HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.
Trigger warning: Homophobia and sexual harassment
Earlier this month, Richard Shapland - the president of men's hockey and snowsports at UEA students' union - admitted that he got it wrong. He didn't see a problem with a game called gay chicken where society members would kiss and grope until one of them pulled away, making them the loser. He saw this sort of thing as a bit of fun. Part of being a lad. Nothing to get concerned about. But his students' union helped him change his mind.
Lad culture - which we define as a pack mentality resulting in sexist, racist and homophobic banter, often spilling into harassment and violence - is a real problem on our campuses. A quarter of students have suffered unwelcome sexual advances. Two thirds of freshers have no idea about procedures for reporting sexual harassment, yet nearly one in five experience it in their first week. Saying that boys will be boys won't cut it. There's no excuse for harassment, bullying and intimidation.
It's great that people like Richard from UEASU are speaking out about this, but it's a shame that it's such a big deal that he has. Men speaking out as proud allies on these issues should be far more commonplace.
I've played sport all my life, and as NUS' vice president for union development, I know that sports and societies are some of our students' unions most transformative spaces. It's not just about playing footie on a Wednesday afternoon, or trying out a bit of journalism. They tackle social isolation, boost health and wellbeing, introduce people to democracy, improve academic retention, and loads more. But all of this value is completely undermined if lad culture takes hold of these spaces.
When students see these opportunities being controlled by a group of men engaging in exclusive behaviour, huge numbers of students look at it and think: I wouldn't fit in there. I wouldn't be welcome. That society isn't for me. And so not only does this mean that we're denying individuals the opportunity to better themselves and enjoy themselves, it means our unions are only shaping a small segment of their membership.
Some say that this sort of thing is just a bit of fun. If they feel uncomfortable, they can just leave. But it doesn't take a great deal of empathy to realise how naïve and unfair this is. For a start, this argument is often all too accurate. People feel uncomfortable, so they leave - for good. And for those that do participate, there can be incredible pressure to hide certain aspects of your identity - particularly for LGBT+ people.
This isn't the experience of education anyone deserves. We're trying to help people be the best version of themselves, not to lessen themselves to suit a certain type of masculinity. Why should a small clutch of men think they have the right to act however they want and expect people to just leave if they don't like it? There is no justification for this. These aren't their societies, unions and campuses. They're everybody's.
Our recent research into lad culture provoked a lot of interesting responses from men who find lad culture really uncomfortable and unpleasant. But you wouldn't necessarily realise this if you're a woman in a bar where a pack of lads are hacking their way through a song about rape. Where are the men's voices speaking out against it? If you're silent in the face of abuse, bullying or discrimination, it only reinforces the behaviour, and makes the problem even worse.
Most of us might not define ourselves as a lad, but we still contribute to the patriarchal stitch-up if we don't actually take action. It's not enough to just think of yourself as being different. We need to start challenging each other. Just as importantly - we also need to start challenging ourselves. What does it mean to do nothing in the face of lad culture? How does it affect me? How does it affect others? And what can I do to change it?
We can't be bystanders. We need to be proactive and lead by example to stop this culture from defining what masculinity 'should' be. We mustn't be complacent, because that leads to complicity. I know I don't want to be responsible for creating exclusive spaces that are only for the few, and not for the student movement in its entirety. Do you? If not, you need to challenge lad culture. It's not something for just women to speak out against. It's up to men too.
Richard Brooks is the NUS vice president for union development
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