Sexual Harassment in Edinburgh: the Wolf on Campus

Article published on July 8, 2014
Article published on July 8, 2014

At the end of 2013, the Uni­ver­sity of Ed­in­burgh de­clared it­self 'of­fi­cially fem­i­nist', but what re­sources are avail­able for those fight­ing sex­ual har­rass­ment among stu­dents? From lad-cul­ture to Robin Thicke and a se­ri­ous lack of un­der­stand­ing, Lu­cille Fonteny in­ves­ti­gates the sit­u­a­tion on cam­pus where the fight against sex­ual har­rass­ment is far from over...

At the end of 2013EUSA, the Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tion, voted unan­i­mously in favour of the mo­tion for a 'fem­i­nist so­ci­ety'. It comes as no sur­pris­e given that a sur­vey car­ried out by the same as­so­ci­a­tion one month later showed that one in three fe­male stu­dents in­ter­viewed had been the vic­tim of sex­ual har­rass­ment. Ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey, 61% of 781 stu­dents spo­ken to ad­mit­ted chang­ing their be­hav­iour in the city due to feel­ings of in­se­cu­rity. Chill­ing sta­tis­tics, but in what way does this af­fect Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar? Though the fig­ures re­veal a gen­uine issue, it can be dif­fi­cult for those de­fend­ing women's rights to clearly iden­tify the causes and mo­bilise stu­dents.

"I think I'm re­ally lucky not to have been sex­u­ally har­rassed and it would be naive to say there wasn't a prob­lem," ad­mits Cather­ine, 21, a lin­guis­tics stu­dent. Sit­ting on a sofa in the uni­ver­sity's main hall, she nonethe­less re­calls her ex­pe­ri­ence as a wait­ress in one of the cap­i­tal's stu­dent bars not far from the cam­pus, The Hive. She was treated as any­thing but a queen bee: "Peo­ple made rude com­ments from the other side of the bar. Groups of guys talked about your body and mad­e sex­ual com­ments di­rected at you in the third per­son." The same club re­ceived a num­ber of har­rass­ment com­paints from its clients, one in par­tic­u­lar on its Face­book page, which has since been re­moved.

the lad truth

For fem­i­nists fight­ing against sex­ual har­rass­ment, this sort of be­hav­iour can be summed up in two words: lad cul­ture.  A hy­per-mas­cu­line phe­nom­e­non char­ac­terised by sex­ism, ho­mo­pho­bia and large amounts of al­co­hol, lad cul­ture is wide­spread among young stu­dents, above all in sport­ing en­vi­ron­ments and in par­tic­u­lar among foot­ball and rugby teams. The term 'lad' is a fit­ting car­i­ca­ture of a young male that thinks being cool means treat­ing the op­po­site sex as an ob­ject. It's a stereo­type that is eas­ily iden­ti­fied among stu­dents. Na­talia is 22 and stud­ies phi­los­o­phy and pol­i­tics. She ex­plains that this cul­ture is about a de­sire for "power", stem­ming from the "pres­sure to ap­pear vir­ile" which "al­lows men to avoid feel­ing re­spon­si­ble for their ac­tions and le­git­imises abuse."

"It's a term to de­scribe a be­hav­iour" for Stacey Devine, NUS Scot­land. She de­scribes her­self as a "mas­sive fem­i­nist" and hates the triv­i­al­i­sa­tion of "lad-think" demon­strated by Face­book groups, such as Uni Lad, which are filled with ex­plic­itly sex­ist pho­tos and jokes: "these com­ments are seen as in­of­fen­sive pleas­antries. But the way they are ca­su­ally ac­cepted sim­ply shows just how far this cul­ture has be­en nor­malised. And it does in­flu­ence men." Sarah Mof­fat is a mem­ber of the fem­i­nist branch of EUSA. She ad­mits that 'lad' cul­ture is dif­fi­cult to de­fine, but says it is a be­hav­iour type that is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar. "We fem­i­nists use the term 'pa­tri­ar­chy' to talk about sex­ism, but in the stu­dent frame­work the term 'lad' is much bet­ter suited and im­me­di­ately un­der­stood on cam­pus," she ex­plains, adding "Fig­ures show that sex­ual har­rass­ment is par­tic­u­larly wide­spread among stu­dents, and that's due to a cul­ture which in­cites peo­ple to be sex­u­ally ag­gres­sive." 

On the ground, on nights out, the facts speak for them­selves. One Fri­day evening at the end of exam time, a large event is or­gan­ised on cam­pus for about a thou­sand peo­ple. David, an or­gan­iser su­per­vis­ing the night, tells us there are three sex­ual har­rass­ment com­plaints every Fri­day night. He im­plies that much of the blame lies with the groups of im­pos­ing "foot­ball lads" who come to these par­ties and think that "any­thing goes".

Se­ri­ous fem­i­nists, but are they taken se­ri­ously?

EUSA was the first fem­i­nist as­so­ci­a­tion to ban Robin Thicke's song Blurred Lines from Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity. The song was a mas­sive hit in 2013 with lyrics that Stacey Devine de­scribes as a "hymn for rape". It talks about women being "do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals", about giv­ing them some­thing big enough to "split their ass in two" and most im­por­tantly, it talks about how the writ­ers and singers "know she wants it". It was a log­i­cal de­ci­sion for Britain's top fem­i­nist stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tion to ban the song, but the ac­tion was lit­tle un­der­stood among stu­dents, whose opin­ions on the topic vary greatly.

"No one paid any at­ten­tion to it on cam­pus," says Amy, a 20-year-old med­i­cine stu­dent, "There are so many other songs that are awful about women." Her friend, Oscar, agrees with her: "All the songs play­ing on stu­dent nights are the same; it's a lot of fuss about noth­ing". Ines, a 19-year-old Eco­nom­ics stu­dent thinks that "stu­dents aren't stu­pid, they can see the prob­lem with the song." Na­talia notes: "Al­though the ban could have fol­lowed a uni­ver­sity-wide con­sul­ta­tion, it has al­lowed stu­dents to think about the grav­ity of lyrics that pro­pogate the idea that 'no' doesn't re­ally mean 'no'. Say­ing that stu­dents can think for them­selves is too pas­sive; the sort of at­ti­tude that this song rep­re­sents needs to be dealt with prop­erly." But even for some­one like her­self, who shares the same fem­i­nist ideals as EUSA, there is a prob­lem with the way they carry out their ac­tions. "They use an overly ag­gres­sive tone and aren't ed­u­ca­tional enough. It only re­in­forces the image of stereo­typ­i­cal bit­ter fem­i­nists." She de­cided to stop at­tend­ing their events for that rea­son, "I didn't think it was help­ing any­more," she ad­mits. Amy also ad­mits she found it dif­fi­cult to get on with the fem­i­nists: "I'm sure they would tell me off for not being com­mit­ted enough."

ed­u­cat­ing so­ci­ety

Netherthe­less the stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tion fem­i­nists be­lieve that it is only through con­crete ac­tions that sex­ual har­rass­ment can be re­duced. Stacey Devine, who be­lieves ed­u­ca­tion to be at the heart of all change, of­fers train­ing along­side the NUS, at the very heart of uni­ver­si­ties, to change men­tal­i­ties, en­cour­age stu­dents to in­ter­vene when they wit­ness har­rass­ment, and to pro­mote male-fe­male equal­ity. The progamme is called "Get Savvy" and is aimed at both sexes. Last year, Stacey trained 150 peo­ple, a third of whom were men. Her aim: to make this train­ing oblig­a­tory at the be­gin­ning of uni­ver­sity. Cur­rently, it is mostly used as a form of pun­ish­ment for stu­dents that have be­haved badly. Equally widely used are sanc­tions on their aca­d­e­mic re­sults and ex­clu­sion from stu­dent nights. 

Sarah Mof­fat is con­vinced that this "is the most ef­fec­tive" method, even if it is "dif­fi­cult to mea­sure progress when talk­ing about sex­ual har­rass­ment". "There has been an in­crease in com­plaints since the pub­li­ca­tion of the study, but we hope that's be­cause women feel more in­clined to speak up and not be­cause in­ci­dents have in­creased," she ex­plains. How­ever, al­though the hy­per-mas­cu­line lad cul­ture is a per­fect scape­goat, epit­o­mis­ing the prob­lem of sex­ual har­rass­ment, fem­i­nists in a lot of as­so­ci­a­tions have no prob­lem going after so­ci­ety at large. "You have to change at­ti­tudes in gen­eral and the pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety in which we live," ral­lies Stacey. "The truth is that men are born with priv­i­leges which give them the right to tell women how to be­have," she con­tin­ues. Grand de­signs then, but lit­tle sup­port from stu­dents them­selves. Maybe it's be­cause the puni­ti­tive sys­tem re­in­forces the idea of bit­ter fem­i­nism, or per­haps it's be­cause, as al­ready men­tioned, they lack an ed­u­ca­tional slant. What is sure how­ever is that be­fore chang­ing so­ci­ety, the fem­i­nists need to change the way they are per­ceived by stu­dents at Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity. 

this ar­ti­cle is part of a spe­cial edi­tion ded­i­cated to ed­in­burgh as part of cafeba­bel's EU in mo­tion pro­ject with the sup­port of the eu­ro­pean par­lia­ment and the hip­pocrene foun­da­tion. find THE REST OF THE SE­RIES on the MAG­A­ZINE's front page.