later, Freshers’ Week arrived and the policies seemed to be forgotten. I was one of many new students to experience sexist posters and “slut shaming” chants, which were led by some of the same officers who had passed the policy and tweeted only days before about how important it was. The response when challenged? “It’s just a joke”. Within this context, a rape was committed during one of the freshers’ nights. The blame for this does of course lie firmly with the perpetrator and nobody else, but suddenly the messages being fed to us over that week weren’t so funny anymore. Complaints were upheld and many involved learned from their mistakes but the damage had been done in terms of creating an environment where it was acceptable to judge women on their sexual availability. The events at Lancaster last year are a clear example of rape culture – a culture where rape, sexual assault and harassment is normalised, trivialised or excused.
When LUSU elections came around, the situation didn’t improve, as comments about the appearance of women candidates (and worse) had to be stopped. Many women candidates had stories to tell about having to field similar comments – and ones about their relationship-status and sexual histories and preferences – while out campaigning. One woman stated that the comments were so hurtful and frightening that she did not feel able to campaign on her own. Other women, who could have run but chose not to, expressed this as one of the reasons why. It is hardly surprising then that the number of men candidates massively out-weighed the number of women in all LUSU elections last year. Clearly if we are serious about equality, this underlying culture needs addressing – and not just through passing a policy but through a change in attitudes.
So how do we achieve that? Well, progress has certainly been made since this time last year. The complaints against officers were upheld, which was a good start. LUSU ran a white ribbon campaign encouraging men to sign-up to a pledge against violence towards women and the culture that encourages it. Lancaster University Feminist Society ran Consent Week in response to rape culture in Lancaster and beyond. A Women’s Liberation Officer was established (alongside other liberation officers) demonstrating a real commitment to engaging with students who face oppression. And, a group of Lancaster University women set up the Women in Leadership Group in order to make further positive changes. Laura Clayson became only the sixth woman in LUSU’s history to be elected Students’ Union President; the first in 8 years.
This doesn’t mean we can slack off. It remains to be seen whether these positive changes will make a difference to the level of sexism during this year’s freshers’ week, but with the past year proving that this behaviour, if tolerated, can continue to have a profound impact on women’s experience of university as a whole, it is crucial to allow the gains made in the past year to develop further. Furthermore, individual instances of sexism during freshers’ week need to be challenged wherever possible, by freshers’ themselves and by those in charge.
If you hear someone making “jokes” or “having a bit of fun” in a way that perpetuates this culture, don’t laugh along. If you feel safe, explain that this isn’t funny; it’s degrading. Most importantly: think about the comments you make yourself. If you’re a woman don’t feel that you are exempt from making sexist remarks that contribute to this. Any of us who have grown up in this culture that sexualises and objectifies women is capable of perpetuating the inequalities; it’s not just the men. Thankfully we’re all capable of challenging them too. Some women may say they are okay with those jokes – after all that is how society has told them they are valued – but are they really okay with the culture those jokes create? LUSU doesn’t support events which break the Zero Tolerance policy but there are still plenty of them out there. So before you attend a club night that encourages wet t-shirt contests or has women dancing on the bar as “entertainment”, think about the messages they are giving about how they view women, and don’t support that with your custom. Changing a culture isn’t easy, but with every person who chooses not to participate in a sexist comment or to challenge those who do, rape culture is eroded just a little bit more.