The Sunday Times Magazine: The University of Sex (feature)















2am and the O2 Academy nightclub in Bristol is throbbing with sweaty students — brand new ones, many of them away from home for the first time. Tonight is Freshers’ Night: this week, 12,500 new students arrived in the city. For this future-themed party, girls are dressed gamely in skintight silver jumpsuits, miniskirts and facepaint, while the boys wear canary-yellow T-shirts from today’s freshers’ pub crawl.

Under the stage, dripping bodies are gyrating to purple strobes. In dark nooks of the club — on leather sofas and in grimy stairwells — couples are making out with the fervent passion of teenagers. And teenagers, of course, they are.

Across the city, under the stone archway through which these students passed to begin their university careers, there is a sign that reads: “Sexual assault is not part of uni life.” It is the kind of poster that is now ubiquitous on campuses nationwide; a not-so-gentle reminder of the new era — one in which laddishness, harassment and overbearing sexual pressure is supposed to have ceased. The universities have called time on all that, but has anything really changed?

In the club, groups of lads are downing pints and ordering shots. In a corridor, a boy’s hands circle a girl’s waist. “Be a gentleman,” she laughs, pushing him off. “I was being extra-gentlemanly!” he protests. She wiggles away, slurring: “I need some fags. I can use my feminine charms to get some.” He grabs at her and she giggles. Outside the club, paramedics shine a torch into the eyes of a boy who appears to be unconscious, his leopard-print shirt covered with his own sick.

Universities throughout Britain are on red alert over their “lad problem”: steps are being taken to deal with it — although, judging by the behaviour of some students in that bar, the new era hasn’t begun yet.

In February, the National Union of Students (NUS) held a “lad culture” summit to discuss the apparent epidemic of badly behaved young men. This followed a report, commissioned by the NUS in 2013, in which 50% of student participants identified “prevailing sexism, laddism and a culture of harassment” at their universities. The report, produced by academics at Sussex, described laddishness as “founded upon a trinity of drinking, football and f******”. It suggested that lad culture, spurred on by internet sites such as UniLad and the LAD Bible, had crept from leering banter to harassment and assault. The Sussex report followed a previous NUS study in 2010 that claimed that 37% of female students had experienced unwelcome sexual advances and 68% had been sexually harassed, while 7% had experienced serious sexual assault.


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