Lad culture: what’s the harm?

Alex Townsend

In 2012 the NUS produced a report describing lad culture as “a group or pack mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption and ‘banter’ which was sexist, misogynist, or homophobic.” Thought to originate in the 1990s alongside the Britpop movement, lad culture has been on the rise since. Now, it has permeated university culture and is causing grave concern.

Anecdotal accounts of lad culture include things like ‘slut dropping’ (offering female students a lift home but then leaving them stranded a long way from home), ‘hazing’ (initiation ceremonies usually linked to male sports teams) and fancy dress parties with themes such as ‘pimps and hoes’ and ‘geeks and sluts’ (University of York, 2017).

There’s the famous case of LSE male rugby team producing and circulating sexist and homophobic emails and leaflets. And students at the University of Nottingham were found singing a misogynistic chant that included a line about digging up a female corpse and having sex with it.

LAD Bible and UNILAD are now some of the most visited sites in the UK, but have both been criticised for content trivialising rape and for acting as platforms for sexist “banter”.

The NUS report, What She Said, was the first major study into the prevalence and impact of lad culture at universities, from the perspective of female students. It brought some deeply troubling findings to light. 50 per cent of study participants identified "prevailing sexism, 'laddism' and a culture of harassment" at their universities. “Sexual harassment and violence were found to be very much related to ‘lad culture’, including verbal harassment, ‘catcalling’, physical harassment and sexual molestation.” The report showed that groping in nightclubs was viewed by some as part of a ‘normal’ night out.

If a link can be drawn between lad culture and sexual assault and harassment at universities, then that is deeply troubling indeed.

Statistics on rape and assault at universities are frankly harrowing. Research by Rape Revolt found that 8% of female students said they had been raped at university which is double the 4% of all women in England and Wales. That’s almost 1 in 10 female students.

Initiatives like Rape Revolt and Everyday Sexism are offering women a platform to speak out about instances of assault. Everyone should be listening, because solutions can’t be found without knowing the extent of the problem.

But Dave Llewellyn, founder of The Good Lad initiative, warns that “blaming lad culture for all misogyny shuts many young men out of a conversation they need to be a part of.”

And Universities UK says the term Lad Culture is problematic: “It could create the impression that what was being referred to was trivial and not serious, or lead to an assumption that misogyny, racism and homophobia are specific to an alcohol/sporting culture when they are present across all cultures and demographics.”

Lad culture is only part of the problem then. Still, it is a sub-culture that promotes a form of masculinity harmful to both women and men. Yes we said it: men too. As Herald Scotland pointed out, lad culture can seriously inhibit male students’ ability to speak out about mental health – and get the support they need. “A core component of good mental health is feeling able to be yourself, able to say what you are thinking and feeling without fear of rejection or ridicule. Lad culture does nothing to promote the integrity of individual men” the paper writes. With males suicide rates consistently higher than female suicide rates in the UK, this could have deadly consequences.

As Good Lad advises, male students have to be a part of the solution. Initiatives to combat lad culture must involve men.

We must engage everyone in this conversation, so that both men and women can identify as architects of the healthier culture we all wish to be a part of.

The Good Lad is a brilliant initiative that involves speaking with male students through workshops about positive masculinity. The initiative’s goal is to “enable men to deal with complex gender situations and become agents of positive change within their social circles and broader communities”.

As well as services offered by third party organisations, there are steps that universities can also take themselves to tackle prejudice and establish a culture of security and equality on campus. It’s not optional for universities to take this action either – it’s a legal requirement under The Equality Act 2010. A public sector equality duty (PSED) which came into force in April 2011 requires institutions “to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act”.

We found the following useful online resources for universities on tackling lad culture in higher education:

To talk to us about how we support students on issues such as lad culture or other issues discussed in our blogs, drop us a line: [email protected].