The long summer vacation used to be a time for university students to go inter-railing through European cities and discover the meaning of life, and each other, through sharing bottles of cheap wine. This year, the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS) is spending August promoting its recently published Lad Culture Audit Report. This is the latest in a series of reports designed to lend credibility to the NUS’s ongoing crusade against all things laddish. Despite the use of ‘audit’ and ‘research’, there is little objectivity in the report’s assumption that higher education fosters ‘rape-supportive attitudes, sexual harassment and violence’.
The report calls for ‘a new national framework to aid those affected by sexual violence and harassment’. This is a demand for a UK version of the US’s ‘Title IX’ regulation, a prohibition against sex-based discrimination in education which also rules on how colleges deal with allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Currently, about half of UK universities have specific policies relating to sexual harassment – the authors of the Lad Culture Audit consider this to be symptomatic of ‘the problem’. They are further outraged by the fact that just 32 per cent of universities run official NUS-led sexual-consent workshops, and that only six per cent of institutions cover consent as part of the curriculum.
Throughout the report there is a sense of exasperation at this lack of consistency. That some institutions may not consider lad culture to be a huge problem, or may not have formal classes or policies in place to dictate to students how they should conduct their sex lives, clearly baffles and infuriates the authors. Special outrage is reserved for those universities that have ‘advised victims to try to resolve matters “informally” first, forcing them to take responsibility for difficult situations instead of seeking help from the institution’. The report’s unquestioning use of the victim label tells us why the authors find the idea of students, as adults, talking issues through with one another so baffling. The call throughout the report is for more explicit and formal regulation of how students behave towards each other.
Perhaps the NUS would like UK universities to emulate Goucher College in the US. This tiny liberal-arts college has a 33-page-long policy document called ‘Policy on Sexual Misconduct, Relationship Violence and Stalking’. Composed as a requirement of Title IX, it details the provision of educational programmes on sexual misconduct, relationship violence and stalking for all students, with the aim of preventing dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. The policy emphasises the importance of consent and offers the following definition: ‘Each participant is expected to obtain or give verbal consent to each act of sexual activity. In order for consent to be valid, all parties must be capable of making a rational, reasonable decision about the sexual act, and must have a shared understanding of the nature of the act to which they are consenting.’
This 33-page policy, which spells out in minute detail what the college’s 2,173 students can and cannot get up to in their bedrooms, makes for strange reading. Its declaration that consent cannot be given by people who have consumed alcohol or drugs, and they must therefore abstain until sober, suggests college administrators have lost all touch with reality. The problem the policy amply demonstrates is that when you start regulating the sex lives of students, there is no obvious place to stop. The Goucher policy goes on to prohibit ‘unwelcome flirtation, advances, inappropriate social invitations, or unwanted requests for sexual favours’.