Sex and sexism in university culture: Redefining our regrets

A week before Christmas my partner and I took our children to an underground Christmas grotto in some caves near where we live. It’s the first time I’ve been but there’s a display there every year. First you get your two minutes with Santa, then you wander from cavern to cavern, admiring the decorations. It’s all very nice, but it’s still really just for kids. Hence my partner and I devised a game to keep ourselves occupied: Christmas present shag bingo. All along the walls of the caves were fake presents with different names printed on them. The object of the game was to see how many names of former shags you could spot as you went along. By the end of the visit, my youngest had a cuddly turtle, my eldest a toy fighter jet and my partner a resounding shag bingo victory. Rather disappointingly, I’d only got one name out of the whole sodding cave. That said, I’ve actually slept with three different Simons, hence feel I should have been awarded a higher score for that. Plus I can’t remember the name of everyone I’ve ever slept with (the sign of either a misspent youth or encroaching old age). Anyhow, I lost, but can’t help feeling I deserve to have done better.

I find myself dwelling on this recent defeat because I’ve just received a copy of this February’s Glamour.* I was sure I’d cancelled the subscription but it appears I haven’t so I, um, thought I’d have a final wallow in glossy hell. And as ever, Glamour has the usual mix of self-esteem destroying crap (my favourite example is a miserable 1,299 calorie diet embedded in an article telling you to forget all about “miserable diets”) interspersed with the odd feminist rallying cry, which apparently makes it all okay. This time the main shot of girl power comes from a piece entitled “Is this what it takes to get a degree?”, looking at sexism on university campuses. It’s actually pretty interesting – and has some great input and quotes from Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project – but it’s left me feeling somewhat uneasy about my own past, and in particular how others might interpret it.

I met my partner when I was a postgraduate student in 2000 and have been in a monogamous relationship with him ever since. All of my sleeping around was completed at university in the 1990s – a time frequently caricatured as having been the heyday of Loaded, FHM and ladette culture – and these days, as a responsible mother of two, I should no doubt be regretting every last fuck. According to the popular narrative – whether you read it in the Daily Mail or in feminist attacks on raunch culture – I should resent the highly sexualised environment that led me astray, making me falsely believe I was “empowered” when in fact I was being exploited by the patriarchy. After all, what is the alternative? It seems to me that if you’ve slept around and don’t want to wear sackcloth and ashes in your later years, the only option is to brazen it out and insist you had a massively high sex drive and fucking loved every single one night stand you ever had. The trouble is that for me, neither alternative rings true. I had some good sex and some monumentally rubbish sex. I slept with some people who were lovely and some whom I’d go on to cross the street to avoid. Each encounter was different. I’m not particularly proud but neither am I filled with shame.

I don’t know why I slept with all the men that I did (and they were all men). These days there is no doubt in my mind that the university culture that surrounded me was sexist. A huge number of social events were advertised with images of barely dressed women. The male-dominated common room was strewn with copies of the Sunday Sport. I once turned up to a college hustings for women’s officer where one of the candidates, on her way to a rugby club dinner, was dressed as a naughty schoolgirl (needless to say, she won). I didn’t, at the time, think “this is sexist”. I sort of knew, but it didn’t seem worth observing. I look back now and I wonder where to place my own actions within this context. I wonder whether, in a non-sexist culture, I would have wanted different sexual experiences, and what these would have been. I don’t know what the answer is, but don’t necessarily feel that regret is worthwhile (or rather, I regret the sexism, not my own choices within it).

Some of the more recent examples of campus sexism highlighted in the Glamour article are truly appalling (in particular, the Uni Lad article pointing out that 85% of rapes going unreported “seems to be fairly good odds”). Nearly twenty years after I matriculated, young women who go to university are still facing mockery, denigration and sexual bullying on a scale that could make you weep. All the same, in the photos that illustrate the article (mainly of drunk women – how disgusting!) and in the shocked descriptions of how women are being persuaded to do things which are apparently “degrading”, I can’t help detecting an element of slut-shaming. Yes, there is a nasty, dark rape culture that surrounds these women. But I can’t see any recognition of their own sexual agency – something which in itself should pose a challenge to the rape apologism of their peers

I’ll be honest – I am not a very sexually adventurous person. I often feel that in order to be a card-carrying sex positive feminist, I’d need to be a hell of a lot better in bed. Thus where I sit with articles such as these is somewhere in-between outrage and cautious self-examination. I think the things I did don’t make me a victim – but since I wasn’t always having fun, perhaps I’m in denial? Unsure of what to make of things, I passed the Glamour piece to my partner (on the basis that he has more recent experience of campus life, not so he could give me an appraisal of my own sexual prowess). His comment was that the misogyny rang true to him, but not the portrayal of female freshers as unsuspecting girls who expect to be “flirting with boys over library books”.

They arrive already expecting to be treated badly. That’s why they don’t notice it. The misogyny is everywhere else, too, isn’t it?

And this, to me, seems an important point. The problem with the sexualised culture of university campuses isn’t the sex itself – it’s the misogyny. And while it’s all very well – and important – to challenge the behaviour of Uni Lad, this isn’t getting to the root of why young men at university don’t respect women. Furthermore, articles illustrated with photos of pissed, scantily clad girls don’t get to the root of it either. And on top of that, I’m starting to think that being positive about sex on a personal level shouldn’t be the only means of defending one’s own sexual subjectivity. I want to shout, without shame, “I’ve had lots of crap sex! It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t make me anything! It’s just sex!” Perhaps in a less sexist culture I’d have had better sex. Even so, I might just be useless at it.** I want an end to misogyny and rape culture for its own sake, not in order to defend my own miserable track record.

An anecdote to end on: shortly before I met my partner, I attended a university party with some housemates and an old friend from school. At one point one of the housemates turned to my friend and asked, in his usual “jokey” voice, whether I’d been as much of a slag back home. This “mate” had been calling me a slag to my face for months, but for some reason this was the point at which the penny dropped. There was no friendliness in it at all. He just didn’t like me because I was a woman who slept around, just as he didn’t like women who refused to sleep around (he called them prick teases). He just didn’t like women. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before. It wasn’t to do with sex, it was to do with hate. I told him as much. He marveled at my lack of humour. I marveled at his inability to see the offence. And if anything, to me, these are the things that leave scars. Not having a crap shag because you weren’t choosy enough, but finding yourself arguing with someone who is meant to be your friend over whether he’s entitled to call you a slag. If we call it by its name, it’s not a “highly sexualised culture”; it’s just men disliking women for being women.

* Yes, it is this February’s, delivered on 31 December 2012. Just don’t ask me how this all works.

** Apart from with my partner, obviously.


9 thoughts on “Sex and sexism in university culture: Redefining our regrets

  1. Love this, and if it reassures you I had sex with 3 people, 2 of whom i was in a poly relationship with at uni. (tho poly hadnt been invented yet lol)

    I know asexual sex positive people, it is not what you do, but your attitude towards doing it.

    One question though..3 Simons…i think that counts as a fetish 🙂

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