It seems that many UK students are suffering a sense of humour failure. Perhaps its been struck off our list of essentials and become an unjustifiable luxury since course prices have tripled. We need bread and milk; irony can wait. Apparently even cheap gags are a stretch these days, as it seems recently we have needed a lot of explanation over what counts as ‘a joke’. Lots of us can’t seem to understand that what we think is a serious, offensive matter is all just jest. Spiking young girls drinks: light hearted banter. Miscarriage: come on guys, that’s hilarious.
Because it can’t be possible that these aren’t jokes at all, can it? Not when sports teams and societies across the country are chanting about sexual abuse, performing Nazi salutes and laughing it off? If so many young people find it funny to drink along to shouts of ‘it’s not rape if…’ then there must be some comic value, surely. Any reaction of shock or disgust must be a “confusion or misunderstanding”, as Oxford University’s Pembroke College Rugby Football Club was quick to point out after an email which encouraged spiking female fresher’s drinks, titled ‘Free Pussy’, found its way online. A quick glance across the headlines and it’s clear – rape is standard drinking game fare.
Or, maybe, these ‘jokes’ just aren’t funny and its time to cut the pretence and take off the collective beer goggles. ‘I Have Never’ is pulled out repeatedly during every university’s Fresher’s Week, with inevitable sexual confessions, but this game is not based around the concept of excusing sexual assault. Sex jokes are one thing, but Stirling University students shouting about women being “shafted”, on public transport, is another entirely. As one of the passengers on the Stirling bus said afterwards, it is “beyond intimidation, it is humiliation.” This is how this kind of ‘harmless fun’ functions; by being loud and aggressive and accompanied by laughter it causes discomfort but also a sense of shame, as fear of being overwhelmed by the mob mentality stops anyone from speaking out. This behaviour is posed as a joke and if you take issue with it, you become something else to be mocked. The only woman to vocally take issue with the lads’ song was disparaged and told to get off the bus. These students, with their rowdy performance, claimed the bus as theirs, where they could act as they wished. People were made to feel uncomfortable outsiders, unable to remain in a public space without fear of attack. If this is not oppression or persecution, then it is these terms that need a serious redefinition, not ‘humour’.
It is hard to discuss ‘banter’ without accusations of humour loss, but is it really so difficult to see that calling for male students (or “villains”) to be “as clandestine as possible” while slipping unknown extra ingredients into their date’s drinks could be taken as less than hilarious? Even if, as the Pembroke College Club professed, the task wasn’t intended to condone date rape, the underlying reference is clear. Say whatever you like, by “a substance of your choice” you may have meant Tabasco sauce, but that’s not what gets slipped in too many young people’s drinks in clubs around the country. While the email may have been less explicit than the Stirling boys’ miscarriage ditty, the implicit message in thinly veiled allusions to drink spiking and potential date rape, which pose the issue as humorous, is that these actions are an acceptable part of our culture. Anyone who has been spiked or anyone who has been sexually assaulted in any way is told, in no polite terms, that what happened to them was ‘just a bit of fun’. Coming up with excuses for abuse, as Durham students did recently in their game of ‘Its Not Rape If…”, is excusing those who see their actions as justified and excusing the society that sees only 7% of reported rapes leading to convictions. If you don’t like it, get off the bus.
It is not manly to make Freshers’ “quake in their boots” at the thought of you. It is not funny to make people, some of whom could have been victims of the abuse you are mocking, feel scared and intimidated. It is not hilarious to make misogynistic and exploitative behaviour a team “task”, or enforced rite of passage. It is not a joke, it is old fashioned discrimination, and its long out of date.