“Rape culture is prevalent at Durham”: Intersectional Femsoc President Fleur de Bono on being a feminist at university

Read part one here.


Luke Alsford: How important is promoting positive masculinity in trying to address rape culture? I have seen that there is a positive masculinity rep in the society.


Fleur de Bono: I think talking about and promoting positive masculinity is important. I think now with people like Andrew Tate around, we need to be particularly careful about how we’re having those conversations about what actually is healthy masculinity. I think that’s, men being able to talk about their feelings or show sensitivity. I completely could condemn the very harmful and dangerous rhetoric of a lot of online male influencers. I think that some of it is entirely wrong, and I think that is not about positive masculinity. In terms of what we’re doing in Femsoc, given that not many men turn up, it’s very difficult. Why should that be top of our agenda when very, very few men turn up? If more men want to come, then great, let’s have those discussions and create more space and time for that. But that’s not very high up the agenda because not many men are coming so. I think people have to meet us halfway with that. 



LA: What are, then, the burning issues at Durham that your members do want to discuss?


FB: I would say we’re not a crisis management group. Our workshops are just on areas of interest or subjects that members of the exec are particularly knowledgeable about. I did the talk on rape culture and I did the talk on periods. We’ve had talks on class and mental health and neurodiversity, things like that. But our collaborations with other societies are more about pushing an agenda. For example, collaborating with DULC [Durham University Labour Club] and collaborating with Durham University STAR on refugees and the treatment of detained migrant women. A lot of it, though, isn’t just about pressing issues, it’s just about creating a safe and supportive space and promoting feminism and celebrating women and so forth. I set up the society’s first ever brand collaboration, because we’ve never had a corporate sponsor, with Smile Makers, who are a vibrator company. They came in and did a workshop, which was really fun. We also have lots of socials. I think in Durham, it’s really important to have a safe and supportive space, where people can show up and be completely themselves. It’s quite cathartic. Being a feminist is exhausting. Being a student at Durham, when you’re a passionate feminist, is exhausting. So Femsoc is really nice place of respite. 


Durham Intersectional Feminism Society 


LA: Why is it exhausting being a feminist at Durham? 


FB: Because I don’t think that students at Durham are quite as socially conscious as at some other universities. I would say the university is pretty unwilling to engage with students on these sorts of issues. And I would also say that there is a big lad culture at Durham. For example, I do politics and philosophy: the number of seminars which are dominated by the voices of one or two confident men, is really astonishing. The number of intelligent women, who are sitting there silently, because they’re too afraid to speak up and take up the same amount of space is really striking. I think for all of those reasons, and probably many more, it’s exhausting. 



LA: You mentioned at the beginning that a lot of women have imposter syndrome. How do you think it can be tackled that women feel more confident to speak up during the seminars? Is the university doing enough to make seminars an inclusive space?


FB: I would say there’s two things. One is people need to take responsibility and know sometimes when to shut up. For example, the number of seminars I’ve been in, on issues pertaining to gender or race, and where the loudest voices in the rooms hasn’t necessarily been the most relevant one. So, I think people need to ask themselves whether they’re qualified to speak on certain subjects, or whether there might be someone else’s voice which is more important. Also showing respect and listening and not interrupting or asking whether others would like to say something, so that everyone feels able to fully participate. I think also seminar leaders, some do a great job, but some could do a better job of recognizing the inequalities that exist within that space and hopefully therefore making it a more supportive environment for everyone. So that everyone can get the same out of the experience. 



LA: I wanted to follow-up on what you were saying about Durham not always being the best place for feminist voices. There was a fairly recent statistic that fewer than a fifth of young women in the U.K. would call themselves a feminist, why do you think that is? What is going wrong?


FB: I don’t think that’s a failure on the part of feminism. I think that’s a failure on the part of people who are perhaps scared of using a label, or haven’t taken the time to fully understand what it means and therefore they’re shying away from associating with that term. I don’t think that’s a problem with feminism, though. I find it quite frustrating sometimes, when people phrase it as though it might be, I’m not saying you are, but it’s a bit like when people talk about MeToo. They ask, “Has MeToo been successful?” Of course MeToo has been successful, it’s achieved something. But, it’s about a willingness on the part of other people to take it further and learn and so forth. 



LA: Who do you think is responsible for young women being unwilling to adopt the label of feminism? Would you ascribe it to the media, which often happens, or the influence of figures such as Andrew Tate?


FB: If you’re going to play the blame game, there are so many different people you could blame. You could blame parents or schools or the media or the government, or other structures. But I think ultimately, it comes down to the individual and I think it comes down to a willingness to learn and to be open-minded. A huge part of feminism is unlearning the things that you might have been taught when you were younger, or the things that society has taught you. As a feminist, I’m unlearning things all the time. Individual responsibility is really important. 



LA: Could Durham University do more to help with this unlearning process and run more workshops?


FB: Yes, I think there is loads the university could do. I don’t see them doing it anytime soon, because they’ve showed no interest so far. There is a problem, for example, that many courses do not contain enough women, there’s not a strong enough representation of female academics. Or you’ll get one lecture on women in X, but it will always be at the end of the course, and often there seems to be strikes by the end of the course, so we never really get around to it. There is the consent awareness course, that was good, but it was frankly the bare minimum. That should be ongoing and I think there should be those kinds of compulsory courses every year. I would really like to see society leaders and in particular members of sports teams taking part in workshops on consent and being an active bystander and an active upstander so that people are looking out for each other more. I think it’s exhausting, how often people try and shift individual responsibility onto alcohol, I think people get that discussion wrong a lot of the time, especially when we’re talking about sexual violence and assault. But I do think that there’s a strong drinking culture at Durham, which doesn’t help. 



LA: We discussed the protests around accommodation costs, and with the spiking incidents students came together with the boycott. Do you have hope that women and all Durham students can come together and deal with some of these issues around rape culture?


FB: I do, but what I will say, though, and I don’t want to be really pessimistic and negative in this whole interview, but I do think that there’s a small proportion of students who are really active and really engaged and are doing all of the heavy lifting. So, I think what we need is a critical mass. We need more people to make it their problem. I think again, there’s a lot of privilege. That’s why maybe it’s harder to get that traction at Durham, than at other universities. I think if 20% of students decided to get more engaged, then that would make a massive difference. I think there’s a large proportion of students who have buried their head in the sand or just don’t feel they need to engage, because it’s not their issue. 


Image: Chloe Simpson on Unsplash

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