‘Lad culture’ on UK campuses

The NUS recently commissioned this study into ‘lad culture’ on UK campuses. It’s a long and daunting read*, and I can’t help thinking that something a bit shorter and less convoluted might have been more useful, but it is, nevertheless, an important insight into the experiences of some women students at UK universities. Here’s a summary of the main findings from p. 28 of the report:

  1. This report presents the findings of a qualitative research project conducted with 40 women students (4 focus groups and 21 interviews), focused on their encounters with ‘lad culture’ and their experiences of university life.
  2. Our sample was mostly composed of white, British, undergraduates aged between 18 and 25; most also identified as heterosexual and middle class. However, a significant minority of our respondents did not fit this profile, and our findings reflect intersections with other aspects of identity such as ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, disability and age.
  3. Our participants defined campus culture as largely located in the social side of university life, led by undergraduates and significantly shaped by alcohol consumption. They also defined campus cultures as gendered, and saw strong connections between ‘lad culture’ and the values, attitudes and behaviours evident (and in some cases pervasive) on their campuses.
  4. ‘Lad culture’ was defined by our participants as a group or ‘pack’ mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption, and ‘banter’ which was often sexist, misogynist and homophobic. It was also thought to be a sexualized culture which involved the objectification of women and rape supportive attitudes, and occasionally spilled over into sexual harassment and violence. Contrary to much existing research, it was seen as crossing class boundaries and the particular preserve of the privileged.
  5. While many of our participants felt that ‘lad culture’ had not directly affected their educational experiences, they also described university education as ‘gendered’ and cited issues such as the characterisation/status of particular subjects, classroom interactions, and negative attitudes towards feminism and gender-related topics. Furthermore, many of these issues could be indirectly linked to elements of ‘lad culture’, particularly in relation to social and educational privilege and the relationship between group belonging and self-confidence in educational settings.
  6. ‘Lad culture’ was thought to be particularly influential in the social side of university life. Extra-curricular activities and sports in particular were singled out as key sites, and it was reported that sexism in such environments could spill over into sexual harassment and humiliation. ‘Nightlife’ was described in similar terms, with many participants relating experiences of sexual molestation and identifying pressure to engage in a high frequency of sexual activity with different partners. This was thought to be perpetuated by outside agencies such as club promoters and events companies. The operation of ‘lad culture’ in social settings had caused many participants to alter or limit their activity, confirming interpretations of ‘laddism’ as a means by which privileged men police and preserve territory.
  7. For many participants, ‘lad culture’ had been significant in relation to their personal life. Many reported misogynist jokes and ‘banter’ circulating in their friendship groups which made them feel uncomfortable, and pressures to engage in profuse sexual relationships which made it difficult to establish and maintain commitments. Stories of sexual harassment and molestation were common, and there were also accounts of sexual violence and a sense that students experiencing such behaviours felt unable to challenge them and unsure of where or whom to report to and get help.
  8. As well as gender, participants’ accounts of university life were shaped by other aspects of their identities such as sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture, social class, disability and age. However, while some of these factors appeared more influential than ‘lad culture’ in individuals’ biographies and experiences, none operated to the exclusion of it.
  9. Many participants pointed out that women often participate in, or become complicit with, ‘lad culture’, and some regarded this culture in a far more serious light than others. There were also moments of contradiction in our data which supported the idea that ‘lad culture’ is not homogenous or monolithic, and may be subject to change dependent on context. Our findings, then, do not suggest that all men engage in ‘laddish’ behaviours all the time: indeed, the behaviours discussed in this report may be attributable to a minority. However, these ‘lads’ seemed to dominate the social side of university life for many of our participants, and many also identified this social sphere as the key site for the formation and operation of campus culture. This suggests that the relationship between campus culture and ‘lad culture’ should be cause for concern.

*Not least because of its use of the term ‘invisibilized’ – I’m old-fashioned, what’s wrong with ‘makes invisible’?