Sport and the Problem of ‘Lad Culture’

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Warning: This article contains content which may be of a distressing nature to some.

‘Lad culture’ has helped normalise behaviour such as sexual harassment and female objectification. Unfortunately, it all too often finds an outlet in university sports societies.

‘Lad culture’ emerged as a British subculture in the 1990s and was defined by respondents to a National Union of Students (NUS) survey in 2015 on the subject as:

a group or ‘pack’ mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption, and ‘banter’ which was often sexist, misogynist and homophobic

While ‘lad culture’ does not normalise rape, it does constitute inappropriate behaviour almost up to that point, allowing misogynistic remarks to be classed as banter and ignorance of respect for a woman’s personal private space to be laughed off as mere heavy flirting. Further, it actively encourages excessive drinking and if there’s one thing that blurs lines between sexual consent and non-consent and lets some people lose sensible inhibitions regarding behaviour towards those they find attractive, it’s getting ‘rat-arsed’.

Based on some reports, a rat being involved with one’s rear end does not sound too out of place with the worst outlet of ‘lad culture’ in sports societies, initiation ceremonies. In October 2016, The Times broke revelations of shocking initiation practices in university rugby societies which made for uncomfortable reading for the governing body of rugby union in England, the Rugby Football Union (RFU). Among those practices cited included sprinkling chili powder over an individual’s private parts, being blindfolded and having your hands urinated on at Bath University and fishing a dead rat out of a bucket of cider with one’s teeth at Manchester. All this helps condone increasingly violent conduct, leading to either in themselves sexual assault and harassment of women, or making the issue of sexual consent and respecting an individual’s preference to not have sex or physical contact seem trivial.

Credit: A Rod, Franzia drinking, CC BY 2.0 [Wikimedia Commons]
Overall, male university rugby teams seem to be the worst offenders in promoting ‘lad culture’. As well as the initiation ceremonies previously highlighted, there was also the infamous LSE male rugby society freshers’ leaflet scandal in 2014 where women were referred to as ‘slags’ and ‘mingers’, while Evening Standard contributor Tom Bradby revealed last October his own traumatic experiences of ‘lad culture’ when he was part of a uni rugby team. With incidents like one NUS respondent reporting that at a sports social one member of the rugby team wore a vest saying ‘Campist Rapist’ on the front and ‘It’s not rape if you say surprise!’ on the reverse, it’s not surprising that the NUS-commissioned report into prevalence of ‘lad culture’ in 2013 concluded that rugby teams were ‘key sites’ for its promotion.

The report singles out sport for promoting ‘lad culture’ rowdy behaviour. Among other incidents highlighted were an initiation for a women’s sports team which involved carrying raw fish inside their bras and later eating them, and the British Universities’ Sports recommendation to Athletics Unions in 2004 to do more to tackle humiliating drinking rituals.

NUS’s launch in 2014 of a national strategy committee to address the issue provides hope that the problem is being taken seriously. Meanwhile, Portsmouth University students won an NUS award in June 2017 for their own efforts to discourage lad culture in their sports teams. The student union launched an 18 month-long campaign to change cultural practices within sports teams. It seems that their principal strategy was transitioning societies to more non-alcoholic social events and rewarding good practice.

Work like that achieved by our Varsity rivals, Portsmouth, seems like the way forward to prevent sport societies through promulgation of ‘lad culture’ becoming a way of normalising inappropriate behaviour.

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Editor 2018-19 | International Editor 2017/18. Final year Modern History and Politics student from Bedford. Drinks far too much tea for his own good.

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