By Kate Pesenti
This article was written before the leaking of screenshots that led to two Durham SU societies being banned in September 2020.
Is it surprising to anyone that Durham University is once again facing a sexist, racist and classist PR disaster? Like clockwork, this month’s new batch of screenshots from an incoming Freshers chat describe “posh lads competing on f***ing the poorest girl”, plans to get girls drunk because it was “the most cost effective” way to have sex with them and a claim that George Floyd “had it coming”. These messages gained a national media spotlight, with the story appearing in publications such as Metro and The Times. But most who’ve studied here will know that this is just the tip of the iceberg in our university’s culture.
In the aftermath, some students defended the perpetrators. Their Facebook posts were met with a mixture of agreement and outrage, but – although I strongly disagree with their arguments – their concerns are, arguably, understandable. It is, after all, the classic freedom of speech argument: the murky balance between a word and an action, a laddish ‘joke’ and causing actual harm.
First off though, let’s be clear: so called ‘lad culture’ doesn’t need defending. It’s toxic, yes, but crucially it’s the norm – part of a never-ending cycle where it encourages, and is encouraged by, women being frequently harassed or abused as part of their everyday lives. Cornell University’s 2015 study found that 9 out of 10 British girls experience street harassment (including catcalling and physical assault) between the ages of 11 – 17. Legally, that’s 9 in 10 girls experiencing their first harassment when they are still children. In 2019, only 1.7% of rape accusations were convicted in England and Wales and since then the number has fallen to a new all-time low. Is it therefore surprising that rape can be joked about on student group chats, when as a country our legal system doesn’t take it seriously? Is it surprising that victims aren’t reporting rape when there are instances of it being treated as a joke?
The words spoken on the chat, whether intentional or not, trivialise assault and feed into this issue. It’s important to recognise that words aren’t just words to people who might have to face the consequences of them.
Similar manifestations of ‘lad culture’ can be seen in the situation Warwick University faced in 2018. Outrage ensued after a group chat containing comments such as ‘she looks like a rape victim’ became public. The students involved were ultimately banned from the University, but that’s not originally how it was handled.
It soon became clear that the university leadership wanted to bury the issues, not resolve them. The girls who came forward were first handled by the Warwick Director of Press. Initial ten-year bans for the perpetrators were reduced to one year, with no explanation, and it was only because of intense media scrutiny that they became barred from campus for life.
Durham also skirts around issues. From 2017-2019, it paid out £177,000 to students in non-disclosure agreements. Durham’s Instagram page posted a black square during a height in the Black Lives Matter movement, but it’s an empty gesture given that there was no outlining of policy change that would help prevent the RON campaign debacle earlier this year, or to tackle micro-aggressions on campus, to go with it. Time and time again, students see bullying allegations or screenshots containing abusive language. The University is completely failing in handling this issue and, in doing so, failing to protect its students.
This is where the crux of the problem lies. Universities have a duty of care to students in both welfare and education and students likewise pledge to treat others with respect. The debate over freedom of speech is long and complicated and it would take many articles to do it justice. But it’s undeniable that these incoming freshers broke Durham’s code of conduct by not treating ‘all members of the community with respect’. As it’s commonly said, freedom of speech does not always mean freedom of consequence, and in this case it’s only right that there are repercussions for their actions.
The bottom line is that our campus should allow everyone to study without fear of harassment, but that’s not the way it is – it never has been. It will only change if we start calling out this type of behaviour. Right now, students have overwhelmingly demanded action be taken. If Durham University wants to salvage its reputation, it should listen.
Image: Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr