How have workshops on sexism become a draw for Oxford’s sportiest men? John Garth talks to a founder member of a group that’s rewriting the rules.
By John Garth (St Anne’s College, 1985)
Back in the mid-1980s, a few male Oxford students would gather regularly at Wadham and examine their roles as beneficiaries of patriarchy. There might be confessions to acts of sexism — largely on the level of stolen glances or impulses never even acted out. There were professions aplenty of dedication to feminist progress.
Looking back (yes, I was there), it looks rather sweet, slightly painful, and very off the point. We were hardly the prime perpetrators of sexism, but we had no agenda beyond examining our own consciences. The men most able to change society were probably all out rowing or playing rugby.
Still, perhaps we were in the vanguard. Now Oxford is home to a group which has taken a similar core idea but hammered it into something much more effective. The whole point of Good Lad is ‘getting men in the room who wouldn’t normally engage in this conversation’, says founder member Dave Llewellyn.
Notoriously, sport can be an arena of gross sexism, and Good Lad is reaching out to the University’s sports clubs — not because they have had any particular complaint against them of such behaviour, Dave says, ‘but almost everyone’s observed it in their group or in others.’ Good Lad, as its name implies, aims to reconfigure what ‘lad culture’ can be.
The idea is first pitched to the captain, who has the social capital to engage the team. Once in the workshop, men are encouraged to talk openly and frankly about sexuality, gender and sex. ‘We want to make them more confident to be open and not put on this emotionless and boisterous “man mask” to fit in,’ says Dave.
There is much more to solving the problem than learning what the law forbids, he urges. ‘The law is the minimum standard. It’s not the best thing we could be doing. We want to go beyond that. We call it positive masculinity.’
Sessions mix the light-hearted and the serious, getting the men relaxed and open, then asking them to consider problem scenarios. ‘Several men pass a woman on the street, and one makes a relatively innocuous comment. When there’s no response, another calls something more offensive. The third man — what should he do? He’s not required to do anything by law. But what is the “positive masculinity” thing to do? We also ask what could the team do before anything happened to make this stranger walking down the street feel more comfortable.’
One workshop technique is a survey about an example of sexist behaviour, asking both ‘How appropriate do you think that is?’ and ‘How appropriate do you think your teammates think it is?’ The outcome is striking: ‘Every single person thinks they’re a better guy than their teammates.’ Reporting that result to the entire team helps underline a simple point: sexist behaviour is not actually a way of scoring points with the group.
Private behaviours are addressed as well as group ones. Dave hopes the sessions don’t so much convey a message as lay a foundation of shared conversation on the topic — a precedent that can be repeated under day-to-day social conditions.
Currently 27 years old and working on a start-up in biotechnology, last year Dave completed his doctorate in medical sciences at St John’s, having come to Oxford from Sydney University. (Australian-born Dave notes, with a snort, that he’s been asked if he had a sudden revelation about sexism on arriving in ‘more enlightened’ Oxford.)
He hatched the Good Lad idea with fellow graduate students — ironically, but perhaps fittingly, in a pub. Comprising ten core members mostly in their late twenties (slightly more men than women, in case you’re wondering) and another ten workshop ‘facilitators’, Good Lad has managed to do a great deal of work, particularly with the support of Oxford University Rugby Football Club — this academic year, the group has worked with every Oxford college rugby team and a high proportion of the rowing groups, and hopes to hit a target of 60 workshops.
Dave is delighted with the response so far. ‘Going into a gender workshop is not something that is on the top of the list for most 18- to 21-year-olds, but we’ve had almost 100 per cent positive feedback. They all say, “Wow, that was much better than I expected!” A lot say that they haven’t previously seen men cast as agents of positive change. Some say they’ve really enjoyed learning something about their best mates that they didn’t know.’
Good Lad is now reaching out to Oxfordshire sixth forms and trying a combination of mixed and single-sex workshops. Other schools and universities with no equivalent organisation are expressing an interest too. ‘We want to continue in Oxford and we’re very happy here,’ says Dave. ‘But we’re quite excited about rolling the programme out.’
John Garth is the web editor of Oxford Today, an author and public speaker. Graphic image © Vladgrin, via Shutterstock.