Dominic Nolan talks with Jo Boon, co-ordinator of The Feminist Society of the University of St Andrews, about university feminism, lad culture and rape culture.
What does your society do?
The aim in our constitution is incredibly simple – it is to promote gender equality in St Andrews and to the best of our ability beyond. Our biggest focus this year has been on intersectionality; so how gender intersects with race, sexuality, disability, different cultures, a multiplicity of factors. We are trying to create a more broadly inclusive society that is working towards equality. We look at theoretical elements regarding to what extent gender exists, if gender constructs are holding people back and if they are holding people back then how can we overcome that? We are basically just trying to create a more equal society.
What progress do you feel your society has made in advancing the feminist cause?
This last year, while I have been co-ordinator, I’ve been really excited to see is the growth in attention and in the growth of attendance and I think that can only help our cause if more people are talking about these ideas. Over the last two years I think that we have tripled our number of Facebook likes, which in some ways is quite an arbitrary measure of success but it does seem like people know who we are, that they are engaging with ideas about gender. One thing I’m really excited about is the increased numbers of cis men, of people who self-identify as men, coming along to the society. We’d had a discussion group on women’s sexuality recently and probably about a third of the people in the room were guys, which was quite nice. I think we have gotten better at making it obvious how inclusive we are and that’s always a slightly difficult boundary to overcome.
What progress is still to be made?
We are a long way from gender equality; I think particularly with regards to trans rights. Perhaps not specifically in St Andrews but we do still live in a transphobic society. People are quite uncomfortable when they can’t pin down gender or when they get confused by people’s sexuality. I would also say that with regards to sexual violence, that’s still a huge problem for all genders, but it is noticeable that most sexual violence is acted out against women and that is something which we need to work very hard to focus on. Our aim is so high, for complete gender equality, that there is always going to be a quite long way to go but I do think that we’ve made huge strides forward simply by the fact that we are talking about these issues.
Do you feel that there is any institutional sexism at this university?
Not that I’ve experienced. I would say for the most part no and I would say as regards reporting sexual violence that there is still, in my experience, an assumption of disbelief and that becomes gendered in that the majority of the time it is women doing the reporting but that is not really a specific problem with the university that is more of a problem with the police system and legal constraints but having said that I do believe there’s more the university could do. I don’t think the university is sexist in terms of women’s ability to come here or women’s promotion while they’re here; we had a female principle and we have a new female principle. Sexism runs right through our society so I think that it can probably be found at this university but I don’t think that it’s systematic.
Would you appreciate the university engaging in any kind of affirmative action programmes for women or trans people?
No, not for women, I don’t think it’s necessary. We have more women than men at this university so I think that would be quite counter intuitive. I think as I am not a trans person I don’t believe I am best qualified to answer on their behalf, you would have to talk to the trans community, but I do think that it’s an interesting idea.
Do St Andrews and other universities suffer from a harmful lad culture?
I definitely don’t think St Andrews does in particular. I think that because we are such a small university we are on the whole very good at protecting one another, especially with the Got Consent campaign this last year. Universities, in general, I do believe suffer from lad culture. I don’t mean to imply that every guy at university identifies with lad culture because that is clearly not true but I do believe that within drinking and sporting culture there is a tendency to develop an almost predatory attitude with regards to women and ‘hooking up’ becomes part of the course of a night out.
It is kind of seen as a conquest and so, again thinking about sexual violence, I think there is a perhaps slightly disrespectful attitude with regards to women, to see them as objects which can be achieved rather than as fellow students. I also think that studies on lad culture are really interesting because when psychological studies have been done they talk to guys individually and they don’t individually hold these attitudes: it’s groupthink in the same way as you find in lots of other cases. Any group, women included, tends to take on this groupthink mentality, so I think it is a culture rather than something that individuals would actually wish to sustain, so I think that if you can convince individuals that their friends aren’t actually wanting to do this then hopefully it will improve.
Can you explain rape culture?
Rape culture is basically the idea that, statistically speaking, women are significantly more likely to be raped and it is the fact that people don’t have a clear understanding of what consent is and will sometimes find attempts to educate them about consent quite offensive and because people don’t know what consent is they can rape people without realising they are doing it or someone could be raped without having realised that they have been raped because there is such a blurred boundary and because so much of student culture, in particular, is focused around drinking, which is one of the huge things which blurs the area of consent. It is this idea, which I think has massively lessened in the last ten years or so, that men are entitled to a woman’s body. That is not to say that all men think that but historically speaking sex has been something expected of women while also they are kind of expected to be pure and chaste at the same time, it’s a strange dichotomy but it means that women kind of lose points through sex and men gain points and you can’t rectify that, which is horrendous. I also believe that rape culture is a problem because of the problem of reporting to the police and because rapes are so often not believed.
On a personal note, I was raped about six months ago and reported it to the university and there was very much this attitude of ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do’ so I reported it to the police and really without witnesses there is almost nothing which can be done and the thing is rape is a private crime, and it is a silent crime, so this is why rape cases tend not to go forward and I think it is also , with regards to the culture more broadly, it is the fact that tragically I am not the exception, I am almost the rule. Most people have had sex which wasn’t consensual and most people, women in particular that I know, have been sexually assaulted on a night out, even if it was just someone grabbing their arse, even if it was just something as basic as that. I really know nobody that that hasn’t happened to and that is why it is a cultural thing.
Do you have any upcoming events?
This Sunday [March 6th] we are having our first feminist book club, which is really exciting. We are doing The Handmaid’s Tale, the series is called A Vindication of the Books of Women, as it happens a lot of our members right now are very interested in literature as well and if you look at the “canon” university courses they are dominated by books written by men so we are trying to rectify that with a focus on books on women. International Women’s Day is coming up very very soon [March 8th] so we have an event planned for that in the evening with a few charities, just having a big celebration basically, but we’ve also been working with the Fife government, they ran a week long event around International Women’s Day and we have been helping them with that programme and we will be attending their gala day on the 12th. We are also working collaboratively with Jack Stukel, of Student for Life – St Andrews, on an MUN debate on abortion rights internationally just after the spring break.
How much is membership and how can people if they are interested get in touch with you?
Membership is £3, I wish it was free – that’s a Union rule, it’s the lowest it can be. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org but the best way to keep up with all of our events is by liking The Feminist Society of the University of St Andrews page on Facebook and also I tend to respond to messages on that page a lot quicker than I do to emails but you can email me personally at email@example.com.
Feature image courtesy of the Melissa Jones/The Feminist Society of the University of St Andrews.