University: this is an invitation to explore

For too long, ever-prim student unions have treated university social life as something to be terrified of.

Spending three or four years studying at university was once thought of as a time when young adults could explore challenging ideas and come into contact with a wide variety of people that they may otherwise never have met. It was a chance to expand one’s cultural and social horizons. Yet things have changed for students in the current scaremongering climate.

The National Union of Students (NUS) and individual university student unions have now fully embraced the idea that the social world is a harmful and risky place, that our relations with others are fraught with danger. We need our interactions regulated, our decisions restricted.

In this regard, student politics has merely followed the trail blazed by politicians at Westminster, where subsequent governments, regardless of party-political stripe, have decided that ‘nanny knows best’. Still, that doesn’t make it any less dispiriting. Past and current campaigns at Sheffield University Students’ Union include the ‘boycott’ of Nestlé products (which is annoying for those of us who enjoy a Kit-Kat Chunky), the removal of bottled water from the Union shop, the placement of covers on top-shelf lads mags and a ‘zero tolerance to sexual harassment’ campaign.

For instance, on entering the men’s toilets recently, I was met with a poster for the new campaign supported by the student union, ‘This is not an invitation to rape me’. (The posters were not, it should be noted, mounted in the women’s toilets.) The campaign originally began in New York City in 1994 and has recently been shared with Rape Crisis Scotland in an attempt ‘to help women who have been raped to receive justice’ and to change ‘societal attitudes [that] continue to play a significant role in limiting justice for women who have experienced this crime’. According to the campaign, and supporting ‘research’ by advocacy groups, women have been prevented from obtaining justice due to existing social attitudes, be it the idea that if a women’s drunk she’s asking for it, or the conviction that a woman cannot be raped by a husband or partner. 

Hence, in one of the campaign posters you see a newly-wed couple, and in another, a young couple kissing passionately, in the corner of which it says ‘this is not an invitation to rape me’. It may seem a progressive campaign – after all, who is in favour of rape? But dig a little deeper and it becomes possible to identify the attempt to problematise our most intimate of relationships, sowing suspicion within relationships that are inherently built on trust. Student unions, the NUS and university institutions have wholeheartedly embraced this miserable view of relationships to depressing effect. The once-fun relationships into which male and female students voluntarily entered have come to be seen as risky endeavours, a source of potential harm.

Having talked to a few peers who are in favour of the campaign, I’ve been met with the argument, ‘It’s not aimed at you. If we could leaflet rapists directly we would.’ Yet what does this say about contemporary views of men and women?

Well, it suggests that, on the one hand, men have come to be thought of as inherently violent and harmful, lacking intelligence and the ability to make reasoned decisions when it comes to sexual relations. And on the other, it suggests that women are victims, without the ability to stand up for themselves, unless supported by a higher authority.

In this view, new relationships cease to be an opportunity – to fall in love or at least have some fun. They become a risk that’s not worth taking - at least, not without student union-approved guidance. Men are just too threatening and women just too weak. In reality, the biggest threat in the vast majority of relationships is a bruised ego from being dumped.

There’s nothing progressive about such a misanthropic worldview. Why should we be encouraged to be inherently wary and suspicious of the people we enter into relationships with? Surely, it would be far better to start from a position of trust, rather than distrust.

Scaremongering is no way to approach students’ lives; it merely creates fearful, suspicious graduates. Students and student unions need to recognise that the shallow politics of this anti-rape campaign will damage men’s and women’s perceptions of one another. Moreover, a culture of fear within a university runs counter to its nature as a place of exploration and human engagement.

Christopher Beckett is an undergraduate at Sheffield University.

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