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!
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).
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.
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,
Statement: Party in the Car Park poster – http://t.co/iigSssoOl2
— Kent Union (@KentUnion) March 31, 2014
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.
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:
@noodlemaz They are a separate organisation, their own staff and board of trustees – sorry but we aren’t able to speak on their behalf.
— University of Kent (@UniKent) March 31, 2014
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.