Notes From a First Year Student: Researching Sexual Violence, and ‘Lad’ and Fraternal Culture within Universities

I often think back to the countless conversations with female friends, family members and colleagues who all attest to having encountered ‘lad’ culture during their time at university. These experiences were multifaceted, differing entirely from person to person and complex in their make-up. The casual sexist jokes, the subtle (but constant) rape supportive attitudes and the deeply normalised unwanted groping – all of which masquerade under the frankly exasperating term ‘banter’ – are just a few of the occurrences that I myself have observed.

It was hearing these first-hand stories and honest reflections alongside my discovery of the ever-growing literature in this area, which spurred my interest in the topic. I wondered why these experiences were so often university-specific? I was curious as to the way that these acts were so heavily bound within the masculinities of the British ‘lad’ and the American ‘frat bro’. Through my reading, I became certain that if we are to examine the sexual, physical and verbal harassment directed at women at university, we must must have a discussion of how power, privilege and the culture of these exclusive masculinities all interlink to exist along these acts of violence.  In the same vein, I realised the importance of understanding how it is not only sexism that is at play here. The experiences of sexual, physical and verbal violence as well as those of ‘lad’ and fraternal culture will undoubtedly differ between individuals. So we must consider, acknowledge and shed light on how these student experiences intersect along and across social identities of race, class, sexual orientation, nationality, physical and mental illness, as well as many others. After all, to quote Audre Lorde: “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” (1982).

I suppose the above paragraph outlines my thought process regarding my PhD research topic. At present it may be somewhat abstract – no doubt because I have been a PhD student for a fresh four months! Nonetheless, I feel strongly that this area deserves more attention. Through university funding for projects of this nature not only will the public recognise that sexual violence is unacceptable and the narrative of masculinity that is present at university is potentially damaging but similarly, a conversation will be generated with politicians and policymakers that can bring about much needed change. I hope to embark on a project that compares the cultural and socially contextual similarities of two, perhaps institutionalised, practices of masculinities in the UK and U.S. – ‘lads’ and ‘frat bros’ – to discover how these subcultures can link to sexual violence at university in both countries. I plan  to do so by engaging directly with female and male students, to bring about an experience and reflection-based conversation.

On some reflection of my own, during an orientation seminar, my PhD cohort was asked why we wanted to embark on this level of study. Naturally, each person had their own response specific to their interests but I noticed a common theme in everyone’s reasons. Not only did each person mention how they cared deeply about their topic but many were motivated by a desire to bring about change, whether  by raising awareness, filling a gap and contributing generally to a topic area or by bettering a certain situation through research – myself included. Although this is a tall order indeed, one I am unsure I can will be possible to fulfill right now, I am excited and grateful that I have the opportunity to research an area I feel wholly dedicated to.

There will certainly be moments where I am not as positive and no doubt this course of study will be difficult. But, during those moments perhaps I will come back to this post, to reminisce on how I felt when I first started and to remind myself to keep going. If this fails to elicit elicit the desired response, a quick peruse of the twitter account @AcademicsSay will be sure to lighten my mood in the tough moments – I advise all fellow PhD-ers who need to lessen the study-burden to do the same, you won’t be disappointed!  

By Chiara Cooper

Chiara is a first year PhD student in the School of Law at The University of Edinburgh. Her thesis will take a criminological and sociological approach to explore how ‘lad’ and fraternal culture at universities in the U.K. and U.S. can link to sexual violence against female students.


Audre Lorde (1984) Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, Berkley.

Crenshaw, K (1989) Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum.

Fisher, B.C, Cullen, F.T and Turner, M.G (2000) The Sexual Victimisation of College Women. U.S Department of Justice, Research Report.

NUS (2010) That’s What She Said: Women Students’ Experiences of ‘Lad Culture’ in Higher Education. National Union of Students, University of Sussex.

Phipps, A (2015) (Re)Theorising Laddish Masculinities in Higher Education. Taylor Francis.

Sanday, P.R (1990) Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus. New York.

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