Last week, students at York University staged a walkout from the sexual consent classes organised by their student union women’s officers. A quarter of the freshers decided they didn’t want to be lectured to by union worthies about when it’s OK to have sex. So they got up and left.
‘These talks are inherently patronising of both genders,’ said Ben Froughi, a third year accounting student at York, who had stirred up sex class dissent by handing out leaflets telling students the classes were optional and they didn’t have to attend.
But sex consent classes are mandatory at some universities, including Cambridge and Oxford. Young people are being chaperoned through the minefield of sexuality, often against their will. Union officials make out ‘as if they are more enlightened’, says George Lawlor. He is another revolter: a 20 year old politics student at Warwick who caused a media stink last year when he published an article about why he didn’t need consent classes, with a photograph of him holding a sign that read: ‘This is not what a rapist looks like.’ Lawlor tells me he was ‘crucified in the media’ for taking on the censorious campus naggers — ‘but I survived’. Other students will survive too if they stand up to the PC tyrants, he says.
Something dramatic is happening on campuses. Two years ago, in this magazine, I wrote about the rise of the Stepford Students. These are the student leaders who might look and sound rad — all dyed hair and blather about ‘intersectionality’ — but who are really just officious meddlers in the lives of others. Whether they’re banning sombreros because they’re offensive to Latinos or No Platforming right wingers and off message feminists, these student officials strangle debate, and have tried to turn campuses from hotbeds of social and intellectual interaction into starched ‘safe spaces’.
Brendan O'Neill and Siobhan Fenton discuss these 'counter-Stepfords' on the podcast
Now, however, a counter Stepford rebellion is stirring. Students are sick of being patronised, so they are shooting down this PC creed. They aren’t hurling Molotov cocktails or staging sit ins, as students of old did — they’re setting up free speech societies, boycotting patronising lifestyle lectures and, most strikingly, voting to get the hell out of the suffocating grip of the National Union for Students. These Students for Sanity, as I call them, are reclaiming their rights.
Following the election of Malia Bouattia as NUS president in April, students around the country have called into question the entire legitimacy of the NUS and what they view as its undemocratic writ over student life. Bouattia is famously batty. In 2014, when she was the NUS black students’ officer, she refused to back a motion condemning Islamic State, claiming that anti Isis sentiment is used to stir up ‘blatant Islamophobia’. Her bluster about the ‘Zionist led media’ has got some students wondering if she’s a conspiracy nut, and possibly prejudiced. For many students, Bouattia’s rise to the top of the NUS confirms this outfit is more interested in pushing potty political lines than in fighting for students’ rights.
In May, the student union at Lincoln University became the first to jump the NUS ship: 881 students voted leave, against 804 for remain. They were followed by Newcastle’s SU, where 67 per cent of the 1,469 students who voted wanted out of the NUS. Loughborough has left, as has Hull, where NUS sceptics campaigned under the brilliant slogan ‘NUS? Hull no!’ and convinced a large majority of student voters to vote leave.
The new academic year has kicked off with more anti NUS revolts. ‘NUS sceptics’ at Queen Mary’s London, Aberystwyth and Bristol are agitating to leave. ‘The NUS is long past its use by date,’ says Conrad Young, a 21 year old ancient history student heading the leave campaign at Bristol. ‘It refuses to reform and seems to have a dangerous distaste for democracy.’
The NUS is facing its greatest ever crisis. And it isn’t all about Bouattia. NUS officials cynically depict the student thirst for disaffiliation as an angry, white, possibly Islamophobic reaction against the election of the NUS’s first Muslim president. But those campaigning against the NUS insist theirs is an uprising not against a woman with weird views, but against the paternalism and Stepford mentality of the whole organisation.
An Exeter masters’ student who agitated hard for disaffiliation tells me this isn’t an ‘anti Malia’ movement — it’s a revolt against the ‘undemocratic and unrepresentative nature of the NUS’ and its ‘desire to stifle “problematic” viewpoints’. The Exeter rebels lost by the narrowest of margins: in their May referendum 2,546 students voted leave and 2,690 voted remain. Sophia Bryant, a Warwick politics undergrad fighting for disaffiliation, says ‘none of this is about [Bouattia]’. It’s about democracy and free speech.
She slams the NUS for its repeated refusal to adopt a one member one vote system, which means its leaders are fantastically unrepresentative: the number of delegates to the NUS conference who voted for Bouattia make up a measly 0.005 per cent of all students, making Bouattia’s mandate over campus life about as convincing as Kim Jong un’s over North Korea. Bryant says she’s had enough of the NUS ‘dictating who can and can’t speak, what should and shouldn’t be banned’.
Before the disaffiliation campaigns there was the free speech fightback. Over the past year, students around Britain have waged a war of words on the most poisonous part of the Stepford outlook: the idea that universities should be ‘safe spaces’ free of controversial or scurrilous ideas. Students at Oxford, the LSE, Leeds, Queen Mary’s, Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Manchester, Edinburgh, Portsmouth and York have set up free speech societies with the express aim of overthrowing NUS censorship and allowing students to think what they like and say what they think.
Student union bans have become an epidemic. University speakers, from far right blowhards to trans sceptical feminists like Julie Bindel, have been branded ‘offensive’ and found themselves No Platformed. Get togethers are banned if they involve ‘ cultural appropriation’ — fancy dress, essentially. Student officials at Cambridge called off an ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ party fearing that some of the costumes might be racially offensive. Union bores at the University of East Anglia stopped a Mexican restaurant from handing out sombreros to students, claiming it was racist.
More than 20 per cent of student unions have set up ‘safe spaces’: a cute sounding euphemism for censorship zones in which certain things can’t be said, certain newspapers can’t be read, and certain hand signals can’t be made. At Edinburgh earlier this year, a student was found to be in violation of the safe space policy when she raised her hand in an ‘inappropriate’ way during a meeting. Things are so bad that politicians now condemn students for being illiberal. Surely it should be the other way round? Last month Theresa May ridiculed ‘safe spaces’, insisting universities must be ‘places where there can be open debate’.
Do not be afraid, Mrs May. Britain’s campus contrarians are fighting for their liberty. ‘We don’t want to live in a safe space bubble,’ say the students who set up a speakeasy at the LSE in January this year. The LSE is one of the most censorious campuses in Britain. In 2014, student officials there disbanded the rugby club for a year for the crime of handing out an offensive flyer for a party (it used the word ‘mingers’). They made the rugby boys undergo a re education programme and appear in public holding signs that said ‘A good lad frees himself of gender stereotypes’, like something out of Mao’s China. LSE’s speakeasy rebels aren’t standing for it. ‘We want to encourage discussion of difficult ideas as opposed to closing down debate,’ they’ve said.
At Aberystwyth University, a movement called Students Against Censorship (SAC) this year overturned the Union’s ban on selling the Sun, the Express and the Daily Star on campus. In 2013, a union motion that could have been penned by Mary Whitehouse, titled ‘Boobs are not News’, banned the sale of these papers; SAC demanded a referendum and won by 364 votes.
Charlie Peters, a first year philosophy student at Edinburgh who is part of a band of liberal students standing up to censorship, says the tide is turning: ‘The anti Stepfords have often been a silent majority, but we’re now seeing a real surge in students coming out and saying, “Hang on, this is bollocks.” ’
The Students for Sanity aren’t only irritated by the NUS’s crackdown on the liberty to think but also by its meddling in students’ personal lives. Many student unions have policies governing ‘banter’. Some forbid the making of ‘sexual noises’ in bars. Others have banned adverts for pub crawls: they ‘promote binge drinking and unruly behaviour’, in the words of the Aberystwyth SU. ‘Student leaders are attacking the things that make university fun,’ says Peters. ‘[They] used to fight for your right to party; nowadays they’re nothing more than badly dressed conservative politicians.’
More open minded students sense a shift, which also seems to be happening in the US, where many of these nutty ideas stem from. In August, John Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, sent a letter to freshers telling them to brace for offence. ‘[We] do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,’ he said. We need academics in Britain to speak out against the small but noisy mob who have made campuses such illiberal places.
In recent years, the NUS has become the very thing it might once have agitated against. Where student leaders once demanded greater freedom of thought and an end to the idea that universities should coddle students, now they limit free speech, moan about student debauchery and police everything from how students party to how they have sex. Student officials have become ‘The Man’; the authority figure they once hated. The real radicals are waging war against the NUS. It is these counter Stepfords who carry the liberal flame.