Don’t expect #MeToo to spell the end of British “lad culture”

“Lad culture” still persists in the UK.
“Lad culture” still persists in the UK.
Image: Reuters/Henry Nicholls
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Ask a British person about the origins of “lad culture” and you’ll likely hear them posit something hazy about Britpop, the alternative rock movement most commonly associated with 90s English band Oasis.

For the better part of two decades, Oasis’s frontmen—brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher—trafficked in bombast, insult, and anti-intellectualism. Driven by what were supposed to be unfeigned primitive cravings, they seemingly endorsed a lifestyle of drinking, casual sex, and other stereotypically masculine pursuits. They, of course, aren’t the only culprits. Lad magazines, which became popular around the same time, also championed riotous and hedonistic male conduct.

A profusion of these attitudes gave way to a culture that has just as much to do with how men interact with women every day—oafishly, superficially, and inappropriately—as it does with how they interact with their peers on nights out.

Today, though lad culture has become synonymous in Britain with alcohol, catcalling, and football hooliganism, it is often used as an innocuous-sounding term for male bonding, akin to “boys will be boys,” that disguises less than innocent behavior. It has also been embraced by the likes of Nigel Farage, the man who was crucial to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. (He’s called Noel Gallagher a “lad” and a “legend.”)

As academics track the #MeToo movement, which is driving one of the biggest cultural shifts around the treatment of women in years, it might be a bit perplexing to find that British lad culture—a not-so-distant cousin of US fraternity culture—seems to be as pernicious as ever. It’s not pernicious simply because sexual harassment is so prevalent in the UK—though figures suggest that more than 20% of women have experienced some type of sexual assault since they were 16—but because even those who should know better fail to draw a connection between the two.

A study published in the journal Gender and Education last month paints a stark picture of how lad culture, defined to include often alcohol-fuelled sexism, homophobia, harassment, and violence, is perceived. By and large, staff at six universities in England thought that lad culture was something perpetrated by a few rowdy bad apples, and not something that permeates male behavior in an “everyday” sense. There is, to an extent, an “institutionalised invisibility of lad culture,” the study suggests.

The study’s conclusion has some limitations—the research is based on interviews with just 72 staff members. It nonetheless suggests that a landmark 2012 report (pdf) by the UK National Union of Students on women’s experience of lad culture, which saw half of its participants identify “a prevailing sexism” and “potential culture of harassment” in their colleges, has failed to lift the winds of change.

And while the outpouring of women coming forward to publicize their allegations of harassment and abuse post-Harvey Weinstein has done much to shatter this kind of ignorance, it’s also too soon to suppose what consequences this increased visibility will have on its own.

#MeToo and the Everyday Sexism Project, started in 2012 by British feminist writer Laura Bates, have shown that “sexual harassment and violence are not rare occurrences that only a few women experience,” said Lancaster University professor Carolyn Jackson, one of the authors of the study, in an interview. “However, making it visible does not necessarily mean that men will reflect on, or change, their own practices.”

Like lad culture, US frat culture is “characterized and critiqued as involving a pack mentality, excessive alcohol consumption, and sexually harassing and abusive behaviours,” she noted. While there is some evidence of a shift on US campuses, with universities like Harvard seeing a marked increase in reports of sexual harassment, the focus is too often on individual explanations for abusive behaviors.

Until we learn, as Jackson said, “to interrogate and challenge the cultures that facilitate and foster sexual harassment and violence”—and make that connection—we can continue to expect impressionable young men to carry these attitudes into adulthood, and the workplace.