Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sexism on Campus

Originally appeared in Nouse.

It may be many years since feminism’s peak, but apparently sexism still blights our society. York University has recently been in the spotlight for its alleged “institutional sexism”. Online magazine The First Post published an article singling out this university for its chauvinistic campus practices, primarily Goodricke’s Playboy Mansion and the Pole Exercise club. York was not alone: Loughborough’s student union was criticised for extending an invitation to both Nuts’ Brat Pack Tour and FHM’s High Street Honeys. Kat Stark, NUS Women’s Officer even compared such things to a theft of feminism, a claim that, if fair and accurate, should be troubling for just about everyone.

The most important question then is: are we at a university infested with sexism? Or, more prosaically: is there really such sexism on York campus?

Those who have had criticism levelled at them naturally disagree. Ben Wardle, Goodricke Chair, and Matt Hood, President of Pole Exercise, both outright denied the charges of sexism, and it seems with good reason. Goodricke has yet to receive a complaint about its events and their popularity on campus can barely be denied. Last year the AU nominated Pole Exercise as its club of the year, not least in recognition of their charity achievements: last year Pole Exercise raised almost £1,500 for Medicine Sans Frontiers with a single event.

Besides, perhaps Pole Exercise is liberating and empowering for the women of York. But Club President Matt Hood dismissed this idea out of hand, and rightly so. As he put it, “it’s just an exercise class. We keep people in good health, that's the point, that's the only point.” Pole Exercise is fun and healthy and, even better, most people don’t seem to realise that they were even exercising until after the classes. The sessions focus on fitness moves rather than dancing and are open to anyone. The nearest thing to sexism in Pole Exercise is the logo: a girl on a pole. But even that is stylised and abstract. Is there really a problem here?

What of Goodricke’s evocation of the Playboy brand to market events? Playboy is a name that is certainly connected with pornography and the objectification of women, undeniably so – from the polyamorous Hugh Heffner to the famed centrefolds and Playmates. But, as Ben Wardle emphasises, describing Goodricke as the Playboy Mansion becomes ironic as soon as one calls to mind the less-than-palatial hall in which the event takes place. Irony is, of course, subjective and maybe its invocation is an ad hoc defence. Further, if irony is a defence or not is even more difficult to say. But if we can accept the rampant anti-Semitism of Borat or, less controversially, the high camp irony of the recent Yorkie adverts without harm, can we not also make space for the Playboy Mansion? That Goodricke JCR is yet to receive a complaint implies an agreement across campus.

However, maybe things aren’t quite so positive as the picture just painted. Perhaps it is true that York is not a festering hot bed of chauvinism, misogyny and testosterone, but that might not be the whole story. Perhaps the complaints made by The First Post should be reflected onto current British society as a whole rather than just our little corner. It cannot be denied that the maxim “sex sells” still hold currency in the advertising world and the steady liberalisation of our culture has been trailed by an equally steady sexualisation. From the cheek-caressing temptress promised by the Gillette adverts to the proliferation of “lads mags” – FHM, Maxim and Nuts – sex is everywhere. And if at any point this seems like a singularly male phenomenon, do not forget the “Top 10 Tips to Please Your Man” features in the aspirational women’s magazines, the orgasmic Herbal Essences adverts or the media obsession with whom our celebrities sleep with. But so often, this sexualisation leans in favour of the masculine, certainly in favour of certain gender stereotypes. The often-raised example is the difference in connotation and meaning between the word “slag” and the word “stud”. There is even an asymmetry in the terms “man” and “woman” that could be seen as revealing - though the etymology of these words is not necessarily indicative of sexism.

Relative to the rest of British culture, the name of a termly campus event and the nature of a fitness club seem moderate and tepid in nature. Yes students should be progressive and radical: that is so much of their social role, but there are certainly better places to direct energy and anger. The sexism in British culture lies at a deeper level than the Goodricke ents team.

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