Confronting a Culture of ‘Laddishness’ and ‘Riskiness’ in Higher Education

Confronting a Culture of ‘Laddishness’ and ‘Riskiness’ in Higher Education

Sharon Elley (University of Leeds)

UK universities are witnessing considerable controversy surrounding male students’ behaviour in what has been termed an increased ‘culture of laddism’, sexism, harassment and violence. Nationwide, these issues have attracted local and national media interest in stories about student’s sporting societies initiation rituals and ‘Violate a Fresher’ promotional nights. The National Union of Students (NUS, 2010; 2013) has called for campus-wide action with Student Unions banning ‘inappropriate’ laddish, abusive, behaviours and the playing of chart hit songs like ‘Blurred Lines’ (2013) for its misogynistic lyrics. While some behaviours can be a less problematic trend in how students currently do ‘studenthood’, there are very real aftereffects from laddishness and riskiness, some with long-term consequences.

Current research reveals female student accounts of the alarming negative impact that ‘laddism’ has on their educational experiences and wellbeing (NUS, 2010; 2013; Phipps and Young, 2014; 2015). Laddish behaviour overlaps with laddism which loosely means a group or ‘pack mentality’ shared through sporting societies, heavy drinking, sexist and homophobic ‘banter’. It is often connected to the sexualised objectification of women and pro-rape attitudes, including sexual harassment and violence. The NUS (2010) ‘Hidden Marks’ report examined the experience of female students and found 1:7 female students had experienced some form of sexual or physical assault with 68% of students experiencing verbal or non-verbal harassment in or around their universities. The 2013 study found over a third of women felt unsafe visiting universities in the evening; and 60% of students had heard rape jokes on campus. It is unsurprising that women feel threatened with one university’s rugby club lambasted for practicing drinking games involving finishing the sentence: “It’s not rape if…”. In our research we asked over 40 students (aged 19-26 and including lads) in February 2015 to tell us about their ‘student night-time cultures’ and experiences via focus group discussions and consultations. Their responses revealed aspects of the university context and studenthood which actively fuel a culture of laddism, and the contributory mechanisms at work.

More widely, these issues link to casual ‘hooking-up’; ‘partying’, substance-use (i.e. students waking up unable to recall whether they have consented to sex or been raped); as well as broader community interactions and relations with individuals, residents and businesses which profit from or clash with student life. While some student activities are, arguably, a long-standing and somewhat expected part of ‘going away to university’, are we currently witnessing a new ‘climate’ of increasingly sexist, abusive and violent attitudes and, in turn, risky, dangerous and criminal behaviours across campuses?

In 2013, one campus became infamous due to the closure of a ‘Tequila’ club event which hosted a ‘Violate a Fresher’ night’ (albeit off campus). Afterwards, a promotional video posted on YouTube (since removed) showed a team member interviewing students asking: ‘how are you going to violate a fresher tonight?’ One respondent replied: ‘a fresher is gonna get raped’ and another suggested he was: ‘gonna take advantage of someone’. The interviewer also asked a young woman: ‘how are you going to survive Violation night?’ Such stories raise questions not only about the broader abuse condoned by both the promotional team and respondents, but also marketing principles, which glorify rape and violence. Historically, sex indisputably sells but the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, including degrading acts, are increasingly becoming blurred as students grapple (often while intoxicated) with modern notions of ‘riskiness’ in the neoliberal market and University context.

Students are renowned for the ‘partying’, (heavy) drinking, sometimes illegal as well as legal drug-use, alongside damaging property which connect to laddism. There seems though, a general reluctance to ‘police’ student laddism and riskiness with such behaviour perhaps being tolerated because it is associated with educational contexts and students (deservedly?) ‘letting off steam’ as they navigate their way into responsible adulthood, professionalism and the economy. When asked about witnessing sexism and abusive behaviours, one of our student lads said: ‘… usually done when drunk, to let off steam…we wouldn’t normally behave like that sober…’ So in order to challenge laddism, we surely must confront a UK culture of (binge) drinking? Yet, alcohol-use is seen as less problematic when linked to university students as is drug-use, which is increasingly being seen as a rational risk-reduction activity where students would: ‘…rather do drugs, [they] are safer than alcohol…’ where two students who had just met: ‘…immediately sat down and swapped drug dealers details…it’s safer to use the same one…’ Riskiness seems much higher than in previous decades with excessiveness routinely normalised, the making of Crystal Meth and Mcat glorified (i.e. Breaking Bad TV programme) and many students main goal being to black out. Any university attempt to promote responsible alcohol consumption clashes with a billion pound industry that sells ‘a pint for a pound’. In some cases, though, the consequences of lad cultures have resulted in student pranks becoming sex crimes.

Everyday studenthood appears latent with evermore contemporary mixed messages, pressures and risks which can translate social problems into criminal acts. For example, at one university, a student (ironically training to be a lawyer) received a 9 month prison sentence for sexual assault after drunkenly: ‘hitting a girl over the head with his penis’ while she slept and his mate filmed it at a house party (22.10.14). A generation surrounded by, arguably, instant information, immediate gratification and quick fixes, many students are ill-prepared for university social and academic life, in its current state, with both young men and women students vulnerable to the increased excessiveness, intensification and acceleration found in higher education, and general life. Expected (and desiring) to ‘fit in’, ‘stand out’, ‘take risks’ and ‘make ‘sensible’ choices’, it is unsurprising, then, that students’ may increasingly seek the means to momentarily escape (i.e. through substance use) and push the boundaries of acceptability via laddism, pleasure- and risk-seeking behaviours which are somewhat institutionally escalated.

On first arriving at university, students generally report feelings of homesickness, worries over leaving friends and parents behind (particularly lone-parents) and making new friends. In our research, students discussed these issues in relation to how binge drinking is normalised, an expectation of university life, and a marker of adolescent maturity. Some students described the ‘alcohol culture’ as institutionally encouraged. Interestingly, they raised the practice of lecturers providing students with alcohol at events so it quickly becomes the norm in new situations – in particular, alcohol aided students, relaxing, socialising and making new friends. Students worried about ‘not joining in’, being ‘alone’, isolated and ostracised. On entering halls, many are ‘forced’ for the first time to live with people who are not ‘family’.

Drinking and sporting societies initiation rituals equally serve lads with a legitimate means for homosocial ‘bonding’ and ‘testing boundaries’ which are partly about reinforcing hierarchies within particular social groups. Traditionally, higher education rests on notions of hierarchy, privilege, entitlement and ‘male’ competition. Increasingly, what we are perhaps witnessing is not only a reaction to neoliberal market principles and increased gender equality (see Phipps and Young, 2014), but the privileging of particular masculine behaviours and spaces where lads (re)claim lost power between lads as much as against women. As one lad in our research captures it:

We don’t behave like them –one of the main things they all have in common is privilege and sense of that’s what they can do, they can make the rules… We’ll never go as far as the rugby club, they get the most stick because they are the most open about it, but its [laddism] a part of most societies.

Often laddism, sexism and abuse targeted at women and between lads is about a hierarchical ordering of masculinities attached to class privilege, taste and distinction as students reinstate boundaries. This can also be seen at local rugby matches between Russell Group and Metropolitan Universities in traditional ritualistic chants of: “Our dad’s pay your dad’s benefits” and “if you can’t spell university, go to X Met”. Outside of the university context this discrimination would not be as tolerated. Similarly, stories of Rugby League lads smashing-up student accommodation and paying for damages without criminal consequences is reminiscent of the Bullingdon club. A minority of white, male and privileged students appear somewhat protected by virtue of their pedigree, or as one lad student said: ‘If you are rich and…or privileged, like here, and you get wasted, it’s ok, if you’re poor, it’s not…they smash it up, they pay for it, no-one gives a fuck’. If universities want to tackle laddism, gender inequality and abuse, then they need to start by looking at what is valued – the next pint, pound or pound of flesh?

Our collective response needs to be a whole institution-to-institution effort in tackling laddism, sexism, classism and violence. Pockets of excellent work exist, but these are not issues that can be left to individuals and their projects alone. Alternative informal and formal educational provision, for me, has much to offer in addressing broader cultural, socioeconomic and structural inequalities. Lad cultures are established in early primary school and later performed in universities. Joining-up-the-dots through robust sex and relationship education (SRE) across the learners’ lifecycle would help break oppressive chains of inequality (see Elley, 2013). This means teaching different masculinities, seeing men as potentially the solution as well as the problem, and recognising both the value of students’ riskiness and positively harnessing it. This includes encouraging students to critically engage with cultures, particularly those which thrive on excessiveness, intensification, acceleration, and blurred boundaries of (in) appropriateness via competitiveness – Oh, that would be capitalist market principles that are increasingly corrupting HE then…?

Further reading:
National Union of Students. (2013). ‘That’s what she said: women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ in higher education’.
Phipps, Alison and Young, Isabel. (2015). ‘Lad culture’ in higher education: agency in the sexualisation debates. Sexualities. ISSN 1363-4607
Phipps, Alison and Young, Isabel (2014). Neoliberalisation and ‘lad cultures’ in higher education. Sociology. ISSN 0038-0385


Sharon Elley is a lecturer in sociology and social policy, at the University of Leeds, and previously worked as a youth worker. This article is informed by an interdisciplinary research project with Dr. Alice O’Grady, Dr. Polly Wilding and Adam Formby with the help of Jessica Gale, Mary Robson and Lucas Bennett. Sharon is the author of ‘Understanding Sex and Relationship Education, Youth and Class: a Youth Work-led Perspective’ (2013, Palgrave).