You hear them before you see them. A group of men enter a train carriage, rowdy, shouting, and drinking. They take over, spreading out over the length of the carriage, beers in hand, voices getting progressively louder as they shout to one another over the heads of their fellow passengers. Their conversations grow more and more obscene. They are laughing about the stripper with the “tight minge”, about punishing their “missus” by “giving her a good seeing to”; laughing about “rag[ging] her in the toilets.” Passengers say nothing.
For women, people of marginalised genders and people of colour, speaking up could prove dangerous. So, the passengers wait until, thankfully, they dismount the train after an hour and a half, and the carriage can collectively exhale in relief. Breathe it out. This is lad culture.
TW: Mention of assault and harassment
In 2012, the National Union for Students (NUS) published a report about the prevalence of lad culture in UK universities, defining it as “a group or ‘pack’ mentality residing in activities such as sport, heavy alcohol consumption and ‘banter’ which is often sexist, misogynistic, racist or homophobic.”
The NUS report continues that it is “a sexualized culture which involves the objectification of women and rape-supportive attitudes, […] occasionally spilling over into sexual harassment and violence.”
Lad culture, which often consists of jokes at the expense of others, or joking to one another often about their own sexual conquests, is laughed off as banter. Yet this ‘banter’ is dangerous in its upholding of rape culture and is largely a UK phenomenon, having originated in the 1990s alongside the culturally significant Britpop era.
Most studies on this cultural phenomenon have been conducted within the context of the UK’s higher education system, where the first year of university is considered a ‘breeding ground’ for Lads. The historically competitive nature of Fresher’s Week encourages heavy drinking, casual sex, and the objectification of women, and is, as Laura Bates argues, built on homophobia and misogyny.
Despite most studies being conducted within the context of higher education, this is a problem that occurs and develops far earlier. It exists in the playground too. Young boys at school swept into lad culture develop “characteristics associated with hegemonic masculinity.” Carolyn Jackson’s study into lad culture at schools in the UK examines the idea that it is fuelled by a fear of academic failure and a fear of femininity. Fearing the feminine puts girls and women at risk where young lads are taught from a very young age to reject feminine traits, regarding anything viewed as feminine as beneath them.
However, lad culture could be a way for men to find acceptance and friendship.
Interviews of former students who actively partook in lad culture at universities said that though it was unavoidable in the first year, it did develop into strong and lasting friendships by the final year, some stating that the friendships could be supportive. Though male friendship is arguably a rejection of the toxic masculinity that seeks to constrain them, when it is built on lad culture, it persists to be a relationship “based in cruelty and fear of emasculation.”
The problem is not that these young men are developing friendships, it is the way in which it is occurring, whereby they can only be vulnerable once they have first asserted their masculinity. When their worth is built on their masculinity, and their masculinity is built on their misogyny, it perpetrates rape culture in the wider society. And though we can see these lads as victims of tosexismxic masculinity, it should not be ignored that they are also perpetrators of the upholding of rape culture. It may seem positive to see men joking around and developing close male friendships, but at what cost? And to whom?
Rape culture is everywhere, and it affects everyone. Despite the media’s disproportionate focus on white victims (particularly if they are young, middle class and slim), the consequences of rape culture affect women and people of marginalised genders of all ethnicities, ages, classes, and bodies. The focus on white women is “rooted in the myth of white women’s purity and every other woman’s sexual availability,” as Mikki Kendall writes in Hood Feminism. In fact, rape culture itself has been criticised as a framework within which “[white] ‘woman’ is always the victim, resulting in an erasure of black women’s experience.”
There is a need for a more diverse conversation in relation to rape culture, and, indeed, lad culture. When research into lad culture is centred too much on universities, the conversation is centred on a small demographic of women; one that is primarily young, middle class and educated. Taking the discussion outside of universities could allow for a better conversation about how it affects all women. When lad culture seeps into the every day, rape culture is accepted, and everyone is affected. Public transport is a perfect example of this.
It is not uncommon in the UK to witness a group of lads on public transport, drunk and having loud ‘banter’ that grows more and more obscene, often referencing women in a sexually explicit manner. A student from Stirling university wrote about her experiences on a night train that was overtaken by the sexist chants of a group of lads, all of whom would go on to graduate and start a career, which, the student proposed, “shows how widespread and deep-rooted misogyny is.” Public transport is reported to not feel like a safe space for women and people of marginalised genders and is the ideal setting to show how lad culture endangers all because public transport is accessible to all.
A few years ago, a Black man was forcibly pushed off the Paris Métro by British Chelsea football hooligans chanting and bragging about their racism. In fact, Football Hooligans could be considered the epitome of lad culture: a group of men joined together over sport and drunkenness, projecting misogyny, homophobia, and racism.
Lad culture at all ages – be it in the playground, at university, or at a football match surrounded by middle-aged men – affects all people, and is particularly dangerous for women, people of marginalised genders, LGBTQ folk and people of colour.
Limiting studies of the phenomenon to universities does a disservice to the people who are affected by lad culture but who do not fit the university demographic. If more studies were conducted in public spaces, like public transport, there would be a better gage of the dangers and prevalence of lad culture in the UK at large. A more diverse conversation must be had about lad culture and its repercussions. For now, though, learn how to take a joke. It’s just banter.
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