We must address on-campus misogyny by upholding freedom of speech

With a cohort of school leavers influenced by so-called misogyny influencers, Sunday Blake argues that universities need an open and candid conversation about the position of young men in society.

To date, universities have largely regarded misogynist influencer Andrew Tate and his ilk as an extrinsic problem.

Teachers across schools and colleges both in the UK and around the world have been talking for some time about the malign influence of the social media influencer and self-professed misogynists on the behaviour and attitudes of students.

Secondary school teachers and sixth form tutors all describe similar behaviour and rhetoric from 14 – 18-year-old boys they teach. One I spoke to said:

The increase in blatant misogyny has been stark in the past few years. There is sexual harassment of both female staff and female students. There has been a rise in taunts to female students about Andrew Tate. Male students feel emboldened to ask female teachers about their sex and dating lives.

What happens in the compulsory system can be argued to be schools’ and colleges’ problems to fix – although there are outreach, access, partnership, and civil institution counterarguments.

But either way – a head of year tells me that:

…it’s just not being consistently handled in an appropriate way across the country.

Even where there is the will, a secondary school teacher said they “just do not have the time and resources to intervene.” And even when there is both time and resources, attempts are being met with strong resistance:

Male students are telling female teachers who try to grapple with the issue that they are just pressed about Andrew Tate because they are feminists, leading to a lack of respect and disruptive behaviour in the classroom, corridors, and outside of school.

One teacher told me she was “shouted at when seen in public at in public for being a ‘puppet’ and a ‘believer in The Matrix’.”

The Matrix is a conspiracy theory peddled by Tate that is remixed from the movie of the same name – alleging that people’s opinions are controlled and censored by elite leftists who have infiltrated politics and the media.

With schools struggling to unpack these attitudes, a huge proportion of these students may enrol at a higher education institution before this behaviour is adequately addressed.

And as time moves on, his followers are starting to begin their careers in higher education. The question is whether universities have considered the impacts that this might have, and prepared for them appropriately.

Already here

This isn’t necessarily a future problem – there is evidence that so-called “misogyny influencers” have already shaped the views of both current students and graduates. According to the teachers I spoke to, “there is collusion between male students and young male teachers on the issues of sexism and misogyny.”

In fact, in their view, misogynistic ideas may not just trickle from schools into universities – they may be trickling from universities into schools.

This raises questions about the interventions that might be missing from postgraduate certificate in education courses – and higher education courses in general.

This isn’t to say that nothing is being done about misogyny in higher education. But the specific appeal of Andrew Tate and his ideology does need special consideration.

The Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee report into attitudes towards women and girls in educational settings included a recommendation that the Department for Education (DfE) develop a nationwide sexual harassment and sexual violence awareness campaign that targets male university students.

The problem is that that kind of instrumental approach focuses on the extreme end of one of many outcomes which stems from problematic attitudes around gender and leads to violence against women and girls (VAWG). And as I outlined on the site, a significant analytical gap remains between the data collection around misogynistic behaviour and proposals to counteract it.

For universities to make impactful interventions, we need to understand the cultural enablers that contribute to such behaviour in the first place.

Boy problems

In his book Mask Off, JJ Bola frames patriarchal masculinity as a double-edged sword. The system that puts men at an advantage in society over women, demeans the latter, and leads to sexual violence, stems from the same contributory elements that cause boys to have lower GCSE attainment, men to die earlier, be more likely to face homelessness, and more likely to enter the criminal justice system.

It’s not two different issues that cause these outcomes.

When we only focus on sexual violence and not the other outcomes of negative attitudes around gender, or even if we engage male undergraduates in a conversation about toxic masculinity which only focuses on its impact on women, we invite them to feel overlooked and be in opposition.

Alex Blower, Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth, has experience and expertise exploring attainment issues among teenage working-class boys – and argues that:

…if the only time we mention masculinity in higher education is when we’re focused on the most toxic performances, it will be incredibly hard to make positive change.

The risk with this kind of oppositional approach – when there is more to the masculinity crisis than sexual violence – is that it invites men and boys to feel aggrieved and are more likely to fall prey to the seductive lure of influencers like Andrew Tate.

As Sophie King-Hill, an expert in children’s sexual behaviour, said of the report:

Young men and boys feel marginalised; we’ve got a male mental health crisis, endemic misogyny and VAWG. We’re not doing enough. We need to reframe the conversation as no gender is winning.(sic)

What does this look like?

First, the sector should start from a place of ‘“we are doing this because we want you to be happy, healthy, well-rounded men,” not a deficit-driven approach of “we are talking about this because, without it, you will be perpetrators.”

Framing the conversation this way means acknowledging that the toxic masculinity that leads to sexual violence on campus harms men, too. It gets to the root cause of the issue, rather than just addressing one of its symptoms. It also means there is less likely to be the culture war-esque backlash we have seen to anti-sexual violence over the years. As Alex Blower argues:

We need to normalise conditions where men can have productive conversations between themselves about shared challenges and what happy, healthy masculinity looks like. How often do universities make space for these conversations to take place? Perhaps it’s time we were a little more intentional.

When we foster healthy forms of masculinity, we create stable, happier, healthier men with happier and healthier relationships with others. Stabler, happier and healthier men who have happier and healthier relationships with others are also less likely to perpetuate sexual violence.

The Women and Equalities Committee report had an aspect that was included in the evidence section but left out of the recommendations. That is the need – and desire from students themselves – for open conversations about masculinity, relationships, and sexuality.

Such conversations would be a world of difference away from top-down government department awareness campaigns, institution-run consent classes, or click-through on-boarding modules. This is about giving these topics the time and nuance they deserve and need to be impactful, placing the men at the centre of them.

Student-led free speech

It is ambitious to assume that staff already describing unmanageable workloads might find the time and resources to carry out such an intense operation. This is why it was such a shame that the Women and Equalities Committee report seems to have overlooked student’ unions as a critical partner in efforts to tackle violence and harassment (unlike universities, who frequently work with their SUs on these issues).

Students’ unions are places where students step up to give their time in peer-led initiatives, and clearing houses where clubs and societies can be chapters of these initiatives. They are also initiatives that tend to be of better quality than university attempts student input.

In our chapter in the edited collection Stopping gender-based violence in higher education (2023) Jim Dickinson and I describe how student leaders spearheaded each stage of the work in higher education in tackling gender-based violence. What’s more, campaigns tackling “lad culture” were particularly effective because of the public support and backing of male students and student leaders.

When we allow groups of students to discuss and mutually define issues such as consent among themselves, rather than having it blast across a screen, it has a higher impact. Any time I have witnessed this, by the end of the discussion, the agreed definition of consent has always been more nuanced and progressive – and the various examples used more encompassing – than any charity and institutional document I’ve come across.

An event I will never forget at my old SU was when the LGBT society and the African-Carribean society ran events where each of their male members discussed what being a man meant to them. White LGBT students listened to the experiences of straight black men, and straight black students listened to the experiences of LGBT men, while some members of both groups expressed how that felt.

None of this involved an equality, diversity and inclusion modules on LGBT or race issues. There wasn’t unilateral agreement on concepts around race, sexuality and gender at the end either. But it did involve a level of nuance on these issues here that went beyond any I had witnessed in a click-through multiple choice consent programme ahead of fresher’s week. And all students felt their views were respected and listened to.

Free speech

Finding facilitation in a student-led space, where they can start developing communities and networks underpinned by foundational principles around promoting healthy conversations and open dialogue, respecting views, and coproducing knowledge, is not only vital, but will also uphold duties surrounding freedom of speech – particularly for young men who feel marginalised or are struggling.

And when we grant students ownership of their development, they are far less likely to assign the conspiratorial claims of top-down indoctrination that Tate perpetuates. Indeed, making space for such discussion-led work will directly challenge the ideas Tate feeds young men that those in politics scheme to censor thought and expression and “feed” them their own narrative – something, ironically a DfE-led “awareness” campaign against sexual violence may confirm.

It also works the other way, too. By allowing male students to openly express themselves – and installing skills in their peers to listen, perhaps to offensive views or problematic attitudes towards gender, while understanding the context of those views, and being able to respond – we keep men within our communities and avoid pushing them to the margins where they are at increased risk of radicalisation.

This isn’t just about Tate and masculinity. If we develop skills in all our students to engage in conversations based on built on care, respect and empathy, then when others speak about the harm types or behaviours or attitudes can cause, they are more likely to understand.

“This behaviour makes people I care for – and even those I don’t – feel bad, and I don’t want that” is a much better rationale than “someone might be offended,” “I might be suspended from university,” or “I might go to prison” – not least because the chance of actually being expelled or going to prison for sexual violence in particularly is notoriously slim.

And anyway, the parliamentary concern on technology enabling a “new” wave of sexual harassment via airdropping explicit images is overlooking that the behaviour and attitudes remain the same. The facilitation – technology – is novel. Raising awareness of airdropping does not address underlying attitudes.

Developing this type of emotional literacy and critical capacity also means we do not have to “retrain” students in our ideas of equality whenever a new issue arises. They can already engage with their peers in constructive discussion.

Would it be such a radical idea if the sector works towards developing empathy and emotional literacy skills in the next generation of students – rather than expound (our own generation’s) set definition of gender, consent, race etc – and then let them explore the issue openly as a cohort?

4 responses to “We must address on-campus misogyny by upholding freedom of speech

  1. Puzzling that the article focusses solely on gender-related issues (including gender based violence), and gives no coverage at all to sex-related issues (including sex based violence). Surely it is ‘problematic attitudes around SEX… [that] leads to violence against women and girls (VAWG)’?

    1. What this perhaps highlights is that gender is part of the problem; a problem that seems to have intensified alongside a regression to more rigid – and rigidly policed – gender norms. The antidote to ‘toxic masculinity’ is not a better kind of masculinity; it is humanity.

  2. “First, the sector should start from a place of ‘“we are doing this because we want you to be happy, healthy, well-rounded men,” not a deficit-driven approach of “we are talking about this because, without it, you will be perpetrators.” ”

    You nailed it here, and therefore need to stop using the term ‘Toxic Masculinity’ since this is the embodiment of a deficit-based approach.

    1. Alright – what do you suggest we replace it with? I think we can both agree that some of the cultural and societal norms we have about what does or does not constitute appropriate male behaviour are harmful – some to women, others to men, many to both – and we need to be able to describe that set of values somehow.

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