18 Nov 2011

Degrees of sexism - my university adventures in feminism

After reading this excellent post by Cherry Morris for The F Word about how universities, far from being the enlightened, sexism-free seats of learning you might expect, are often rife with anti-feminist attitudes, I started thinking about my own time at university. I went to a high-ranking modern university, which I partially chose out of instinct that a newer university would be free of the shackles of traditions which seem to ensure centuries-old unis remain nepotistic moneyed old boys' clubs. I was there from 2002 to 2005, and had a great time. It's fair to say that, although my feminist leanings had been in place since I was in single digits, university did 'raise my consciousness' and cemented the feminist beliefs that were already dormant within me. Having access to a vast library where I could go at any time and pick up books written by academics dissecting the issues of porn, prostitution, rape, body image, work and countless more was amazing, and I could often be found amongst Sociology shelves filling my brain for fun, even though my degree wasn't even in Sociology! I did take elective courses from the Sociology department since I found my chosen subject - Philosophy - less than fulfilling, and taught entirely in a style that I thought I'd escaped by not going to Oxbridge. My course seemed to consist of being taught to regurgitate what old white men thought about the world, and little else. Apart from one week on Carol Gilligan's Ethics of Care (which could be argued is about the least feminist text in the world, labelling women 'naturally nurturing' and suggesting ethical theories based on our tendency to hug small children), there was no feminist philosophy, or even female philosophers. In fact there was no philosophy that didn't come straight out of the white western world, and usually from the mouths of those who studied at Oxford or Cambridge. But I digress.

Like Cherry Morris, I found myself differentiated from my female peers fairly quickly. The wave of familiarity that hits me when Cherry writes "I disliked it when my bum was pinched in a 'playful' manner, while other girls simply squealed and flapped" is something of a relief - to know that I wasn't the only one amazed at the casual sexism that went unchallenged amongst (allegedly) the brightest minds in the country. Although no one was audacious enough to physically harass me, my peers clearly enjoyed seeing my enraged reaction on showing me, say, an email forward of "100 things women are incapable of doing" and accusing me of being 'OTT' when I went apoplectic at a point on the list that said "Understand why flirting leads to violence". Boys laughed and pulled cute puppy-dog faces when I shouted at them for telling me jokes such as (genuine example) "What do you say to a woman with two black eyes?" "Nothing you haven't told her twice already". I usually felt completely alone in challenging such vile misogyny, especially during my first year when I lived in halls of residence with only 8 other girls and 17 boys. It wasn't that I minded being in the minority; more that I was dismayed that none of my alleged 'sisters' were willing to fight the good fight with me. Instead I got long-suffering eye rolls, patronising smiles, and arm-pats that said '"Oh dear, Chas has gone 'all intense' again".

I did have at least one friend I considered as strident as me, and when I lived with her and another smart, savvy female friend in our second and third years, I felt more cushioned from the provocations of casual sexism from over-privileged boys, and the disappointing acquiescence of blinkered girls. However, it was hard not to feel alone and discouraged in caring about feminism. The on-campus newsagent assaulted your eyes with Nuts, Zoo et all manner of sexist crap the moment you walked in to buy a paper, and it was only in my 3rd year at uni that I saw this challenged by an emerging anti-sexism group. Boys and girls in our hall of residence regularly referred to a female acquaintance as a 'streetwalker' because on nights out she wore a lot of make-up and thigh-high boots. Attitudes towards sexual violence were frighteningly pedestrian - when a foreign student was raped and beaten so badly she was hospitalised during our first year, the onus was on girls to surrender their independence, and men to 'look after them'. Cue a rash of 'white knights' offering to walk girls home after nights out, blissfully unaware that the men most likely to attack a woman are the ones she lives with and knows best.

I remember having bitter rows with a well-meaning male friend who, if I dared to leave a nightclub alone, would chase after me and insist on walking me home. When I put forward the theory that statistically, he and the boys I lived with were far more likely to rape me than any stranger lurking behind a bush, he became deeply aggressive. I remember having to explain to a male sociology PhD student how all men benefit from the threat of rape as a form of social control, even those who consider themselves 'the good guys' for not raping anyone, because it keeps all women in a state of fear and hence beholden to men for 'protection'. In his 5-plus years studying sociology, this sensitive, thoughtful, well-educated man genuinely hadn't come across this theory once. I found that very telling, both about the teaching priorities of his department, but also about the culture of our university - you just weren't encouraged to think about or question sexism, and you were often loudly shouted down when you attempted to.

I still think about the student who was raped, and how it later transpired that another student had been assaulted on the same pathway a week earlier, yet the university had 'covered up' this story. The campus newspaper rightly made a stink about how in prioritising its reputation, the university had effectively let another assault happen when publicising the first attack would probably have meant all girls avoided that pathway like the plague, and saved that second student from a horrific and brutal rape. However, I felt like this only dealt with such a tiny fragment of the problem. I felt the usual outrage at the suggestion that it is down to women to adjust our behaviour to avoid rape, and wondered why no one else ever questioned or kicked against this. Why were my fellow students happy to be treated like children, pets or invalids, herded around at night by protective males as if our freedom was a mere indulgence, and only to be granted us in daylight? Furthermore, what would highlighting the site of one rape as a danger zone really achieve? What was to stop the rapist reappearing on a different path, in the student union, in halls of residence? I wondered how many unreported attacks had occurred not in the stereotypical setting of a darkened alley, but in students' own rooms, where statistics tell us rapes are far more likely to take place?

It wasn't all shite - the anti-sexism society that started in 2004 when I was in my last year at university is still going strong there. Since I graduated in 2005 I've seen a resurgence of interest in feminism from young women, and a visit to Feministing.com or The F Word confirms that I'm not the only woman in her 20s to give a shit any more. Activism in the form of Reclaim The Night/Million Women Rise marches, the Feminism In London conventions, the growth of feminist networks up and down the country, and the countless feminist voices in the blogosphere, is greatly heartening to a 27 year-old who was once a 19 year-old wondering if she was the only one. Still, that's not to say students today are likely to have it much easier - I would not want to be navigating the world of sexual politics amongst boys who are likely to have drawn their sex education from porn, and girls who have been taught to be as apolitical and ruthlessly individualistic as possible. But university can teach you so much that's not in the course materials - and sometimes the main thing you end up learning is what you don't want to be.

***Update added 15.10.2015. The campus rape I mention earlier took place in 2003. A man was arrested and charged with the crime in December 2014, although there have been no further updates on the case since.***

1 comment:

Alice Saint said...

I'm so behind on everything that I only just read this. I'm really glad you wrote it -- though it's an odd, uncanny feeling to read something that captures so exactly what we went through. It makes me a little sad, because you really are very clear-eyed and fair and don't exaggerate anything here: this is by no means a dramatic horror story, with the exception of those assaults on campus... and yet it reminds me what a struggle it often seemed even to get intelligent, sensitive people to understand what the problems were. I'd also all but forgotten how ubiquitous the jokes about domestic violence and similar things were - so many depressing instances spring to mind (must say, I can't think when anyone I actually know last made a joke/comment like that in my hearing -- or rather, I can, but it was quite a long time ago. Don't know if that means people have grown up, or I'm pickier about the company I keep!).

I hope the current revival in activism among young women is reaching the really young ones, because as you imply, they may well have it worse than we did in a lot of ways. I think of things like the 'it gets better' campaign in the states - I hope some equivalent message is getting through to teenage women here too. I do think there are often valuable lessons to be learned about solidarity and intervention from gay rights activists among others. Argh, sorry, rambling on! Anyway, sorry for belated response. Keep up the excellent work (all the recent posts, not just this one).