“Sometimes it’s fun to go wild and rape 100 girls.” “Do it, then ditch her in a field covered in your cum from head to toe.”
It is almost too painful to read but these were two of thousands of comments made by male university students in a Warwick University group chat in 2018, uncovered in a new documentary by the BBC.
A few weeks ago I was warning against the dangers of incorporating words that define women by their ability to sexually arouse into our speech. I quoted George Orwell’s remark that “If thought corrupts language, then language corrupts thought.” Now here we are – his words only ring more loudly and more true.
There are so many things that are appalling about the Warwick University rape chat scandal: the fact these boys felt it was acceptable to joke about an act so heinous, the fact that the university chose their (male) Director of Press and Media to head the investigation and the fact that these boys were ultimately allowed to return to campus.
This series of events sounds so unjust that it is tempting to take it as a one-off, an anomaly in an otherwise just system. The disappointing news is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Across the country, businesses, schools, broadcasting institutions (and so many more) either mishandle or altogether turn a blind eye to complaints of sexual misconduct or threats of violence against women. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these are run by men.
Yet the problem demonstrated in the sickening Warwick case stems from an even more worrying trend. Facilitated by the ascension of social media but by no means a recent phenomenon, across schools, boys are conflating sexual threats against women with ‘banter’. Perhaps more disturbingly, in some cases, male teachers are egging them on.
Every female friend I have tells me of the way girls were demeaned by the boys at their school, including revenge porn and hate speech veiled as ‘banter’ in lads group chats, but I shall elaborate on the behaviour I witnessed at my own.
When I listened to some of the comments made in the Warwick group chat, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deja vu: the sickening sense of enjoyment among privileged boys from threatening to sexually abuse girls completely absent from the conversation. Apart from in the case of my all-boys school, it was clearly not female students who were receiving this torrent of abuse. It was female teachers.
That’s correct: the women giving my fellow classmates the chance to succeed in life were the very people they were degrading. Group chats were of course the number one culprit, since there were no ‘pesky’ female students, as in the Warwick case, who could take offence. But disgusting tirades about how one wanted to ‘drive a train through her’ and commit various acts of a violent sexual nature could be heard in most corridors. And though regular use of the most violent language was limited to a pathetic minority, joking about the need to ‘fuck’ female teacher X was practically commonplace.
Now for those stupid enough to claim that all this was just harmless ‘banter’, or as some presidents would say ‘locker room talk’, I suggest you continue reading. For this language went on to cause action. One female member of staff deemed ‘bang-able’ by the vast majority of male students would often find herself being stalked by boys as old as eighteen as she travelled around the campus. Another female member of staff, who had worked at the school for several years, defected to the neighbouring girls school after receiving emails from a male student containing threats of sexual violence.
So, when I sat in the back row of a lunchtime school debate on banter culture, I found myself stunned by the motion propagated by the then deputy headmaster that boys’ banter should be allowed to flourish unscrutinised. How could he possibly be advocating the very problem that was driving his female members of staff from the school? Then again, this was the man who had proclaimed to my classmates, in a bid to help us remember a trigonometry rule that I have since forgotten, that ‘women get excited when you get on top’.
My show of defiance by voting against that motion was one of the few I took against misogyny during my time there. Indeed, I am saddened to admit that I rarely spoke out against the language I heard or saw written down. School is an extremely pressurised environment and when one is constantly battling to remain included, it is often far easier to choose to ignore a vulgarity than to call it out as the hate speech that it is. The fact I knew what it felt like to receive threats of abuse makes my cowardice even more disappointing.
How I choose to redeem myself will, I hope, become apparent to all who know the adult me but the crucial points to take away from the events of my school and Warwick University are the following:
The problem facing our society is not just how we talk about and treat women, it is how we understand what it means to be a civilised species.
In order to start correcting this century-old wiring defect, we all (that means men included) need to reeducate our boys on what language can be normalised and what speech must remain intolerable.
Beyond that, the structure of our institutions has to change. Men with a certain set of outdated beliefs cannot remain at the top of the power chain if women are to thrive.
So I will end this article on this note of clarification upon which my detractors can ponder: this is not about man-hating. This is not about telling boys that they are inherently evil. Quite the contrary: this is about drowning out a lifetime of misguided speech and behaviour with a new language of respect and love so that no girl, no woman, no person should ever have to say ‘Me Too’ again.