Overheard at Durham Uni: A Sinister Eavesdropping Experience

Often, despite the brilliant efforts of student and staff leaders to combat discrimination, it can be easy to lose touch with the depth of improvement that still has to be made on our campus (and in society more widely). It’s very easy to fall into groups of friends and professionals who share your values, so the nastiness we’ve all experienced becomes a little bit more distant. However, the ugly head of prejudice reared itself for me as a reminder of why we need to redouble our efforts to make campus safer.

I started my day yesterday in a good mood; I had gotten a visit to the doctor out of the way in the morning and I had a conference run by the Careers Centre waiting for me in the afternoon. I had a few hours to kill in the interim, so I dutifully went to spend time in one of my favourite cafe haunts to get through some seminar reading and have some breakfast. As I began to browse the menu to order, a group of male students took up the table next to me.

Granted, I’m a serial eavesdropper and love to people-watch. But this was hard to not to overhear.

A group of what you might describe as stereotypical ‘Jack-the-Lads’ started their meal out innocuous enough with the expected banter about lectures, friends and future careers. My ears pricked up however when I heard the conversation switch to how the perfect night consists of ‘a beer and a blowie’ as well as some women they could expect this from. They pricked up further when, off the back of this conversation, they began to joke about a female friend they know and how they would like her boyfriend to get run over (the implication so they could attempt to pursue sex with her). I didn’t get this friend’s real name, as she was known unanimously by a nickname – one that I won’t reveal in case of identification, but one that equated her with a quality of her physical appearance.

They went on, getting rowdier. Some left and more turned up. A lull in the conversation was then reanimated by the question: ‘How many Jew jokes do you make in a week?’ which elicited a variety of answers. Possibly aware of their audience, one of the men accused of making them regularly tried to shrug off the suggestion, to which the questioner tried to reassure him: telling him ‘we made them all the time at school, but now you get destroyed for it here. Though some people still love it’.

To me, it was if this group of young men had taken that portion of the restaurant hostage. I could see people around could hear what they were saying; all were uncomfortable. I observed the waiters and waitresses quietly collecting the table’s used plates and bringing them their orders, a fraction as conversational and friendly as they were with me and other tables. As I went to sit back down after ordering, one of them looked me up and down in a way that can only be described as sinister and suggestive. When they left, I almost felt that the other occupants of the restaurant breathed a collective sigh of relief. But part of the problem was that, appalled as we were at them, I think many surrounding tables were reluctant to do anything as we were mostly small groups of or single women. Very close to them and alone as I was, I know I was too hesitant to confront this table of between six and ten broad men. I decided instead to write this article.

The fact that any group of students would make these comments at all, let alone in public, is a true indictment. I admire and feel indebted to all those staff and students already who work to make our campus as safe and accepting a sphere as possible – there are many of them, true credits to our community. But we must keep moving. This was a sharp reminder that reform is far from over.

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