The contours of toxic “lad culture” need to be understood

“Lad culture” perpetuates the patriarchy and negatively affects the mental health of men

Illustration by Maha Sultan

The ongoing trial of Ulster rugby players charged with the alleged rape of a nineteen-year-old woman has captured the public’s attention in recent weeks, with the graphic details making the case a difficult and stomach-turning read for many. Regardless of the verdict, the case has raised some concerning items of discussion that have dominated commentary across media platforms.

The Whatsapp messages exchanged between two of the accused players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, shocked members of the public when they were revealed two weeks ago. As reported in The Irish Times, Mr Olding said in the texts, “we are all top shaggers,” while in another he said, “there was a bit of spit roasting going on last night fellas”. Describing the sexual escapades as “a merry-go-round at a carnival” put the players’ attitudes towards women under public scrutiny.

The crude misogynistic nature of these texts may be surprising to many, but the harsh reality is that these kinds of texts are not uncommon in today’s typical “lad” group chat environments. Objectification of women remains acceptable within the realm of this “lad culture” – the same realm that permits casual homophobic and racist slurs. This language use begins in the early teens, in secondary schools and sports clubs, and it is the language that breeds the negative attitudes.

Many men will mature, develop their emotional intelligence and sensibilities, and leave behind such behaviour. But some remain boys, who can at best be considered immature, but at their worst are discriminatory, and provide an insight into the patriarchy’s reach. If men are using such language, we can only imagine what their actions might entail.

It’s important to preface this by saying that this is not an attack on lad culture itself. Male friend groups are an essential source of friendship, entertainment, and support. I have experienced first-hand the benefits that come from the comradery of sports clubs and societies. They are a positive, valuable, and essential element of many of our lives.

However, it is high time to admit that certain elements of “lad culture” are incredibly toxic and damaging to a large number of people. A group deeply affected by these elements are men themselves. On the one hand, lad culture continues to offend, and to perpetuate discriminatory attitudes, in a modern world in which there is no place for such behaviour. On the other hand, lad culture continues to reject and discourage discussion of emotions amongst men, and high male suicide rates reflect the sad reality of the effect of such stigma and the resulting “bottling up” of emotion that characterises the male experience of mental health issues.

It’s difficult to identify the root of the deeply prejudiced elements of some aspects of lad culture. Tradition can certainly be blamed. For decades, it has been accepted, almost expected, that men will behave a certain way. It is accepted and expected that men will be more confident, louder, and in command, whereas women are encouraged to remain docile and appealing.

It’s been accepted that men will sometimes objectify women through language and behave inappropriately. It’s acceptable, between men, to make racist jokes and use homophobic slurs. Some call it “locker room talk,” some say “boys will be boys”. The point is, it’s accepted, it’s enabled, and it continues to occur. This is the status quo, this is the norm.

A dramatic shift in attitudes and behaviours needs to happen lest we continue to perpetuate this backwards, ignorant and incredibly outdated behaviour. I despair internally when I hear someone use the word “faggot” in a joke, and for them to receive laughs from all the men in the room. How low is the bar for humour today that we continue to revert to offensive slurs to get a few laughs? Simply put, how difficult is it not to say “faggot”? To make a different joke?

It doesn’t make you somehow “less of a man” to simply not use homophobic or racist slurs. It doesn’t make you somehow less of a man to simply appreciate women, as opposed to constantly degrading and objectifying them. There are millions of jokes, discussion topics or simply words in existence that are non-discriminatory to be used at your disposal. It is time to grow up, and use them.

Today’s world is becoming more progressive and inclusive, by and large: same-sex marriage is legal, women and people of colour are beginning to become more empowered, and blatant discrimination is less tolerated. it is technically illegal to discriminate in the workplace, in shops or on the streets. The backlash against the Weinstein revelations, and the #MeToo movement, highlight the desire for change from both men and women. This begs the question: why do many continue to tolerate such attitudes in the “private circles” of our lives?

The #MeToo movement saw women becoming empowered and being given the space and means to adequately talk about issues of sexual harassment. Social interactions in the workplace once seen as routine are being reassessed, and discourse around femininity and masculinity is changing, with calls for a shift in how we educate and socialise men and boys. A good place to start implementing change in everyday life is to rethink what language you and your peers use and how this reflects on how you view women’s place in the world, as well as your own.

Discriminatory language breeds discriminatory attitudes, and so by tackling the language and “banter” that lad culture normalises, there is some hope for positive change. It is time for “lads” to do some reflection. There is no place and no excuse for ignorance and discriminatory humour in today’s society. It says so much about a male who considers such behaviour to be acceptable, but it is concerning how common that acceptance is.

Lad culture in Ireland remains firmly rooted in the past. Old-fashioned attitudes prevail, and it has a huge negative impact in terms of male mental health. Men still feel alienated and unable to discuss their mental health openly. Male suicide rates are on the rise, and nothing in our culture is changing to prevent it happening. This is a perfect time to re-examine lad culture, and leave the negative and outdated elements behind.

Hugh Whelan

Hugh Whelan is the current Comment Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister English Literature and Film Studies student.