Debate: ‘Is lad culture a problem at Oxford University?’

Yes: Katt Walton 

Homosexuality is a disease,” “I want to put my face in your boobs,” “You’re so sexy when you dance,” “When our school used to play sport with state schools it was like community outreach.”

It’s just banter, lads, why are you getting offended? We are deep into a social ruling that has discrimination masquerading as ‘banter’, assault being ‘asked for’ and misogyny veiled as a ‘compliment’. We are in a lad culture epidemic.

If we play word association with ‘Oxford’ the most likely things to come up are: gowns, dreaming spires, rowing, intelligence and Harry Potter. There is actually a darker underbelly to Oxford, which creates an unsettling atmosphere that perpetuates victim blaming and hatred. This is lad culture. Many of you may be thinking: what is lad culture and is it something ‘radical feminist killjoys’ have invented to blame when ‘patriarchy’ is used too much? 

In reality, this problem has pervaded our community to the point where these ‘lads’ think it fine to grope a girl because they’re on a crew-date and ‘that’s what you do’ or when rugby initiations involve a stripper because ‘it’s tradition’. Since when did intelligent students forget morality and integrity, just to be hailed as a ‘lad’ with substandard and offensive banter?

There is a subcategory of lad culture at Oxford that encapsulates the main issues in our University. I’m talking about the public school boys, Rolex and Comme des Garçon ones, wearing vintage garms painfully sourced from eBay in an attempt to look wavy. This new grade of lads is arguably more dangerous.

Oxford is a melting pot for the elite, with a hugely disproportionate number of privately educated students being admitted. For example, 58 per cent of Christ Church’s admissions attended fee-paying schools. Given that they make up only seven per cent of England’s schools, Oxford is clearly not representative of reality.

Private, and especially public schools, are a breeding ground for lad culture, which is often drilled in to boys from preparatory age. Boys are told to ‘man up’ and not to be a ‘pussy’ or to ‘stop acting like a girl’, and they are brainwashed into believing masculinity is based on patriarchal elitism. 

The microcosmic environments of boarding schools help to perpetuate overwhelming social behaviours which see sexism and classism as second nature and become ingrained as normality. This spills over to university life when privately educated students are forced for the first time to interact with state school admissions.

The grating small talk I endured centred around my education. “Where did you go to school?” they would ask, and when I started to say it was a state school in Greater Manchester many people simply turned their backs eager to find their own social circle. Befriending this crowd is impossible: the second these ‘lads’ realise you don’t have a friend who owns a chalet or understand how to laugh at jokes about mining and ‘Northern yobs’ you’re cast out. When did it become standard for this level of offensiveness to be heralded as ‘normal’?

As a northern queer woman I am constantly reminded of my marginalised identity and how it is ‘taking up space’. I have been shut down in social situations when I’ve called people out for sending round pictures of disabled children ‘just for the bantz’ and that when someone says ‘homosexuality is a mental disease’ it is ‘just some people’s sense of humour’ and I need to learn to deal with it. I have become uncomfortable in my own college due to the proliferation of problematic views that are tolerated by the argument of ‘free speech’, and this so-called banter which seems to constitute law in our university.

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I am sick of being assaulted in clubs when I kiss my girlfriend because a guy wants to ‘join in’ whilst his mates scream a chorus of ‘LAD!’ This is not what I should have to accept and it isn’t what you should either. Unsurprisingly the most common reason overall for not reporting incidents were that students did not feel that what had happened was serious enough to report. This is the epidemic we are in right now. Women are second guessing assault in clubs because lad culture indoctrinates us into believing that boys will be boys. State-educated students are embarrassed by their humble backgrounds after they hear of friends hiring castles for their birthdays.

I’m not saying that wealth and lad culture are synonymous but I am saying that the environments many privileged students come from cultivate the ideologies that contribute to this new class of lad culture. Oxford needs to stand up and realise it has an elite agenda which is contributing to the alienation of low income students, women and the queer community because our identities are not valid in the public school lad scene.

 

No: Bishan Morgan

The representation of lads in popular culture is hardly positive: boozy sports teams with beer-spattered bibs, chanting vulgarities and hurling misogynistic abuse around like rugby balls. Yet I want to challenge this simplistic understanding of ‘lad culture’ and demonstrate that Oxford’s ‘lads’ are remarkably progressive.

First of all, the term ‘lad culture’ is highly problematic. We should bear in mind that it suggests there is some kind of unifying, central movement, which is simply not the case. There is no solidifying ideology between different people, or even different times, that constitutes lad culture. It is a term crucially applied to certain kinds of behaviour rather than a driving force for that behaviour. As such, we should not understand ‘lad culture’ as a monolith: it has taken many different shapes and forms over multiple decades.

In the 1960s, the conception of a ‘lad’ was very different from today. It referred to a man of spirit and vigour, and was often used in phrases such as ‘a bit of a lad’, or ‘quite a lad’. This idea of bravado is still extant today – you only have to look at sites such as UNILAD or The LAD Bible. The word ‘lad’, then, was centred on acts of daring, and was largely free of the negative connotations it has now. 

If we fast-forward to the 1990s, lad culture was a promising, liberating ideal. It was a subculture associated with Britpop music – Oasis belonged to the era of the New Lad. Lad culture enabled men to express themselves, and women to behave just as freely. As well as the lads, there were ‘ladettes’, which the OED defines as “a young woman characterized by her enjoyment of social drinking, sport, or other activities typically considered to be male-oriented”. The lad culture of the 1990s was, then, an emancipatory ground for both men and women, lads and ladettes. 

It was only in the 2000s that lad culture was hijacked by the sexism with which it is now commonly associated. A primarily liberating movement gave people the freedom to act as they pleased, which necessarily entailed the misuse of this freedom. Boorish misogynists began expressing their boorish misogyny, and lad culture gained its new associations.

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Yet, I argue, there has been a steady process of ironising and growing self-awareness within lad culture in the 2010s, which popular conceptions in the media have yet to catch up with. If you hear someone describing themselves as a ‘lad’, chances are it was intended ironically. People are starting to realise that branding themselves with the word ‘lad’ is too serious a mode of self-expression, or in other words, that it’s uncool.

The changing face of lad culture is symptomatic of subcultures in general, which don’t tend to last very long. When was the last time you heard someone describe themselves as a mod? The 1960s, most likely. Social groups move in and out of fashion, and the boozy, sexist lad is starting to head that way too. A straightforward patriotism for a particular subculture, such as lad culture, is not compatible with a society which increasingly prides itself on relentless irony. 

In this milieu of cultural reform, the link between lad culture and sexism, homophobia, and racism can be difficult to define. Is the subculture itself responsible for the actions of some of its members? We should start to view lad culture not as an inherently backward, misogynistic entity, but as something which promotes homosocial bonding and freedom of expression.

Lad culture’s transformation is exemplified by the latest marketing approach taken by The LAD Bible. In a recent interview with BBC Radio 5, Mimi Turner, the company’s marketing director, pointed out that a quarter of the ‘lads’ reading the site are women. The LAD Bible is updating itself to stay relevant, removing features such as Cleavage Thursday and Bumday Monday under direct pressure from university students.

Yet lad culture is not only transforming on entertainment sites, but also in Oxford. When compared to the rest of the country, there is strong evidence that Oxford is actually one of the most progressive places with regard to lad culture. Take ‘Good Lad’, an organisation that was founded in Oxford and run by Oxford students, which has now expanded to 14 other universities.

The organisation runs compulsory workshops once a season for every rugby team to promote ‘positive masculinity’. These workshops present a more nuanced approach to issues of sexism and inequality than, say, a simple reminder of consent laws: they facilitate intelligent conversation through open debate. They cover challenging issues, such as how to deal with a teammate who repeatedly makes intimidating, sexist comments.

Trinity College Rugby Captain Alec Fullerton attended a Good Lad Workshop at the end of Michaelmas term 2015 and described how “people enjoyed the platform for discussion – they responded seriously to the issues at hand.” This seems like an enormous step forward in challenging women’s inequality and pioneering ground for a new conception of ‘Good Lads’. In summary, the idea of what constitutes lad culture is changing towards something that promotes, before anything else, liberty and homosocial bonding. The positive changes made by entities such as the Good Lad Workshops and The LAD Bible are transforming perceptions of lad culture, to free the once-promising subculture of the 1990s from its sexist associations. Lad culture is not the by-word for misogyny it has come to mean: it is a complicated, heterogeneous entity, which is transforming as we speak, and Oxford is at the forefront of progressive social change.