In an ideal world, the idea of university “Spotted” pages would be quite mundane, possibly even benign. A unique way to interact with your fellow students, I imagine it would foster a sense of community hitherto unknown on Facebook, full of bright, well-adjusted individuals poking light fun at other equally bright, well-adjusted individuals without fear of reprimand or causing offence. After all, the posts on these pages would all be in the name of good fun, and I doubt anybody would make complaints against something so obviously well-intentioned and inoffensive. No harm, no foul, right?
Unfortunately, we don’t live in such a world – this fact made clear by the huge debate currently raging over the state of the “Spotted: Glasgow Uni Library” Facebook page. So what exactly is the problem?
After a brief hiatus around Christmas time last year, the infamous “Spotted” page recently resumed regular posting for the exam season. The admin staff had swelled to seven members, and the page’s popularity was higher than ever – roughly 10,500 likes, which, as frequently pointed out by the page admins themselves, is a significant proportion of Glasgow University’s 25,000 students. However, things quickly turned sour. Among the admittedly sketchy regular chat-up lines and solicitous remarks from wannabe Lotharios, some truly seedy and explicit content began to emerge. After outcry from students and the Isabella Elder Feminist Society, these posts were hastily removed and the admin staff cut down to the original two. However, the current admins of the page will admit to no sexism or foul conduct beyond possible revelation of identity, as they have said in a letter to the university, which can be found on the Isabella Elder Feminist Society Facebook page. Many contributors and followers of “Spotted”, as well as the admins themselves, seem to think that the charges raised against them are nothing more than the petty gripes of “moany feminists”, seeking to ruin their fun. When I spoke to one of the admins of the page, he told me they “are infamously an oversensitive school of thought who jump at the chance of possible offence to their gender”, and that the page had “no other intention than light hearted humour”.
And, well, I do believe that they had no consciously malicious intent when they started the page. By their own admission, they just wanted to “get in on the act” and jump on the bandwagon of similar pages hosted by students of other universities. However, their opinion of feminism reeks strongly of reactionary defensiveness, and, honestly, a complete ignorance of the way that oppression actually operates in our society.
At the end of this conversation I was asked not to “label [Spotted: Glasgow Uni Library] as sexist”, as though the term “sexist” were nothing more than an uncomfortable, embarrassing handle unfairly given to someone completely innocent, and undeserving of all suspicion. It’s a word nobody wants to hear, and which nobody wants to think about. But the truth is that we have to think about it. The truth is that people are sexist, that some actions are sexist. The truth is that each and every one of us participate in a sexist culture, and perform sexist actions, whether consciously or unconsciously, on purpose or not.
And let me be clear on one other thing: sexism is not a two-way street. It is true that prejudice against all genders exist, it is true that someone might hold a grudge against you, or demean you, just because you identify as a man. However this is not endemic to our culture. Misandry does not exist in the same way that misogyny does. A common way of defining oppression is “prejudice plus power”. Put simply, what this means in the context of our very own Spotted page is this: when an anonymous post such as “To the Hugh Jackman lookalike who always sits by the level 4 keyboards: get your claws out and rip my clothes off”, obviously aimed at a man, is posted, no one feels threatened. There’s very little precedence (note: not none) for men receiving such comments on a regular basis, or being made to feel ashamed for sexual comments aimed at them. The person this was aimed can probably take this as the humorous post it was intended to be, and leave it there. They may even feel flattered. The problem is that men seem to think women should take these comments in the same way, without realizing that women spend every day of their lives under a barrage of inappropriate comments, are groped, dismissed, harassed, catcalled, belittled – all because of their gender. One in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. And we are all aware of this. The risks for men are much lower. Because of this, guys, I’m sorry, but no one is going to take your post about masturbating over a girl in the university library toilets – without her consent – as a compliment. It’s just another unwanted reminder that women are always being watched and assessed for their sexual availability, that they are not even safe in a learning environment – that they can never fully relax in a public place. If you think women should just “get over it” – congratulations, you have about the same empathetic capability as a small reptile.
If you think that I am exaggerating, I’ll direct your attention to this post, made in November of last year:
“To All of the Girls: Usually at this time of year you stop making an effort to look nice due to the increasing pressure of imminent exams and the constant onslaught of freshers’ cocks you have taken over the course of the first semester. But this year I am very glad to say that the overall standard has been consistent and incredibly high. I just wanted to mention my appreciation (and I’m sure I’m not alone here) of the eye candy that has helped me through the hard weeks of study so far this year and for the rest of the hard weeks to come!”
Please don’t try to dismiss this post as the exception to the rule. If it was the exception, it would be something to be laughed at, and dismissed. Instead, it is comments like these which are at the crux of this debate.
No matter how much the admins have tried to water down the content to avoid scandal and keep the page running, they cannot control the slew of misogynistic comments posted by their followers, who evidently don’t seem to care about their anonymity as much as the admins of the page think they should. Throughout the page, and especially on the “Spotted:Glasgow uni sexism” page set up to combat it, those who oppose distressing content are variously referred to as “moany feminists”, told to “ grow the fuck up and take the pole out your arse”, and exposed to callous “jokes” like “sorry I couldn’t reply sooner, had to shout at my mum to do the dishes then go beat my wife.” It would take some hefty denial and exhausting mental gymnastics to convince yourself that those concerned for the safety of their fellow students deserve such harassment, especially since the requests of the Isabella Elder Feminist Society have always been calm, reasoned, and more than willing to negotiate. In an email, they wrote “We are not necessarily against Spotted pages in general but feel that the Spotted Library page has repeatedly and consistently posted material that is of a particularly threatening and frightening nature…which isn’t acceptable.” That seems fair enough to me, unless, of course, you disagree that the nature of the posts are threatening or frightening at all. But hang on, didn’t I just showcase the amount of vitriol levelled at women (which “feminist” is clearly synonymous with) on a daily basis? “We don’t believe that people who are continually complicit in making female students feel unwelcome at this university are in any position to critique feminism”, wrote the IEFS secretary. “They only emphasize its need to exist.”
As I’ve said earlier in this piece, it’s not necessarily the concept of a “Spotted” page which is concerning. It’s the way the page has been handled, and the way it’s been used by its contributors, both anonymous and not, which point to a larger problem in student culture country-wide. The fact is that there are young men and women who are grossly misinformed of what constitutes sexism and harassment, who truly believe that they’re not hurting anyone, and that feminists are just oversensitive harpies spoiling the fun for everybody else. The fact is that there are people at this university who are willfully ignorant of the hurt they cause, refuse to educate themselves on even the most basic tenets of human decency, and would rather humiliate and silence anyone who dares call them out on it than even consider the fact that they may be in the wrong. Their education may have failed them as children, but they are now (supposedly) adults who can and should be critical of their own words and actions, and willing to learn rather than stick to childish instincts. This is a university after all, not a playground.
Words – Ruthie Kennedy