Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Universities Respond: Part One

Aberdeen University:

Thank you for your letter, which raises fundamental issues. Please rest assured that we take our Equal Opportunity policies very seriously and we are keen to tackle issues that may arise in regards Freshers' week.

Although I think our Freshers' week this year did not go to the extremes which the article describes, we can always do more work to promote gender equality and prevent the objectification of women, both within our own events and those of our partners. This is why our President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, Gordon Maloney, is leading a Zero Tolerance campaign through which he is working with the pubs and clubs of Aberdeen to make sure that they take a very strict approach to sexual harassment.

He is also working with our liberation officers to make sure that not only the Students' Association, but also all our partners, societies and clubs, are aware of the issues surrounding equal opportunities.

This is work in progress, but I am hopeful that at least, we are going in the right direction. I realise that this is not perfect, but I hope it answers some of the concerns you have raised.

Thank you for your concern.

One of my first replies and a very encouraging one at that. Props to the 'deen.

Bangor University:

Thank you for your letter outlining your concerns surrounding our Welcome Week activities. The copy that you sent to the Students’ Union was passed on to me as Vice President Education & Welfare. In this role, I am responsible for all of the activity relating to all students welfare.

I also read that article that you mention, and I am aware that it has been discussed at length by both members of staff at the University and students and staff in the Students’ Union.

Firstly, allow me to clarify one point – the Students’ Union is separate to the University, therefore any comments that I make refer only to the Students’ Union (and not the University).

As a Union, we give tremendous consideration to the possible consequences of our actions and initiatives on our students. We are, however, somewhat hampered in regulating Welcome Week activities through a number of reasons.

i. The Students’ Union does not have a nightclub of its own.

a. The Academi nightclub on Deiniol Road is operated by Undeb Trading Cyf., a subsidiary company of Bangor University

ii. Embassy and Peep (formerly known as the Octagon) are beyond any control of the Students’ Union and the University

iii. Recent history has shown a number of external companies (located outside of Bangor) have attempted to arrange “pub crawls” around Bangor, selling t-shirts or cards to students in order to participate.

Two of the five Sabbatical Officers (who are the elected officials that run the Students’ Union) sit of the Board of Directors of Undeb Trading Cyf. and all events put on in Academi are scrutinised thoroughly. All events that are run by the Students’ Union or the University must adhere to a strict “Zero Tolerance Against Harassment & Discrimination” policy, and all staff involved receive training on this policy and how to handle situations. Our events this year were all targeted towards students meeting and socialising, rather than any that have a more "sexual" theme. Unfortunately, not all of the nightclubs in Bangor adhere to such a strict code of conduct, however, as I have mentioned, they are beyond our control. What we have stated is that, in line with our policy, no events arranged by the Students’ Union or Bangor University will have themes similar to the "pimps and hoes" example you refer to. In addition, in the past, Bangor Students’ Union has worked with the North Wales Police Authority and Gwynedd Council to prevent the external company known as "Carnage" from hosting a "Dirty Porn Star" themed event in Bangor. Another point that you raise in your letter is about free condoms and “implied support from Students’ Unions”. This year I took the decision (as several of my predecessors have done before me) to purchase large numbers of condoms from the NHS to be distributed to students. I do not feel that this implies that the Union supports promiscuity. This formed part of a campaign spearheaded by one of our student led societies called "I Take One Everywhere", with the idea that students should take a condom "everywhere they take their genitalia". It would be foolish of me to deny that Welcome Week has a reputation for being a period of heavy drinking within the student population, and that whilst intoxicated, students will have reduced inhibitions, which may result in an increased likelihood of a sexual encounter. We therefore took the view that whilst some students will inevitably sleep together, it would be more beneficial for us to promote the virtues of "safe sex". The use of kitemarked condoms purchased from the NHS gives us, and our students, the peace of mind that should they use a condom that was distributed as part of this campaign, they were using a product of high quality that emphasised the "safe sex" ethos.

I can assure you that we do indeed want to see a reduction in the number of sexual harassment cases, not only in future workplaces, but in Bangor as a community. To this end, we also arranged a free minibus service and walking buses from Academi to the various Halls of Residence and around Bangor for Welcome Week. This scheme was done in conjunction with the University’s Peer Guide initiative (where all new students are allocated a 2nd or 3rd Year mentor) and with the support of the local police. This scheme was highly successful and was used extensively by both new and returning students. The minibuses and walking buses were staffed by trained Union volunteers, and has attracted messages of thanks and congratulations from students, parents, local authorities and local residents.

I hope you’ll agree from this letter that we as a Students’ Union regard our responsibilities relating to the welfare of our students with utmost importance, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for showing such a level of concern for the students of Bangor University.

Another top notch response. Which compensated in part for the amount of Out-of-Office replies I'd been receiving, the 'we'll forward this on to someone else' replies, and the MAILER DAEMON undeliverable notifications. Here's the thing folks, if you're going to put your email address on your website, make sure it's working yeah?

That reminds me of another issue. The amount of links and navigating I had to do to find the contact details for some of these Women's Officers and Union Presidents and the like. It's almost as if, in some cases, they'd prefer not to be contacted. Fancy that!

Note to self: reconfigure mobile to mirror this strategy for when I'm tempted to drunk-text an ex.

University of Glasgow:

I read your letter this afternoon - and indeed the related newspaper article last week - and I do agree that these examples and patterns are concerning - particularly as some happened very nearby in commercial premises in the West End.

As a member of the Freshers' Week Committee at the QMU, I can honestly say that - right from the start of the Freshers' Week process - we made as sure as possible that nobody would feel pressured or demeaned as a result of any of the activities that we ran in Freshers' Week. None of our events were themed along the sexualised lines as, for example, the 'pimps and hoes' example from the article, or 'traffic light parties' seen elsewhere. I am confident that they never will be.

As a member of the Executive, I made sure that - throughout the week - all of our 110 volunteer helpers conformed to strict guidelines and protocol on how to interact with, welcome and socialise with new students. The QM has an incredibly strong heritage rooted in equality and social justice movements, and this will not be diluted or changed any time soon.

The QMU is proud to be the biggest non-NHS distributor of free contraception in Greater Glasgow, but at all points promote this in a non-pressuring fashion, and as overseen by our Campaigns and Charities committee. I can promise that this service was never pushed in conjunction with any event or offer in our Freshers' Week. None of our advertising copy or materials even alluded to the 'pop ya cherry' example cited in your letter.

If you have any specific concerns regarding our Freshers' Week, I'd be very prepared to answer any questions, and act on any issues specifically. Our Campaigns & Charities Committee is open to any member of the Union, and meets every Monday at 5pm. You would be more than welcome to come along and see what we do regarding our Free Condoms service, and how we do it.

From Brighton that'd be a bit of a trek but I appreciate the offer nonetheless! And indeed the rest of the letter.

3 excellent replies so far. But you can see now why I had to add:

"...With implied support from Student Unions free condoms, flyers about chlamydia alongside flyers enticing students to themed fancy dress nights at clubs inviting you to ‘Pop ya cherry!’ rain down like laminated confetti. (I appreciate the promotion of safe sex; I am merely underlining the dichotomy)".

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sexism in Freshers' Weeks

I have been busying myself with a little project recently, namely sending the following text out as a standard letter to all of the Universities on this list.

Dear Sir/Madam,

Following an article by Laura Bates published on www.independent.co.uk on 9th October 2012 I feel moved to write to ___________. This article was called 'Slut dropping' and 'Pimps and Hoes' - the sexual politics of freshers' week. It described appalling treatment of female students (often exceptionally vulnerable as they are experiencing their first time away from home) and ‘horrific normalisation of sexist attitudes’.

Most College and University prospectuses seem to follow the same standard format when it comes to representing student life: highlighting the cultural opportunities available and depicting students of all ages, genders and racial backgrounds lolling about on grassy slopes happily discussing books and articles. The reality for me and many of my peers is altogether different, especially during Freshers’ Week. With implied support from Student Unions free condoms, flyers about chlamydia alongside flyers enticing students to themed fancy dress nights at clubs inviting you to ‘Pop ya cherry!’ rain down like laminated confetti. (I appreciate the promotion of safe sex; I am merely underlining the dichotomy).

While mature minds may have the ability to take this in their stride and treat it as the crass consumerism and exploitation it is, I believe this can only have a detrimental impact on the youthful personalities of first year students which are, of course, still in development. The response Laura Bates received after the article’s publication indicated female students feel coerced to participate in demeaning, sexualising activities in an attempt to ‘fit in’. When invited to comment on a ‘pimps and hoes’ fancy dress theme for students in Liverpool, councillor for Allerton and Hunts Cross Rachael O’Byrne said the theme “perpetuates the objectification and exploitation of women”. The purpose of Universities is to educate against, not condone this type of behaviour and gender-stereotyping.

I’m not saying that students shouldn’t have fun. I’m not saying males and females shouldn’t be allowed to be promiscuous at University if that’s what they want to do. I am kindly imploring you to reconsider the lasting consequences of these Freshers’ Week themes and how they may set an example of what constitutes acceptable behaviour in the future working and social lives of the students. We want to reduce the amount of sexual harassment cases in future workplaces. We want women to be valued for their minds. We want respect and equality for both sexes. I say ‘we’ because, I’m sure, as an esteemed establishment you share these values and will hopefully make appropriate adjustments to the social programmes available to your students. I am looking forward to receiving your thoughts on this matter.

Yours faithfully,

KM

I had to add the qualifying aside "(I appreciate the promotion of safe sex; I am merely underlining the dichotomy)" as I received a few replies from Universities emphatically justifying their proud stance on sexual health. They probably assumed I was a bewildered septuagenarian aghast at today's young ladies baring their ankles and shoulders.

Thanks to Naomi Gilmore for her proof-reading of the letter and very helpful editing.

So why did I decide to do this? I've been thinking about feminism a lot lately and discussing the concept and definition with friends. I've explained that I can't abide the sort of feminist that does little but complain. I thought I would try a pro-active approach, y'know, actual try to make a difference, instead of indulging in my day-to-day moans that some guy in a white van honked me.

The replies range from the suspicious and condescending to the utterly inspiring and heartwarming, and I intend to post most of them on this blog. Then hopefully any young student-to-be researching which University she would like to attend might stumble across them and can be better-informed regarding the nature of the atmosphere they can expect upon arrival - and indeed throughout the duration of their studies.