Nicoletta Enria examines lad culture and wonders if the phenomenon is confined to Britain or can also be found on mainland Europe.
As anyone who has ever taken the night bus in a university town will tell you, misogynistic chants and racial slurs seem to be becoming more and more outrageous. “Lad Culture” is an ever-present term in contemporary UK media, with constant controversial incidents occurring in British universities involving raucous drunk students offending a wide array of people. The National Union of Students (NUS) has defined lad culture as a group or “pack” mentality residing in activities such as sport, heavy drinking and paired with “banter” – often sexist, misogynistic and homophobic humour.
Lad culture is sparking a hot debate on what institutions and government can do to extinguish these attitudes. However, one can’t help but wonder if lad culture is merely a British phenomenon, or part of a larger European problem with sexism, excessive alcohol consumption and homophobia in today’s youth?
What exactly is lad culture?
The term first arose in the 1950s in one of the first ever editions of Playboy referring to adolescent inspired masculinity. It re-emerged in the 1990s, usually associated with the Britpop music of the time, and was used to define the image of the “new lad” – stereotypically a middle class figure with mannerisms conventionally (though not necessarily truthfully) attributed to the working class. This obsession with the new lad is usually branded as a backlash against the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, and seen as glorifying machismo and traditional gender roles.
In the UK, this has become a problem mainly connected to higher education institutions. This trend, coupled with notorious institutional leniency towards binge drinking students, leads to extremely offensive and problematic attitudes. A stereotypical “uni lad” is usually thought to be a young privileged middle class heterosexual white male, who joins in due to a fear of exclusion from this “pack” mentality or due to a genuine conviction in the beliefs lad culture embodies.
In a study conducted by the NUS, 50% of participants stated that they had experienced attitudes of sexism and harassment defined as “laddism” at their universities. With sexual harassment, verbal harassment, such as catcalling, as well as physical harassment and sexual molestation often being attributed to lad culture, it’s no surprise the lack of action taken by British universities has caused such an uproar.
Infamous incidents such as what happened at the London School of Economics, where the rugby team was even disbanded due to the handing out of sexist and homophobic leaflets during a freshers’ fair, or at Cardiff University where their football team was banned for several games after they gave a presentation on how to sleep with women with low self esteem, have cast a light on the dangers of the UK lad culture.
These are also only two of the more notorious examples; plenty more go unobserved and unpunished, showing how ingrained lad culture has become in university life in the UK. Its emphasis on fixed stereotypical gender roles, the objectification of women and a highly sexualised humour makes being a “lad” a very exclusive title, only worthy of those that fit this image of inflated masculinity. Jokes trivialising rape masked as merely “banter” is making lad culture an especially dangerous phenomenon for young women.
I study at British university and have also noticed with what ease students pass off their sexist and misogynistic comments as “just a laugh”. Anyone who voices remarks against such comments is immediately branded as “uptight” or – heaven forbid – a feminist; the ultimate insult in the eyes of the “laddish”.
More than just a British problem?
Having just spent a year abroad in Germany, though, I was intrigued to see whether lad culture would transcend national borders and was not surprised to find similar “laddish” attitudes displayed by the German equivalent, the “Kerl”. Sexist attitudes combined with heavy drinking appear to have become accepted attitudes for many German university students.
It is also hardly a shock to note that my home country of Italy – a place long lumbered with an infamously sexist Prime Minister in the form of Silvio Berlusconi, whose notorious bunga bunga parties mixed cocaine, prostitutes and misogynistic attitudes – suffers from a similar lad culture. This variant of the phenomenon seeped into an academic context in Italy when top university La Sapienza was criticised for staging a glamour contest with plastic surgery offered as prizes.
Talking to friends, I have discovered that a similar lad culture can be found in Romania. Young males are often observed parading around night clubs, drink in hand, ready to hand out free drinks and sexist remarks to the first lucky lady they can find. Lad culture has also wiggled its way into university life where, for example, “lads” show off their masculinity by racing to university and the esteemed title of the “laddiest” is then given to the one who gets there the quickest and avoids the most police.
I’m also told that a form of lad culture can be found in the Netherlands as part of rituals known as “ontgroening”. Students in their first year of university undergo auditions for student societies or even just to live in student apartments, which require them to participate in drinking challenges and humiliating tasks such as standing in a field in the middle of the night in their underwear.
Some students have even died from the extremity of these challenges and the government has had to get involved by limiting what can be demanded in these trials. The trend appears to inspired by the American “bro culture” found in fraternities, which includes activities such as spiking punch bowls at parties.
Lad culture certainly seems to be sweeping the world – in an academic context and beyond – and something has become crystal clear: strong action needs to be taken to protect victims of this trend from the dangerous behaviour that is hidden behind the mask of just “laddism”. Here in Europe we need to ask ourselves how can we have let this regression into old-fashioned misogynism occur in our esteemed higher education institutions happen and what can we do to return on the path of progress?
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