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Letter to Freshers

16/03/2014 18:37 GMT | Updated 16/05/2014 10:59 BST

This is a letter to freshers everywhere. Don't worry, its not going to be naggy or anything. Being a fresher is meant to be fun; partying, ill-advised hook-ups, and the friendships that blossom from the shared misery of a hangover. But it also comes with its own brand of pressure; fresher pressure if you will. This fresher pressure comes in many forms; the pressure to go out all the time, the pressure to drink excessively. It also comes in more gendered forms; a pressure for boys, and girls to act in certain ways. I'm talking about the "lad culture mentality".

Don't roll your eyes. I know it's been done to death, but as a decrepit and past-it Masters student, I feel like I have accumulated just enough wisdom to pass on to you, a young and sprightly Fresher who is just entering your university years.

My first year at university was a lot of fun; albeit somewhat vodkaredbull-blurred. Nonetheless, I do have plenty of fond memories and also some friends who I'm sure will be around for life. However I also have more uncomfortable memories, of things that I wish I hadn't done, and of the pressures that I should never have bowed to.

I vividly remember the outcry in my first year when a college event which was themed "Fire in the Red Light District" was cancelled. The general idea was that the boys would dress up as fire-fighters, and the girls as prostitutes. A third year had complained, citing that the prostitution industry was not to be made light of, and certainly not to be used as a "fun" backdrop for students to get hammered. She backed up her complaint with cold hard facts; 75% of women in the industry started as children. 70% of women involved in prostitution had spent time in care. 45% reported having suffered sexual abuse growing up. 85% reported physical abuse. (Home Office, 2006) Clearly, a prostitution themed evening was grossly inappropriate.

So what was my response to these facts, which were widely circulated around college? To my shame, it was the same as most of my fellow freshers. If you don't like it then don't come, why spoil everyone else's night? It's only a bit of fun. The girl who complained was branded a killjoy who needs to lighten up.

Despite our disapproval, the theme was duly changed to "A Night at the Theatre". However, those organising the event openly insulted the girl who had dared to complain, and also encouraged students to go dressed according to the original theme anyway, to "show her she can't spoil our night". Therefore, in what I thought was an act of daring rebellion, which would forever mark me out as "cool fresher", I decided to attend the event dressed as a prostitute. I wore my Primark corset, fishnets and a pair of black pants. I thought I was being sexy and somehow anti-establishment. Yet the reality was anything but.

Instead, I was bowing to the horrible sort of pressure which was endemic not only in my university, but in universities up and down the country. This insidious force causes people to act in ways in which they never normally would; it's essentially a kind of sexist mob mentality, and it is definitely not a "bit of fun". I'm talking rape jokes ("it's not rape if you shout surprise"). I'm talking infinite horrible dressing up themes; pimps and hoes, golf pros and tennis hoes, CEOs and corporate hoes. In fact, the general theme was that girls should dress up as hoes. Girls= hoes.

I'm not saying that my fellow students actually believed in this. Of course not. My male friends are all very pro gender equality, and in the pressured environment of my university, absolutely aware that girls are every bit as intelligent as boys. So why did this happen?

I think that many people come to university with a whole host of insecurities; maybe they were a geek at school, or a bit of a loner, and are desperate to shed this label. Or maybe they weren't; maybe they were top dog and want to keep it that way. Either way, it seems to generate this aggressive, mobbish "lad mentality" culture; but the thing is, girls were just as much to blame in perpetuating it. This isn't about slut-shaming or anything like that. It's about keeping quiet, or even joining in with the laughter which follows a joke about rape. (As I did). It's about choosing to co-operate with a dressing-up theme even though it is offensive and inappropriate. (As I did). It's about disparaging anyone who tries to speak out against such things. (As I did).

If you laugh at a rape joke, it makes it ok to make rape jokes. If you dress up as a "hoe", it makes it ok to continue to theme events in a way which is derogatory to women. And neither of these things are ok, and can even lead to things which are even less ok.

Of course some of it is sheer naivety. I didn't feel really ashamed of dressing up as a prostitute until I went to teach English to primary children in Nepal. There I learnt that Nepalese girls born into poverty, girls just like the bright, articulate and charming girls who I taught, are routinely sold into prostitution in India. Thousands of Nepalese girls fall victim to human trafficking every year; indeed it is perhaps one of the busiest slave trafficking routes in the world. Dressing up as a prostitute could now not be any further removed from a "bit of fun".

Yet even without this knowledge, I knew at the time that the third year girl who dared to complain was right. I think most of us did, which is why there was such a burst of anger towards her; nobody likes to be made to be feel guilty. And then it became the "cool" thing to do to disparage her and cast aside what she had said by following the original theme; so I did. In order to fit in with my fellow freshers.

So what I am saying is, if you don't think something is right, you don't have to go along with it. Obvious, you would think. But in practice, it is actually pretty hard when you are desperately trying to carve your niche in a new environment. Don't bow to the fresher pressure. You uni people, you're the leaders of tomorrow right? So if you think something is sexist, speak out. Your new friends should be impressed that you are speaking your mind. And if they aren't, do you really want them as friends anyway?

Another motivation is that by being your own person, your photos will be much less embarrassing and awful. Primark corsets are never a great look.