Despite the emergence of the #MeToo movement last year, university campuses in the UK were still rife with sexism and sexual violence. Facebook messages from Warwick students, revealed rape threats disguised as ‘banter’: "Sometimes it's fun to just go wild and rape 100 girls.", another read “[I] need to be stacked so I can hold the freshers down." A survey even exposed that a third of students felt pressured into doing something sexual at university. While in Nottingham, first year students walked into their halls’ bathroom to find the message, “uni girls love rape”, sprawled across the floor.
This year new students at Sussex University were welcomed by this, courtesy of their Students’ Union.
Imagine being a bright and eager female student excited to have been accepted into one of the UK's leading research universities (@SussexUni) and you find this in your welcome bag: https://t.co/wfKdr0ODd4— RaquelRosarioSánchez (@8RosarioSanchez) September 19, 2018
Sexism is sexism even when it's "a joke." Women deserve better than this. pic.twitter.com/Q8epaGuvM8
The beermat, featuring a suggestive image of a women’s mouth drooling a white substance (likely toothpaste), was not so subtly accompanied by the phrase, “Whether you spit or swallow as part of your daily oral regime, place your oral health on autopilot,” on the reverse.
Students have called out the inclusion of the BrushBox ad in their promotional boxes, made up by company Dig-In and provided by their Students’ Union, as ‘sexist’. Sara Merinero, a Masters student at the university, told Refinery 29, “[It] is a disgusting sexual joke that basically treats women like shit and expects them to be a body men can use and not people”.
Refinery 29 can reveal that Dig-In received financial gain for including the ‘disgusting’ beermat in their boxes, but declined to disclose the exact amount for ‘commercial confidentiality’ reasons. In response to the outcry, Dig-In revealed that their boxes are provided to 400,000 students across the UK, saying they pulled them immediately when they noticed the beer bats; they estimate that 45,000 boxes with ‘Spit or swallow’ were distributed prior to this. Is this really the first impression we want to give freshers of university life?
BrushBox, the company behind the ad, initially tried to defend the ad as “tongue in cheek”, before issuing a direct apology.
‘Lad-culture’ dates back to as early as the 1990s, with the association of the term and universities becoming increasingly recurrent and normalised. The beermat provided to 18-year-olds arriving on campus had a notch, intended for students to be able to hang it off their nose. Do we really have to demean women to make a joke and advertise toothbrushes? A dentist from the county told Refinery 29 that she strongly advises against swallowing toothpaste.
“This sort of product normalises toxic lad culture, and emboldens uni boys to overstep the boundaries of female students. The phrase ‘sharking’ comes to mind, where older, more experienced, boys ‘prey’ on fresher girls, using their naivety against them.”
“Imagine just how heightened this dynamic could be in a situation where girls are forced to laugh at this “joke” so as to seem “cool”, and are forced to hide any discomfort,” commented Prishita, a graduate from the University of Cambridge.
The typical grades required to get into the University of Sussex are AAB, so it’s safe to say that the students starting this September worked hard to get there – whatever their gender. Marie Tuley, a Doctoral Researcher in Sociology at the University, told Refinery 29: “The message suggests that women are expected to perform oral sex on men as a sort of duty. This is threatening and demeaning”. Prishita adds, “placing a not-very-subtle euphemism that presents women as 'just a mouth to be filled' in an environment where alcohol is involved is dangerous and extremely irresponsible.”
Sexual assault happens everywhere. But universities are a known hot spot. Betty Grieves, who has experienced sexual harassment and abuse at Sussex University, says she is concerned about the perception this will give to freshers, the image of the university that it portrays to them, and the potential go-ahead it greenlights for sexist behaviour. She adds, “I am so tired of seeing very intentional discrimination being justified as merely an oversight.”
One first year student says, "a university should not approve to give away bags with that content". Speaking of their disappointment in Sussex SU, a 3rd year student, told Refinery 29, “[It] makes me feel that the university care more for an advertising deal than their own students, as it does not give the impression that they value or respect us as individuals at all. I now have little confidence in the Sussex SU, who are supposedly meant to stand for equality and inclusivity.”
For some it was nothing more than an ill-informed joke, but for others it was a reflection of the dark realities of university life.
A University of Sussex Students’ Union spokesperson said: “We were very disappointed to find this promotional material in our Dig-In boxes, and will be reviewing whether to renew our contract with this supplier”. They later added, "We will be consulting our students about whether to continue our relationship with Dig-In Boxes.”
Dig-In responding to comment said: “Dig In would like to apologise unreservedly for its part in distributing BrushBox’s promotional beer mats. The beer mats distributed in some of our freshers boxes do not, in any way, reflect our high ethical standards and we have put immediate measures in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”