University adversity – advertising rape

Dear readers, sometimes I feel like apologising that I spend a lot of time in posts on “feminist issues”. But I shouldn’t, so I won’t. I don’t write about this because it’s the only thing I care about, or because it’s particularly interesting – I do it because it’s annoying and it affects too many people I care about, and me, too. Content warning discussion of rape etc.

I’d love to spend more time on other things, but until people realise, accept and get equally angry that sexism and misogyny are everywhere, it’s not going to get better and everything else that’s interesting tends to get polluted with ridiculous-to-dangerous sexist attitudes and actions. So don’t be angry at me, be angry at everything you see that fits the bill – like this example:

Come to our party, find a vulnerable girl!

Kent Students’ Union poster advertising “Party in the Car Park” – apparently withdrawn

For some background: I grew up in Canterbury. I was there at the weekend. I spent a lot of time on the University of Kent campus as I was in a relationship with someone who went to study there when I was at school, and I did some work experience and courses there myself.  So I’ve a certain affection for it, and I know some other alumni who are equally upset by this.

The University of Kent’s official student union, Kent Union, thought this poster was appropriate to advertise an upcoming student event. It’s not – here’s why, here’s what they’ve said, and here’s what I’m doing (and what you could do).

Edit: following Kent Union’s comments, please see updates here and here.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Before we get into the other problems this poster presents, let’s start with the fact that they used this image of a student without her permission. She’s drunk outside the campus club, once called The Venue (but perhaps not these days, I don’t know), if I’m recognising it correctly.

On to the other problems.

This poster is advertising a party outside with the tagline that people (the image suggests female students) will be losing their friends and left alone. Yes, it is common to wander around looking for people while out at a busy venue. But that is not recommended, it’s not fun, so why use it? Well, maybe it’s fun for other students who find these lost, drunk people on their own. Why might that be fun? Why are we told to stay with people we trust while we’re out and incapacitated to some degree?

Because there are horrible people around who do not respect the idea of consent. They believe they are entitled to things, things like other people’s bodies, and to use them as they please without their permission. These ideas are reinforced by a lot of media and culture around us, and it’s dangerous. Teaching people they can take what they want without regard for the happiness, safety and wellbeing of others is what creates rapists. People might not think that’s what they are, if they offer to take a drunk stranger home, then go to her room and do things she hasn’t agreed to. She was at the party, alone, she wore that short dress, she didn’t fight me, so it’s fine, right? WRONG.

Why is this such a problem? University students are as young as 17/18. At school, these messages are also received loud and clear. At university, they are reinforced. This problem is not exclusive to Kent University, it is endemic in higher education. That is something that should worry everyone, and something we need to work to counter.

We know that sexual assault is rife at universities, and the majority of cases aren’t reported to universities or the police – for the same reasons rape and sexual assault is generally underreported (women aren’t believed; their behaviours are questioned; they are victimised further by the legal process; by family, friends and strangers; the conviction rate is low; they fear their situation will worsen) and more. You can find out how many people admit to rape and roughly how many victims there are, so long as you rephrase the “rape” part – people seriously don’t realise that it means forced sex. And they don’t realise that “force” is quite broad, or that “coersion” comes into it.

This is the same in the US, where studies show that not only do men admit to rape in colleges, those who do it do it repeatedly. Rapists think it’s normal – they think everyone does it, because it’s their entitlement. People around them must speak up – jokes are not harmless. Challenge, or no one ever learns, and more victims are created, and kept silent, carrying these experiences with them forever.

Existing evidence and guidelines

We already know this is a problem; the NUS knows it, and universities should know it. In 2010 the NUS released the “Hidden Marks” report, detailing the negative experiences of female students in UK universities with regard to sexual assault and harassment. Some exerpts (emphasis mine):

“The picture that we have revealed is disturbing. 14 per cent have experienced serious physical or sexual assault. 68 per cent have been subject to verbal or physical sexual harassment. Nearly one in four has experienced unwanted sexual contact… violence against women is widespread, serious, and is hampering women’s ability to learn.

Institutions, students’ unions and students have a pressing responsibility to take immediate action to tackle the problem… adopt a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to harassment and violence.

… Respondents reported a range of different consequences of violence, stalking and sexual assault to their health, learning, confidence and relationships, with the most common consequence being deterioration of mental health.”

The NUS and University of Sussex has reported on the effects of lad culture on student experiences. They recommend the following:

“… the student movement must take action to combat the emergence of ‘lad culture’ in higher education and the negative impacts this is having on students. This is not something that NUS can accomplish alone. We will need to work with partners inside and outside the student movement to determine how best to respond to this culture that is at odds with our values and is damaging to our students. We know that this cannot be achieved overnight, and it will require a nuanced and thoughtful response…

We will work towards… creating a safer, more positive, more empowering culture on our campuses”

I hope they can work with Kent Union specifically given this evidence. On to what the union have said in response so far.

Owning up

Kent Union have responded to people’s complaints with this nonpology:

“We would like to sincerely apologise to the students that have been offended by one of the posters we have designed to promote this year’s Party in the Car Park. It was never our intention for the poster and its message to be interpreted in this way.

The concept behind our marketing of the event is to use real photographs taken last year combined with factual statements provided by students.

We can confirm that the poster has been removed and will not be used within any further marketing. In the future we will check our designs with relevant people to ensure they cannot be interpreted in a different way.

Sorry once again,

Kent Union”

What is the purpose of an apology, and does this statement achieve any of the aims it should have had?

1) Admit fault. If you’re apologising for something, you have to recognise that the thing you did was wrong/negative/hurtful in some way. You should address that in your apology. The statement above makes no indication that they concede the poster is problematic in any way, that it encourages/endorses sexual violence (or at least uses the prospect of it as a positive reason for people to attend their event) or is otherwise damaging.

They do not apologise for using the image without consent (perhaps unsurprising, given the context). They pass the blame on to the observers. “for… its message to be interpreted in this way.” – it’s not about interpretation! People seeing this have informed them quite clearly about what it obviously means. What possible positives are there to drunk women losing their friends at a party?! Grow up, own up, apologise properly.

2) Apologise for your mistake and the hurt caused. “We would like to sincerely apologise to the students that have been offended” is not an apology. “Sorry you’re offended” isn’t saying sorry, it is, again, passing the blame on to you for having those silly feelings.

Also, you haven’t just offended students here, you’ve actively promoted the idea that taking advantage of people is ok – you’ve put students in danger. A range of people besides current students are unhappy about this. It’s not just about the university environment – people leave university and go on to jobs and the rest of their lives. Moulding people into inconsiderate abusers at university has a ripple effect and you have a responsibility to counter this.

3) Commit to rectifying the situation. Saying sorry isn’t enough – you have to do something positive to make amends, if you actually want the situation to get better. “We can confirm that the poster has been removed and will not be used within any further marketing. ” A good start. What are the other posters like? I’ve asked if any current students have seen others – do post below if so.

Another good thing would be to create a poster that explains consent to people. There are great sex educators around, like Bish whom I’ve just linked, who could help with this. There are also detailed recommendations in the NUS Hidden Marks report, linked above (pp. 30-33). Includes: “Use educational initiatives to challenge negative attitudes and stereotypes” and “Create a campus environment in which students feel safe“.

4) Commit to doing better in future. If you apologise without any indication of hoping to improve and prevent further harm from your actions, it’s pretty empty. “In the future we will check our designs with relevant people to ensure they cannot be interpreted in a different way.” – commit to researching the problem of sexual violence in universities, and how marketing actually affects people. Discipline the person/people who designed this in the first place. Make it clear that they will be educated. That everyone in the Union knows this is unacceptable.


University reponsibilities

As detailed in the reports linked above, it has been recommended by the NUS that university institutions, unions and students work together on these issues. Given UoK seems to pride itself on its environment:

“Canterbury is consistently rated as one of the safest university cities in England and Wales.”

One would think that they would be concerned by this clear tarnishing of their student life image. Sadly not:

It’s also made clear on the UoK Staying safe page that being around trusted friends is an important aspect of personal safety (emphasis theirs):

Best way to stay safe at night is to stick with your friends.

So, they could at least acknowledge that the union’s promotion was contradicting several guidelines, and that they will (and hopefully already do) monitor their activities and provide guidance to the union. If this is not standard practice in any UK university, why not, and how will the NUS’ guidelines be enforced if they refuse to interact on these important issues?

I’m writing to the Kent Union to link them to this information. Please feel free to use anything presented here if you wish to contact them, too. The more people who do so, hopefully, the fewer people will think this kind of thing is acceptable and harmless.

Edit: a friend points to Kent Union’s constitution (emphasis mine):

“The constitution has to be approved by the University so we can function as a Students’ Union.”

“Section D: Under the Education Act 1994, The University of Kent has a statutory duty to ensure that the Union operates in a fair and democratic manner and is held to proper account for its finances. The Union therefore works alongside The University of Kent in ensuring the affairs of the Union are properly conducted and that the educational and welfare needs of the Union’s Members are met.”

It is also clear that Kent Union receives the bulk of its revenue in the form of grants from the University of Kent:

“As a charity Kent Union receives grants from the University of Kent, income under contracts for the provision of charitable services, membership contributions and income from trading activity closely associated with its charitable purposes. Incoming resources are accounted for in the period in which the service is provided.”

It might be advisable to involve the Charity Commission if the university remain apparently unwilling to appropriately regulate the behaviour of the union.

This is not a problem exclusive to the University of Kent. I’d like to see them do better, and I think they can. They could be an example for other UK universities, and institutions worldwide, if they chose to tackle this with the determination and transparency that it deserves.

As the NUS said, it’s not just their responsibility. It could affect you, too. Maybe it already has. Maybe you have or will have children who are students. Not that we need to be directly affected by things to be decent people who stand up for our fellow human beings (hopefully). We all live in this society with other people, and a lot of them go through university, so let’s work to make it better, shall we?



Lots of depressing sexist things are coming up today. Here’s a few of them (and this happens pretty much every day, just to show the scale of the problem a little) and other links:

  • UoK and Kent Union have already been criticised by local media: Medwire, Kent Online (well done Bethany Taylor, women’s campaign officer, for voicing concerns)
  • The NUS have spoken about student feminism and sexual harassment – I hope they will engage with this instance too.
  • I have Storified both some of the responses to the poster and its removal here, as well as pro-feminist NUS tweets.
  • Our government’s cuts are disproportionately negatively affecting women, and as this piece shows, victims of domestic violence. Thanks, Cleggeron.
  • Crisis Pregnancy Centres, who hate and lie to women about abortion, are still open for some reason.
  • Gendered toys are becoming more and more common, but feeble “girl monkeys like pink things and boy monkeys like blue” arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny (New Scientist)
  • Tech website thinks it’s the online tech-focused version of Maxim. And we wonder why there aren’t as many talented women in tech as there really could be? (Sweary post).
  • Everydaysexism‘s book is out soon, and today an exerpt is available, which details some of the shocking experience of school-age girls in the UK.
  • A good post on how people misunderstand rape culture
  • Edit: following Kent Union’s comments, please see updates here and here.

12 thoughts on “University adversity – advertising rape

  1. Well done taking the time to call this out and point out in detail what’s wrong with it. I’ve seen comments on the internet being wilfully obtuse about it, rather in the vein of the Kent SU reply you got. The very best reading of it is unbelievably naive and steeped in the culture that makes *anyone* think this is OK.

  2. I tweeted a complaint about this issue, this morning.
    The poster was absolutely wrong, but I can understand a situation where a group of young, naive people put on an event and one of the posters for the event, likely made by one or two people without the consultation of the others, is horrid. When the group are were aware, they quickly removed the poster and being a bunch of youngsters, then make a cack-handed balls-up of the apology. I suspect that they meant the apology; on Twitter they seemed contrite and I suspect that they’ll end up putting some controls in place to review future marketing material.
    So; youngsters, awful poster, poster removed, attempt made at apology. Lesson learned, move on.


    My compliant was to the Uni, not to the Union.
    The University should have been much more in control of this. The Union is an association controlled by the University, which is a public institution. In an ideal world, it should be involved in managing the Union; if not day to day, then at least adequate oversight and review. It should have stepped in as soon as there was a sniff of trouble, taken over the crisis management, disciplined those responsible and shown that encouraging an environment that puts anyone at risk is not acceptable.
    But it did not do that. The university has not apologised. It has not shown contrition. It has not shown control or responsibility. The University has been slippery shouldered over the whole thing, saying: “sorry but we aren’t able to speak on their behalf.”

    Not only can the University speak on behalf of the Union, it should have spoken out on behalf of all the female students put at risk by the actions of the Union. The University has a student body that it holds a duty of care to, it is a public body, so should be held to the utmost standards of probity and it has a brand as an educational establishment to protect.
    So far it has simply ducked behind the Union students who it is hanging out to dry whilst it shirks its responsibility.
    So I can let the complaint against a bunch of irresponsible youngsters go now. I think they’ve learned their lesson. But the University – that’s a different matter. It’s being utterly spineless and weak.
    Until the University stands up and helps right this wrong, I hope that this story runs and runs.

    1. Absolutely agree, and I hope the union will learn from this – and what their fellow students have told them. They are still not getting what “apology” means, and I will write a longer comment shortly on that.

      I am also angered by the university’s shirking of responsibility; it’s clearly against all of the guidelines that exist.

  3. Addendum to post:

    I thank the Union for their responses via Twitter. For more detail on this, including other dissenting voices, some of the “defences” and some commentary, please see this Storify.

    Some further points to be made:

    1) It seems the Union representatives have failed to take on board the criticisms of their statement. “Sorry you were offended/sorry you feel hurt by this” isn’t an apology. “Sorry I/we offended/hurt you” is. It’s a subtle but important difference. One takes responsibility, expresses remorse and admits fault – the other does not.

    2) Intention is not everything. This is potentially a deep, philosophical conversation but when talking about people, it’s quite simple – you can do a lot of harm, even when you might not mean to. Recognising that is important if you want to do better. Failure to acknowledge the widely-agreed-to-be-clear message of this poster (that women will be alone and vulnerable at this party and that’s a reason people should go) suggests they do not agree the assessment is valid, and ignores the many voices clearly explaining what it means.

    Sure, why would they deliberately put that message across? I’m sure they’re all lovely people. But using the language of “mistake” and “interpretation” is merely trying to absolve yourself of blame; it does not show concern or understanding or regret.

    3) The message of the poster is clearly, to many observers, one of promoting an event by advertising its ability to create situations where women are vulnerable, and that attendees can enjoy that.

    Those who disagree need to explain why they don’t see it that way – it might be helpful to the union to prevent similar mistakes in future. People genuinely do not know what the message actually was.
    – what was the “factual information” from last year’s attendees that led to the creation of this poster?
    – what are the other marketing materials like?
    Kent Union can be transparent and explain this, or it can continue to say “we didn’t mean that” and help no-one. The University needs to enforce NUS guidelines on these matters.

    This matters.
    As has been said, it wouldn’t matter if we didn’t live in a society from which the statistics I mentioned in the body of the post could be generated.

    But we do. Sexual violence is a huge problem in UK and US universities; violence against women is a worldwide problem. That context must be appreciated. Student unions have a duty of care to students. That a complaint had to come from the Women’s Campaign Officer appointed to take note of things that might disproportionately affect women, instead of being recognised by any student before getting to the print-and-post stage, is also worrying.

    Clearly from the response, plenty of people (students, alumni, non-students, men and women alike) are capable of seeing this. Why was the SU blind to it? What guarantees do we have that this kind of process will be stopped in the earlier stages in future?

    Will the NUS comment and reiterate the importance of taking these issues seriously?

    Again, I appreciate the efforts of the Union today. I realise the barrage of complaints can be very stressful. It’s important to take the substance of those complaints seriously, though, and I’m still not convinced that’s happening.

  4. Oh, and I forgot to add:

    From my perspective, as a person with female reproductive bits who is usually outwardly identifiable as a woman, I have experienced rape culture for many years.

    What do *I* see when I look at this poster?

    They’re advertising a party as fun for students (mostly aimed at men, as they’ve used a woman in the image and there’s a huge focus on guys-getting-laid in student discourse) by suggesting that women will be there alone, having “lost” their friends. Losing your friends isn’t fun. Being drunk alone isn’t fun, and we’re constantly told it’s not safe.

    Why’s it not safe? Because getting yourself drunk and being out alone, daring to have a vagina ‘n’ that, means you might go and get yourself raped. Because rape is this nebulous thing that comes out of nowhere if you don’t go through all the proper rituals to banish it from your general area.

    Except that’s not how it works. It happens because people think rapey behaviour is normal. They think that because of posters like this (and much, much worse) – they think that because when a guy makes a rape joke, the other guys laugh. It’s normal. It’s expected. It’s ok if she’s drunk or asleep or if she kissed you earlier, or was a flirt yesterday, or you heard she has sex with loads of guys.

    I see a woman alone (and drunk) after a party and I see a Student Union saying that’s a great reason to go to that party. I later find out they used the image of that woman without her permission, then apologise not for doing something awful, but for “how people interpreted it”. I see rape culture alive and well.

    1. Jenny

      Great blog. Completely agree. The Kent Union has refused to accept responsibility for the clearly offensive inference behind the poster. By ‘advertising’ a woman in a vulnerable position, as a reason to go to a party, is sickening. I’m surprised, at best, by the lack of thinking behind the poster and, at worst, by the apparent laissez-faire attitude towards actively promoting sexual violence.

  5. It’s utterly disgusting. It’s suggestive (at the very least) of a rape culture being considered as a “unique selling point” of a night out at the union. If I caught the union of the university that I worked at doing something like this, I’d be kicking up all sorts of hell. I’d certainly be asking the powers that be to “reconsider the position” of whichever numpty thought this poster was a good idea.

  6. Aimz

    Thank you Dr. Noodlemaz for protesting against this vomit inducing advert, and writing such a clear & powerful response. Your writing is great, such a shame you had to take the time to define what an apology is if that makes any sense at all? Should we continue writing complaints to the University?
    Hopefully no or few ‘its no big deal’ vitriol in response.. you’ve already told us why it is a very big deal indeed. I cannot bear that argument – it is never a valid justification for saying something offensive, its a way for the bullies to not deal with the consequences of their words.

  7. Laura

    I was so disgusted by this poster. How on earth can it be taken any other way? “Hey guys, drunk woman alone in car park, time to party”. It is very obvious what they meant.
    Using a photo of a woman without her permission, to describe using a woman without her permission.

  8. Ed

    Maybe I give things like this the benefit of the doubt too much, but I really don’t think it is likely that Kent Union had the intent to highlight the woman for her vulnerability in a perpetuation of rape culture. I just can’t see that any sort of idea would cross their mind. And I’m not going to conclusively judge their marketing disaster as harshly as most people seem to have until I am sure of all of the details.

    Kent Union has said that the marketing of the event was based on the idea of using “real photographs taken last year combined with factual statements provided by students.” This would give more of an explanation to their posters (particularly if there were more posters with a varied array of stories and memories from the night). My initial interpretation of the poster was one of confusion at an idea that probably failed to be properly expressed. Maybe it was highlighting the likelihood of people losing their friends as people often do, if only briefly, on a night out. Call me naive (as I’m sure someone will), but he predatory message that people have associated with the image isn’t one that crossed my mind.

    On the subject of the apology regarding for the offence rather than the perceived issue itself, as Kent Union have distanced themselves from the accusation of contributing to rape culture and being misogynistic, this is probably best. An insincere apology wouldn’t be right.

    Finally, I completely agree with the point about the lack of consent from the woman featured to use a picture of her for the poster. Surely for someone to feature as the main part (if it is the main part rather than just the most publicised online) of the marketing campaign, they should have asked for her permission first.

    1. Hi Ed, thanks for coming over from Twitter to comment (assuming same Ed!).

      As I was saying there, lack of intent does not absolve actions that are damaging/problematic/hurtful – however you want to put it. The point of culture is that it is not an individual’s beliefs and actions, but the collective’s. It is not about what one person does or thinks or says, but what the wider society permits in its collective treatment of individuals.

      Women are told from well before puberty that their safety is their responsibility, that their individual behaviour is what “gets” them attacked (I used this phrasing deliberately above; the subtle passive language used when speaking of rape/assault victims is also telling – it quietly ignores and anonymises the attacker, whose fault it really is).

      We are told to stay with friends, to dress sensibly, not to get too drunk, not to give people “the wrong idea” – all these messages are directed in the wrong place. When this poster slots into the context of all those other messages – society’s messages to us – it shows a girl alone, drunk, outside – the message accompanying it is threatening, not fun! It reads like a direct threat towards her (and we put ourselves in her place, it is what we have been taught to do – see all those crying women in cars don’t-get-unlicensed-minicabs posters), and a direct invitation to people to come and take advantage of her.

      One guy making one stupid misogynistic joke isn’t *misogyny* itself. One person using a racist slur doesn’t describe white supremacy and racism. People get offended when they are called out on their behaviour and this is a problem. Yes we all make mistakes, but recognising harmful patterns is what allows us to rise above these problems in our culture, instead of actually perpetuating them. It’s not the intent that matters, it’s listening to critics and committing to change.

      It is not the point that however many people in the union involved in the poster (it must have been more than one) didn’t get this. They’ve taken a photo (again without her permission, for which they have not apologised publicly) and slapped a slogan on it. Presumably people (like yourself) have said “It was a great party, I kept losing my mates!” – that happens.

      But if you want to advertise a party so good, so busy and fun that you keep losing the people you went with, why not have someone in a crowd on their phone, looking happy? Why show a woman alone at the end of a night with a phrase that is concerning, when your own website tells people to stay with friends to stay safe? It’s SO OBVIOUS – look at all the people who see it. I think you see it, too, because you’re reluctant to believe they did something like this deliberately.

      And maybe they didn’t. But did no one raise objections? At this point, with what little the Union has said, it’s merely speculation. Maybe someone did voice concerns and they were told to chill out. Maybe everyone really was that blind. We don’t know.

      You didn’t associate a predatory message with it because you are not the target of messages telling people to prevent rape. Men should be – and when they are, it seems to work reasonably well. But like I said, we as women are told repeatedly it’s our responsibility and our actions that are to be policed, and not yours – so it’s understandable that you wouldn’t necessarily see it (while other men – see above – certainly have. And some women don’t see it. It depends how aware one is, I suppose).

      If it were a guy slumping drunk against the post, yes, it would probably look different. Even though men are more often mugged when alone, generally the message is a blanket “everyone keep your valuables hidden” rather than “guys! Don’t hang out by yourself, people will beat you up!”. It is, again, subtle – but glaringly obvious once you notice it. Like that irritating noise you can’t un-hear; that’s rape culture and misogyny.

      “On the subject of the apology regarding for the offence rather than the perceived issue itself, as Kent Union have distanced themselves from the accusation of contributing to rape culture and being misogynistic, this is probably best. An insincere apology wouldn’t be right.”

      They need to acknowledge that the poster, apart from being a “mistake” was wrong and apologise for creating it, not for “how people interpreted it”. As I said in detail above, their statement is a workaround, not an apology. That is insincere.

      Thanks again for your comment, it reminded me of more things I wanted to add!

  9. OOH another thing, for anyone who thinks “hey vulnerable girlz come to our event you’ll like it” isn’t a marketing tactic that is already used (and thus contributes to why so many people have seen the poster in this light), consider the following:

    You are going out in Leicester Square with a group of friends. You are refused entry because you are a group consisting only of men.
    You are with a group of friends and you’re allowed in for free because you are all women.
    You are with friends and the women have to pay £5, but the men are told to pay £10.
    Inside the venue, all the women are given a free drink. The men are not given any special deals.

    This is a very common practice, not just in London and not just in the UK. It’s also really quite disgusting.
    It assumes and propagates several ideas: a) you need a certain ‘quota’ of women, preferably at least seeming to be ‘available’ in your venue. b) you will refuse entry and bribe people to achieve that “balance”. c) Making women seem or become more available/attractive/vulnerable through alcohol-based deals – venues actively drug women disproportionately. d) it’s very heterosexist, assuming that all your clientele are there looking for opposite-sex partners e) it’s all rapey because of the above.

    This poster fits into that context – it might be “a stretch” but the fact people have seen it justifies its removal and the apology, however poor that was. And perhaps now we can talk about all the other fucked-up stuff that goes on.

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