Why a university finally stood up to misogyny

Last week the men’s rugby club at LSE was closed down for a year after producing a sexist and homophobic leaflet. Lois JC considers why the university finally took action, after years doing nothing to oppose the club’s racism and bigotry.

LSE building

Photo: J^^J, flickr

As a former student of the London School of Economics (LSE) I was, unfortunately, not surprised to hear that members of the men’s rugby club had embroiled the school in scandal once again. At a recent Freshers’ Fair, some of the players handed out misogynistic and homophobic leaflets referring to “slags”, “trollops”, “sloppy birds” and “homosexual debauchery”.

However I certainly was surprised to see the immediate action taken by LSE Students’ Union (SU) to disband the rugby club. I was surprised because, as the SU outlined in their statement, this was not the first offensive event male members of sports clubs have been involved in. But this is the first time action like this has been taken.

In 2009, my first year, the LSE Women’s Officer and the head of the Feminist Society proposed a motion to the Union General Meeting (UGM) to remove the Sun newspaper and FHM magazine from student shops due to their sexist content. They were subject to homophobic and sexist taunts by Athletics Union (AU) members who had mobilised for the UGM, and the meeting was not stopped even after around 20 men started throwing rolled up copies of the Sun at the women who were stood on stage. No further action was taken.

In the same year, members of the same rugby club blacked up and dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees on a day of drinking at the student union bar.  They proceeded to gather in a circle outside the pub, on the main street of the university, whilst Muslim students were leaving Friday prayers, and to imitate Muslim prayer whilst someone kicked them. No further action was taken.

In my final year the rugby team were involved in a Nazi-themed drinking game whilst on a skiing trip to Val d’Isère. The cards were arranged in a swastika and players were required to “salute the Führer”. When a Jewish student raised their objections, one of the players started a fight and broke the student’s nose. After the event, a friend of mine drew a star on the blackboard in the SU bar and one of the students involved in the drinking games squared up to her and ordered her “not to draw Jew stars around him.”  These actions had reverberations, whether that was for women, LGBT people, Muslim or Jewish students. Whether action was taken mattered for the confidence of those who thought they could get away with it.

So why was this action taken this time? Why, after several offensive events that were tolerated by the bodies of the university, has this been treated so seriously? No doubt part of the reason is that this was simply one too many times. It was another example of members of sports teams embarrassing the school, attracting high profile media attention and no doubt frightening new students who expect to feel safe at their university. But I think there is more than that.

These are examples of the misogynistic “lad” culture that has been on the rise in university for years. It goes hand in hand with a more general global trend of an increase in violence against women and high profile cases of injustice around rape and transphobic attacks. Alongside this is the current growth of resistance and fighting back. If we look at  London student groups, the Kings College Intersectional  Feminist Society had 200 people attend their first event discussing the theory and practice of intersectional feminism. The SOAS Feminist Society had 350 people join them at Freshers’ Fair and their first social event had around 70 people attend. A member of LSE Students’ Union told me that the LSE Feminist Society has enjoyed a surge in support and that political discussion recently has been reignited.

There are also two large conferences coming up in the next few months – the “Feminism in London” conference organised by groups around the London Feminist Network, and an abortion rights student conference. Wherever there have been attacks on self-defining women there has been resistance, and I think these signs of a resurgence in interest in feminist ideas are partly responsible for the actions of the LSE Students’ Union.

LSESU are not alone in taking a strong stance against sexism. This year, new students attending Cambridge University will have compulsory lessons on sexual consent, no doubt a reaction to feminists raising the slogan “Yes means Yes and No means No.”

Organising against oppression is integral to the stopping the rise of “lad” culture in universities and combating violence against women, racism and homophobia in society. Get involved with a local organisation today.

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