Reckoning Up: an institutional economy of sexual harassment and violence

(Content note for sexually violent language and descriptions of traumatic experiences)

I want to construct an ‘institutional economy’ of sexual harassment and violence. What does this mean? These phenomena are often positioned within narratives about boys – or men – ‘behaving badly’. While it is crucial to hold individuals accountable for their actions, as sociologists we must go further. Sexual harassment and violence are of the social: produced and shaped by gender and other intersecting structures of inequality, and framed by the neoliberal rationalities which, as Wendy Brown argues, have seeped into almost all aspects of our lives. An institutional economy of sexual harassment and violence in higher education starts here.

Like schools, universities exist within a marketplace. As government funding dwindles, we increasingly compete for students and research grants in order to survive. We also operate internal markets which bring departments and staff into rivalry, and make us competitors rather than colleagues. I want students to register on my MA programme, not yours. How does our research stack up next to the department’s next door? Students now imagine they are paying us for a service, and while we give them their grades, they evaluate us in ways which have a demonstrable impact on our market standing. There are hierarchies of performance at individual, institutional, national and international levels, and the effects of this are seen in cultures amongst students and staff.

In my work on student ‘lad culture’, I have argued that this combines rather tired forms of sexism with newer modes of sexual audit. ‘Sex charts’ are appearing in student residences, to quantify and assess conquests. Women are being given grades and ratings for their ‘sex appeal’. Men are scoring points for sexual ‘achievements’ – such as ‘slipping a finger in on the dance floor’, and ‘bedding a virgin, with blood to prove it.’ ‘Lad culture’ and neoliberal culture are natural bedfellows.

In 2013, a number of Facebook pages emerged entitled ‘Rate Your Shag’, linked to universities across the country. These offered spaces for students to give their sexual partners marks out of ten based on any criteria, and were ‘liked’ by about 20,000 users in the first 72 hours. They were deleted just as quickly, deemed to contravene Facebook’s policies on bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is also often gendered – women are appraised, men do the appraising. Although students of all genders had been encouraged to post, much of the Rate Your Shag content consisted of men rating women on criteria drawn from heteronormative and objectified constructions of femininity.

‘Was like shagging her mouth, best blowjob in [the city]. Eight out of ten.’

‘Nought out of ten. Shit body and one heavy dose of Chlamydia. Get checked love.’

Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is also bullying and harassment. Contemporary ‘lad culture’ was defined by a participant in my research as a ‘hostile environment where everyone is judging everyone else.’ This could also describe cultures amongst higher education staff, many of whom feel alienated by processes that incessantly measure them against each other and against the curve. Again, this evaluation is gendered: men continue to hold most of the positions of power in the sector, definitions of ‘success’ prioritise research (coded as masculine) over teaching and admin (coded as feminine), and assessment exercises favour modes of scholarship and impact which reward the confidence, time and freedom to take risks and consistently self-promote.

A UCU survey in 2012 found that bullying and harassment between university staff was common, usually perpetrated by managers and disproportionately affecting women, BAME and LGBT people, and people with disabilities. Recent media and academic discussions have also focused on staff relations with students, with high-profile exposés of powerful US Professors who are serial sexual harassers feeding growing unease in the UK.

Sara Ahmed recently resigned her Professorial post at Goldsmiths in protest at the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment. Last December, I spoke at a conference at Goldsmiths where difficulty of even naming sexual harassment was brought to the fore. For a problem to be disclosed, it must be named. For it to be addressed, it must be disclosed – but our failure to address sexual harassment and violence prevents it being disclosed in the first place. We are caught in a vicious circle.

In any institution, disclosures of harassment and violence are situated within reckonings. What is the cost of naming and addressing this problem? ‘Cost’, however, is not neutral – and we need to think critically about how it is defined and calculated. In a neoliberal institution, ideas of ‘cost’ are shaped by marketised reputational games. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. This gives rise to the figure Ahmed has named the ‘institutional killjoy’ (a relative of the feminist killjoy), who ruins everything with their complaints. I have been one of these killjoys for as long as I can remember. In fact, you might even call me the ‘sectoral killjoy’ – my work on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in universities has led to many uncomfortable discussions, some of which I have been party to, some of which I have not.

The cost of sexual violence is totted up at multiple levels, from departmental finances to the grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ We do not want to lose our star Professor, or their grant income. We do not want a media frenzy around campus rape which would damage the university’s standing with potential students or key international donors. The airbrushing of the institution makes disclosures disreputable, rather than the acts of harassment and violence they reveal.

Disclosures are disreputable in neoliberal institutions where economic values have replaced civic ones. We have experienced, as Stephen Ball puts it, ‘a thoroughgoing commodification of university life.’ One of the characteristics of this, he argues, is the fungibility of staff and students: we are all capable of substitution for each other, with no distinct value of our own. Or almost all of us. Those who are reckoned up differently are often the ones who use that power to perpetrate harassment and violence in the first place. Disclosures, then, are problematic only inasmuch as they threaten their welfare, because this is intimately bound up with the welfare of the institution.

I have argued before that power works to cover some people up. As Heidi Mirza points out, some of us are used to revealing ourselves. The bodies of women of colour and LGBT people, for example, are often seen as public property; we are also often forced to commodify our experience in a world in which abstract thought is not for us. Others, however, are not to be exposed. ‘Laddish’ disclosures are made by men, but women’s bodies are laid bare: ‘lad points’ demand that women’s boundaries are crossed, their secrets told. Indeed, when these acts re-appear as women’s disclosures of sexual violence, they are minimised and denied.

When it comes to staff, some people are bundled up in layers of bureaucratic power. The manager who sexually harasses you at the Christmas party also allocates your teaching, assesses your requests for research leave, and conducts your annual appraisal. The Principal Investigator on your research project can either help you get your next fixed-term contract, or leave you to flounder. Your PhD supervisor has a key role in whether you get that first job at all. These bureaucratic power relations raise the stakes on disclosure, and also make it difficult to look up from our desks to support colleagues and students who are suffering. There are other bureaucratic layers, such as stressful and opaque complaints processes which mean it is often easier to keep quiet.

Some of these forms of leverage are not new: academic and institutional hierarchies have always facilitated abuse. In fact, the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University, after Carmita Wood resigned her post as a Professor’s administrative assistant because of his unwanted advances. But in a neoliberal institution some people are really snug: even swaddled by the equality policy frameworks which are less about tackling problems than giving the impression they are already solved. The developing ‘pressure-cooker culture’ for senior academics and the casualisation of junior ones have also created an individualism which may mean we turn a blind eye while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst). This normalises sexual harassment and violence because it inhibits disclosure. As Whitley and Page put it: ‘If everyone knows what is happening, and yet no one objects to it, then what would reporting it do?’ When boundaries are being crossed in the open, there is nothing to expose.

While heavy bureaucratic layers envelop some people, others carry the weight of sexual harassment and violence. ‘Carry That Weight’ was a performance art piece by Columbia student Emma Sulcowicz, in which she carried a 50-pound mattress around campus during her final year. Sulcowicz had alleged a rape perpetrated in her dorm room by a fellow student who was found ‘not responsible’ by a university inquiry. ‘They’re more concerned with their public image’, Sulcowicz said, ‘than with keeping people safe.’

Sulcowicz’s mattress represents the weight of disclosure within an economy of sexual harassment and violence that prioritises the cost to the institution. When we disclose within this framework we only expose and harm ourselves, leading to the ‘second rape’ or institutional betrayal which has been shown to hugely exacerbate trauma. While we lug our mattresses around, perhaps our disclosures do become the ‘peas’ under theirs, but it is hard not to be cynical about what ultimately stops them from sleeping.

It is not surprising, then, that only 4 per cent of women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their universities, and that sexual harassment by staff is so difficult to even name. This is not just an issue of ‘speaking up’: it is about how sexual harassment and violence are reckoned up; who calculates the cost, and who pays the price.

Article – (Re)theorising laddish masculinities in higher education

This is the Open Access (accepted) version of my article entitled ‘(Re)theorising laddish masculinities in higher education’, published in Gender and Education and available via OnlineFirst to those with institutional access at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09540253.2016.1171298. The abstract is reproduced below, and you can download the OA version of the article by clicking here.

In the context of renewed debates and interest in this area, this paper reframes the theoretical agenda around laddish masculinities in UK higher education, and similar masculinities overseas. These can be contextualised within consumerist neoliberal rationalities, the neoconservative backlash against feminism and other social justice movements, and the postfeminist belief that women are winning the ‘battle of the sexes’. Contemporary discussions of ‘lad culture’ have rightly centred sexism and men’s violence against women: however, we need a more intersectional analysis. In the UK a key intersecting category is social class, and there is evidence that while working-class articulations of laddism proceed from being dominated within alienating education systems, middle-class and elite versions are a reaction to feeling dominated due to a loss of gender, class and race privilege. These are important differences, and we need to know more about the conditions which shape and produce particular performances of laddism, in interaction with masculinities articulated by other social groups. It is perhaps unhelpful, therefore, to collapse these social positions and identities under the banner of ‘lad culture’, as has been done in the past.

Why sex workers should be part of sexual violence campaigns

CN: some of the articles this piece links to contain extremely offensive ideas about sex workers.

I have been asked a number of times how my work around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in higher education corresponds to my support of sex industry decriminalisation. The implication, which elicits arguments commonly made by abolitionist feminists, is often that the two are contradictory, that in supporting workers in the sex industry I am tacitly condoning the objectification of women and male sexual entitlement which feeds misogyny and violence. This may sound like good feminist common sense. However, I see it as a facile interpretation of both the causes of violence against women and what it means to support sex workers’ labour rights. This is problematic on a number of levels, not least because it betrays an exclusion from feminist anti-violence campaigning of some of the most vulnerable women in our society, whose primary demand is to be able to work in safety.

The conversations I have had about this echo the ways in which concerns around ‘lad culture’ have been linked to prevailing moral panics about pornography and commercial sex (as well as drugs and alcohol, and the opening up of higher education to the working classes). The argument from pornography, also made about violence in schools, draws on the historical association between feminist anti-violence work and sex industry abolitionist agendas, a connection which persists in initiatives such as No More Page 3 and Object. Such groups have been prominent in opposing misogynist and laddish representations of women, and position the sex industry as both a cause of sexism and violence against women, and a form of violence in itself. Object campaigns have sometimes involved protesting outside sex working venues, which has been experienced as intimidating and judgmental by the sex workers employed by them.

Of course, there are valid conversations to be had about gendered structures of sexual labour, discrimination and violence in the sex industry, and misogynistic representations in pornography and how these relate to young people’s sexual expectations and experiences – many of these are being had by sex workers themselves. However, contemporary mainstream feminist politics in this area is often simplistic and determinist, substituting symptom with cause (in the absence of any convincing evidence) and failing to appreciate the diversity and complexity of commercial sex markets. It also downplays the broader social structures and power relations of gender (which are reflected in, not created by, the sex industry), as well as other structural conditions such as neoliberalism, HE marketisation and austerity (which, I have argued, shape contemporary ‘lad culture’ in its various forms). This produces a monocausal, and frequently censorious and punitive, politics. Campaigns resulting from these frameworks often focus on futile attempts to ban particular representations and sexual practices (or indeed, the sex industry itself), instead of focusing on the multiple intersecting social conditions which give rise to sexism and men’s violence against women, and trying to develop or enact alternatives.

Such discourses also often position sex workers as the problem, as dupes of or collaborators with the patriarchy who incite the objectification of non-sex working women by selling sex as a service (and more often than not, who deserve the violence they get). In these interpretations, the humanity of sex workers completely disappears. They become rhetorical objects in agendas around ending ‘male violence’, while the motivations, attitudes and actions of clients, the symbolic meanings of commercial sex, and the safety of other, more privileged women in relation to these, take precedence. The only sex workers who warrant support are those who want to be rescued (the ‘good’ sex workers – which reinforces the idea that the ‘bad’ ones should be punished). This leads to a complete lack of validation, protection and care for people of all genders working in the sex industry who experience violence. Indeed, feminist campaigns for criminalisation, supported by many anti-violence groups, often appear content to sacrifice sex workers’ wellbeing in the service of their ideological priorities, and the interpretation of sexual labour as violence in itself (in tandem with the idea that sex workers sell themselves rather than selling a service) can produce the horrendous myth that sex workers cannot be raped.

In our work on ‘lad culture’ and violence against women students we need to ensure that we are not playing in to such exclusionary agendas. Especially because it is possible that student sex workers may be particularly vulnerable to problematic masculine behaviours – we already know that ‘lad culture’ incorporates hostility to women who express sexual agency, and a strong element of slut-shaming. While not subscribing to unhelpful characterisations of sex work as a form of personal sexual empowerment, there are clear relationships between this and anti-sex worker prejudice (or whorephobia) due to the connotations attached to commercial sex and the idea of the sex worker as somehow ‘fair game’ when other women are not. There have also been suggestions that in some laddish communities, the act of paying for sex is seen as ‘a bit of a laugh’ – if true, this may reflect or produce a lack of respect for women who provide sexual services. Finally, it is possible that strippers and erotic dancers in towns and cities with significant student populations may regularly be required to negotiate aggressive masculinities performed by large groups of ‘lads’.

Many sex workers are at high risk of violence, from clients, members of communities which stigmatise them, and the police. An increasing number of students work in the sex industry, and they are not being adequately supported by their universities. In fact, in a process which mirrors dynamics within feminism, these student sex workers are seen as bringing their institutions into disrepute. It would indeed be sad and shameful if campaigns around ‘lad culture’ failed to pay attention to their needs (or worse, constructed them as adversaries as well). Furthermore, if such campaigns conceptualise the sex industry as in itself a form of ‘male violence’, they will obscure violence against sex workers and could end up sidelining and oppressing some of our most vulnerable students.

Of course, tackling ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence means challenging men’s sexual entitlement – but we must do this without suggesting that sex workers are responsible for it. This argument is a particularly pernicious form of victim-blaming which lacks any analytical utility, merely demonising women who are trying to get by, like the rest of us, in a patriarchal society. We need to collaborate more closely with sex worker-led organisations on issues around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence, to conduct focused research into sex workers’ experiences of sexism and violence, and to improve their access to support. Above all, we need to make sure our work on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence does not position sex workers as the enemy and throw them under the bus. This is not the kind of anti-violence feminism I want to articulate – and it is not fit for purpose.

Universities, don’t conflate ‘lad culture’ with ‘drink culture’

Last week, Rob Behrens, chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, commented on the need for universities to do more to tackle “lad culture” among students. Discussing the problem, he associated it with a “drink culture in universities that leads to a loss of discipline and thought”. His comments were echoed across the national papers, which discussed “excessive drinking” and “lewd behaviour”.

That the OIA is taking sexual harassment in universities seriously is welcome and an important win for the NUS. But, as attempts to deal with sexual violence in higher education become institutionalised, we should avoid feeding moral panics.

Free workshop on sexual violence in higher education

Together with Elsie Whittington, I have recently developed a workshop for university managers, staff and students, on sexual harassment and violence in higher education and what can be done to tackle it. This was recently piloted at Bath and Bath Spa Universities with great success – all participants said they would recommend it to other staff and students at their institutions.

The workshop is available as a free resource – I am happy to visit universities to deliver it myself, and the materials can also be downloaded, adapted and used by others – visit this page to access them. I am trying to track the impact of the workshop, so if you do use it yourself please let me know at a.e.phipps@sussex.ac.uk (I would also appreciate it if you could use the evaluation form provided and send me the results).

Please share details of the workshop with anyone you think might be interested – I hope it proves useful in starting institutional conversations around this issue. Do get in touch at a.e.phipps@sussex.ac.uk if you have any comments or questions.

‘Lad cultures’ in higher education – two academic papers out

With my co-author Isabel Young, I have recently published two academic papers on our research into ‘lad cultures’ in higher education. One is focused on appreciating the agency expressed by the young women who resist these cultures, and the other contextualises ‘laddish’ behaviours and sexual bullying within the marketised higher education sector. Abstracts are below – contact me at a.e.phipps@sussex.ac.uk if you would like a copy of either or both of these papers.

‘Lad culture’ in higher education: agency in the sexualization debates
Alison Phipps and Isabel Young

Published in Sexualities (available via OnlineFirst here).

This article reports on research funded by the National Union of Students, which explored women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ through focus groups and interviews. We found that although laddism is only one of various potential masculinities, for our participants it dominated the social and sexual spheres of university life in problematic ways. However, their objections to laddish behaviours did not support contemporary models of ‘sexual panic’, even while oppugning the more simplistic celebrations of young women’s empowerment which have been observed in debates about sexualization. We argue that in their ability to reject ‘lad culture’, our respondents expressed a form of agency which is often invisibilized in sexualization discussions and which could be harnessed to tackle some of the issues we uncovered.

Neoliberalisation and ‘lad cultures’ in higher education
Alison Phipps and Isabel Young

Published in Sociology (available via OnlineFirst here)

This article links HE neoliberalisation and ‘lad cultures’, drawing on interviews and focus groups with women students. We argue that retro-sexist ‘laddish’ forms of masculine competitiveness and misogyny have been reshaped by neoliberal rationalities to become modes of consumerist sexualised audit. We also suggest that neoliberal frameworks scaffold an individualistic and adversarial culture amongst young people that interacts with perceived threats to men’s privilege and intensifies attempts to put women in their place through misogyny and sexual harassment. Furthermore, ‘lad cultures’, sexism and sexual harassment in higher education may be rendered invisible by institutions to preserve marketability in a neoliberal context. In response, we ask if we might foster dialogue and partnership between feminist and anti-marketisation politics.

Universities are reluctant to tackle sexual violence for fear of PR fallout

We have heard a lot lately about how UK universities have a problem with sexual violence. Nicole Westmarland, writing in the Telegraph on 20th January, cited a YouthSight poll which found that 1 in 3 female students had experienced sexual assault or unwanted advances, and described institutional inaction as a ‘national embarrassment’. My work with NUS, on the Hidden Marks and That’s What She Said reports, has revealed a high prevalence of sexual harassment and assault against women students, framed by a ‘lad culture’ which is increasingly normalised.

This January, a group including eight cross-party MPs and representatives of NUS and Rape Crisis published a letter asking Universities UK to develop guidelines on how HEIs should respond to sexual assault. At present, according to NUS President Toni Pearce, the most common response at institutional level at is a ‘not on my campus’ style of passing the buck. There are a few exceptions – for example, Sussex has developed a care pathway for victims and training for ‘first responders’, and the University of the West of England has created The Intervention Initiative, an evidence-based bystander education programme which can be embedded in the curriculum. But by and large, action on these issues is left to academics and students’ unions.

One reason for this is that developing policies and interventions on sexual violence is both time- and resource-intensive. Another reason, however, is that sexual violence at universities is seen primarily as a public relations issue. Institutions do not want prospective students and their parents, or potential donors, to be put off by stories about sexual victimisation, especially that occurring on campus. Furthermore, they are loath to take action in case by doing so they create the impression that their campus is worse than elsewhere.

Sexual assault is an issue of equality and social justice and this should trump any concern with public appearances. Moreover, the End Violence Against Women Coalition have advised that universities may be avoiding their responsibilities under the Human Rights Act and Public Sector Equality Duty by refusing to investigate sexual assault allegations. But if we entertain the neoliberal mindset for a moment, it’s also possible that we can turn the public relations argument on its head.

The problem of sexual violence against students is going to persist and has now achieved a high profile in the media. If they are not already, prospective students and their parents will soon be asking questions at open days, wanting to know if the university environment is safe and what support is in place if the worst should happen. There is now a general awareness that ‘lad culture’ and sexual assault affect all universities in the UK. Surely, it now looks better for HEIs to show they are doing something rather than sweeping the matter under the carpet.

Thinking more broadly, there is also a market argument for demonstrating that the values operating on our campuses are not just economic. My daughter will soon start primary school – and the values surrounding her education, such as respect, equality, trust and courage, make HE buzzwords ‘excellence’, ‘ambition’ and ‘enterprise’ seem rather blank. Of course, we are not running primary schools – but we are managing communities of bright young people in what has become a rather nihilistic setting. And although some universities do aspire to civic values, the prevalence of sexual violence and lack of institutional response suggest that these cannot be fully operational.

Continuing the market argument, augmenting economic values with civic ones in the HE sector would be an effective way for universities to develop their distinctive brand identities. Marketers and creatives advise that tapping into people’s feelings is key to branding – brand values need to be relatable (and commercial buzzwords are not). Refining the current set of economic generalities might also provide a basis on which universities could showcase their particular strengths.

For most universities, their biggest selling point will be their students. Ours at Sussex are political, feisty and fun – whether occupying lecture theatres in dispute with the management or staging ‘kiss-ins’ at Sainsburys to protest against homophobia, they are our best brand ambassadors. Sixth formers across the country and abroad can look at these bright, engaging young people and get an immediate impression of what Sussex is all about.

A set of civic values grounded in the unique character of each student community would be helpful in preventing violence, creating behavioural expectations and providing a basis on which universities could take action. The value of establishing such norms for conduct was recognised in 2011 by the Student Charter Report, which recommended that every HEI should have and publish a charter. However, although many universities do have such documents, the persistence of sexual violence shows that they are not going far enough in terms of embedding rights, responsibilities and community ideals. Soon, this will disadvantage them in market as well as moral terms.

Originally published in The Guardian