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Misogyny at Burns Night must stop

There are a lot of negative stereotypes about our University which alienate anyone other than the straight, white, middle-class cis-gender man. But my first term and a bit at this institution was filled with a certain steadfast calm: naively, I had not had to face any of this prejudice head-on.

Attending a Burns Night dinner last week as a guest at another college, I was, for the first time here, witness to explicit sexism. I was not previously familiar with the traditions of Burns Night, nor was I familiar with the nature of this college’s formalities, including a high table of professors, tutors and a monk. Following tradition, a grace was followed by piping, and the age-old cutting of the haggis took place, accompanied by Burns’ ‘Address to Haggis’. After dining, speeches were made. These traditionally take the form of a man’s ‘Address to the Lassies’, followed by a woman’s reply. 

What followed, on this evening meant to be the celebration of a national poet (albeit a promiscuous one), was sickening. The hall was struck with outlandish, blatant misogyny. The ‘Address to the Lassies’ speech, given by a male undergraduate student, was a list saturated with name after name of female members of the college, alongside the males with whom they had slept or performed other sexual acts. Few details were spared. Identities were paraded. Ridiculous puns were made out of the nature of these activities, where they had taken place, and to what success, always from the male perspective within the sexual act.

During this speech, supposedly ‘celebrating’ the female students, names of human beings (many of whom were present) were being thrown around as if they were mere formulations of letters – as if they bore no relation to any living person holding pride and a conscience. Often women were named in twos or threes alongside one man, as if these women were trophies to be carried around and heralded by the men. All hail the man, while we slut-shame the woman.

Jeering and reckless laughter began. Sitting in that room, with howls and shrieks reverberating off the walls (on which are hung portraits of old white men), I could only be reminded of scenes from the Houses of Parliament: the kind of animalistic, laddish behaviour on show when debating serious issues of ordinary people. It is now very easy to see where the jeering temperament of MPs comes from.

The response of the other students – including a large proportion of women – was what shocked me most. Initially, some seemed bewildered at what they heard. But soon, when it was evident that everyone else in the hall was cackling away, they all joined in. Admittedly, members of the high table looked sheepish, but not one intervened. No one took a stand to question why the speaker felt it necessary to objectify his peers in this way, ridiculing the behaviour of his friends and colleagues in the most public of college settings. Instead, a frightening cult-like atmosphere was apparent: if anyone did feel uncomfortable with the situation, they were not to show it. This fiercely inward-looking culture seems to tear freedom of opinion from all those within its reach. The college in question is a very small community. In this elite bubble, with these violating opinions spoken the loudest, it is hard to imagine how anyone could think for themselves.

Speaking to three female students of the College afterwards, the general consensus was one of bemusement. They agreed that previous speeches had never been of such an explicit sexual nature, but seemed surprised by my contempt. Their sentiment – ‘I would be embarrassed if I were named, but I wasn’t – so I found it funny’ – is representative of a wider social problem. Should we just look and laugh along, as long as it’s not us in the firing line?

Following this initial speech, a female student stood to give her traditional ‘response’. This spokeswoman of female students played up to the stereotype her male peer had laid out to her, implying that the females of her college are ‘easy’, willing to do anything to get with any guy. She ‘joked’ that the ladies of her college would go for any male – tall, short, young or old – even referring to members of the SCR as being no barrier to the female students’ desires. It is not often that a woman is heard objectifying her own kind.

There is no place for sexual acts to be mocked through a demeaning, misogynistic mouthpiece, especially not in a university, which should be encouraging progressive thought and intelligence. The more women are slut-shamed and mocked for sexual pursuits, the more we distance ourselves from any sense of common humanity. The men mentioned in these speeches seemed to gain credibility, whereas it was implied the women had done things they should be ashamed of.

Many matters like this are excused as ‘jokes’ or with the pitiless term ‘banter’ that is thrown around so often. Arguing for comedic value is akin to pushing the problem under the carpet and pretending the situation is jovial. There is nothing light-hearted about explicit, intended misogyny.

As a woman sitting in that room, I felt humiliated and violated. ‘Degraded’ – to be treated with disrespect – hardly bears the brunt of it. As a human being sitting in that room, I felt wholeheartedly mortified. It troubles me that this evening angered and upset me so, because the members of the college hardly gave a second thought to the speeches, carrying on with their evening’s drinking. It is ultimately worrying that I felt like the exception in this situation, because it should be this disgustingly misogynistic behaviour that is the exception we strive to abandon.

Every day I read something in the press concerning women’s rights. If we are living in a time where gender equality is still considered a relevant issue (as well it should be, while sexism still exists), I’m asking why there are pockets of our university where misogyny rules supreme. I’m asking why any human could find it appropriate to humiliate, disrespect and objectify his peers, and why nobody thought this was an offence. And, if we want this to change, I’m calling for the whole student community to start talking about this very real and very dangerous problem with much more urgency. 

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