For many, Freshers is a time to celebrate; it brings together strangers in a totally new environment, allows for independent living and all this whilst drinking yourself silly and wearing outrageous fancy dress (minus the thought of waking up at the crack of dawn in last nights clothes with a mouth full of beer-breath and regret for a 10AM lecture).
‘Freshers’, in essence, is supposed to be the time of your life. Which is exactly why I volunteered to work on behalf of my Student Union in my second year to look out for the welfare of my new cohort of course-mates – and stay sober doing it. Pity party aside, this opportunity gave me an interesting perspective on how students behave on a night out, and more specifically how this event often brings out the worst in us.
Firstly let me make this clear; I totally understand that with new surroundings and new people to share them with, the first weeks of university can offer the potential of an early stage romance. I don’t doubt that many nights out have ended in fun, consenting nights in other students’ beds. And I’m not naïve to the fact that good alcohol, good music and good company can make you feel like you are actually in love with this person that you met five minutes ago when they offered to buy you a drink. What I struggle to understand, though, is why Freshers plants the seeds for misogyny, rape culture and sexual harassment within universities.
I would largely put it down to a millennial ‘lad-culture’ that draws students in to a dystopian world of tasteless banter, empty beer cans and casual sexism. Let me paint a picture of what I mean:
It’s Friday. Freshers fortnight is reaching its hump-day and you’ve met a group of really cool guys. They, like you, are Freshers too but the way they talk about ‘Jenny on Reception’s’ breasts and simulate homoerotic sex acts hint that this friendship is bound already. You’ve been invited to their pre-drinks – and you’ve got to play it cool if you want to fit in. You turn up at their flat, a small student halls already littered with half-finished bottles of Corona and are offered a drink. You take the drink and down it between sips of the vodka and coke that you brought along in a plastic bottle. “DRINKING GAME!” Someone exclaims. Before you know it you’re writing all over each others shirts; check lists of totally hilarious things that you challenge the recipient to complete before the night is over. A brain wave hits. You, in your drunken haze have come up with the most hilarious challenge that – even though Fresher Fred on Human Biology wont complete it – will surely earn you some respect and a pat on the back from your new friends for your incomprehensible wit. With a sharpie in hand you carefully write: ‘ROOFIE A FRESHER’. You were totally right! Your new friends love the joke and you’re soon on your way out, unwittingly declaring yourself as a group of potential rapists.
With the rather detailed fictional narrative aside, this is literally something that I witnessed whilst working at Freshers. In hindsight I should have challenged him and asked him why he thought it was acceptable to walk around emblazoned with words that suggest he plans on drugging an unaware first year – and judging by the other challenges written all over these shirts, the consequent action wouldn’t be enjoyable – but instead I let him pass, rolling my eyes with disgust. And this isn’t the only instance either; take, for example, another night out, where one individual deemed it acceptable to launch himself on my bewildered 1st year housemate in a clearly unreciprocated kiss.
A recent NUS study reported that almost 30% of students report witnessing sexual harassment on a night out. Personally, I can say that I have witnessed sexual harassment or unwarranted sexual behaviour on pretty much every night out that I have ever been on. If this study was an accurate depiction of student life, with everyone fully aware of what ‘sexual harassment’ consists of, I’m sure the statistic would be much higher. But even 30% is worrying. In an ideal world, 0% of students should be reporting sexual harassment on nights out; not because they’re scared of repercussions or unaware of the procedures, but because it simply isn’t happening. But that ideal world isn’t unattainable. There are steps that all of us can take to make that 0% closer to reality.
Firstly we need to understand why perpetrators feel pressured to behave like this when they arrive at university. Surely one wouldn’t knowingly conform to this type of culture? The scary thing is that it’s often not known. It’s ingrained, indoctrinated and even encouraged from a very young age. We need to remember that it isn’t borne at university; it begins when we begin to blindly accept the commodification of women and follow the appeal of hegemonic masculinity rather than question it in order to be part of the crowd. Many boys believe that the only way that they can fit in at school is to assert themselves as ‘men’, and some of the behaviours that exhibit this are throwbacks to generations past when the role of ‘being a man’ had far more influential and somewhat dangerous connotations than today. Information and support on gender, increased accountability for inappropriate sexist behaviour or language, and comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education would all help to tackle this issue at a young age by allowing children to explore their own gender without having it forced upon them.
This isn’t just a Freshers issue. It’s happening all year round at a club or student union bar near you. One university has been criticised recently for allowing DJ Lee Watson to encourage women to simulate sex-acts and even strip on stage for a free holiday as some of the boys watched and leered. According to the Mirror, his misogynistic language caused some students to actually go home –and this is important. Some students aren’t having any more of it. If you see something in a party venue that makes you feel uncomfortable, report it. Shout about it. Make people aware that this is happening and you are not okay with it. You have the right to complain. If you bring an incident up with a Student Union representative then they, like Hull, can spread the word that this is not acceptable and we as a generation won’t endorse any venue that allows it. The only way we can combat this is by talking about it – and getting perpetrators involved in these conversations. We need to combat this ‘lad-culture’ by promoting it not as an appealing way to make friends on arrival at university, but as the reason why so many people – women and men – find going out an uncomfortable experience.
Written by Youth Board Member Jake.