“Rappers and Slappers”, “Slag and Drag”, and “CEOs and Corporate Hoes”. They may sound like adult films, but these are the names of some of the university-affiliated freshers’ week parties that undergraduates have been invited to attend on campuses and nightclubs across Britain.
When I chronicled the highly-sexualised freshers’ week experiences that female students have reported to the Everyday Sexism Project in an article for Independent Voices last week, I expected a trickle of responses.
But I received a deluge of similar stories from hundreds of students – male and female – who are appalled by the macho culture that seems to set the tone of social life at UK universities.
Parties at which female students are pressured to dress in revealing or sexualised outfits appear increasingly common. To pick just one example, a woman described a freshers’ week initiation for male rugby players: “All the rugby freshers had their trousers around their ankles and were standing in their boxers. They were encouraged to pick one of us to “grind” with them (gyrate against them). One guy grabbed me and pulled me on to the dance floor and then told me I had to grind on him or else he’d have to do a forfeit. When I refused he told me I was frigid and grabbed a different fresher.”
Another reader, Sorrel Kinton said: “I attended one of these events and was turned away at the door for wearing normal clothing … I was told I could come in if I flashed.”
The idea that students must choose to participate or risk being labelled “uptight” is a recurring theme. Nesrin Samli, who graduated from Liverpool University this summer, told The Independent, “it’s very different for people who feel more shy or uncomfortable, because you don’t have a choice – there were strict initiations and you had to do what everyone else did or you were just missed out.”
Of course, students can choose to avoid such events altogether, and many universities offer a wider range of activities, from chill-out nights to afternoon teas. But there remains a strong sense of pressure to participate in the main events, as students experience the nerve-wracking process of finding their feet for the first time away from home. Samli says: “Even if you don’t want to dress like that, it’s a matter of whether you want to be part of the group and have friends.”
Emma Carragher, vice president of the Cardiff University Women’s Association, agrees: “There’s a danger that new students feel pressured into taking part because ‘everyone else is doing it’ – if they want to take a stand against objectification they’ll be seen as weird which is obviously not the first impression they want to make.
“More than that, these events … send the message to freshers that this is normal … The first year of university is where your political and ideological views are challenged and reformed, so universities should be striving to promote the idea that women are not objects rather than encouraging it.”
A 2010 National Union of Students study revealed that 1 in 7 of the female students surveyed had been the victim of sexual assault or violence.
Yet several of the reports we have received reference “rape-victim themed” fancy dress parties and “banter” about sexual assault. One woman said that when she was at university two years ago, 15 members of a male-only drinking society were suspended when a “hit list” they had compiled of female students as sexual targets became public. Another wrote: “I the only girl in politics tutorial on feminism. No real discussion. Just jokes on women and kitchen. Including from the tutor.” Another student showed us a copy of a poster she said was used to advertise unisex football trials at her university. The top half consisted entirely of a picture of a woman’s breasts in a bra. Beneath, the text began: “Now I have your attention lads…”
Many would dismiss some of these incidents as harmless, or claim that themed events like “Pimps and Hoes” have little real impact on student welfare. But these reports suggest a disturbing culture of female students facing sexual objectification and demeaning labels, and the use of such names for official university and student union events sends a powerful message by implying the institutions’ acceptance or approval of this culture.
The idea of complicity is of great importance here. From the number of reports we have recently seen emerging in the national press on the theme of sexual harassment in the workplace over the past 30 years – most notably the Jimmy Savile scandal – it has become clear how easily victims can feel oppressed by a culture of normalised acceptance within a large institution. Likewise, young students at a vulnerable life stage might be affected by the suggestion that certain attitudes towards women are condoned by their educational institutions. It should be the responsibility of all universities to behave proactively to eradicate any implication that they might support the sort of damaging, victim-blaming ideas associated with labels such as “slag”, “hoe” and “slapper”.