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Depressing evidence of anti-women attitudes

Young men going to Cambridge University may soon find themselves attending not just lectures, seminars and tutorials, but also sessions called "consent classes".

Shocked by the results of a recent survey of women students in which 8% said they were sexually assaulted and almost half had been groped or touched without their say-so, 15 colleges have agreed to hold these workshops during the autumn term.

How depressing that some of the brightest teenagers in the country need to be formally instructed in the difference between acceptable sexual advances and harassment, or worse. But if only it were a blight confined to Cambridge. In her recent BBC documentary about misogyny, Kirsty Wark highlighted the gross sexism found at Stirling University, where in one instance members of its male hockey team sang a deeply offensive and violent song about women while travelling on a public bus.

Lest we dismiss such pranks as the natural antics of the young male at his most priapic, or blame a lack of judgment on the testosterone sloshing around the teenage body, the recent mortification of Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore is instructive. The high-flying businessman, reputed to have helped make the Premier League's fortunes, has been humiliated by a former secretary who has leaked a series of toe-curling emails he sent. In these, Scudamore refers to women in derogatory terms, revealing a puerile outlook towards womankind and sex in general that makes him look simultaneously like a slavering adolescent and a sleazy old man.

Again, if only he was an isolated example, or a case one could dismiss as irrelevant. But I believe Scudamore's exchanges point directly to the source of much of the laddishness that is escalating in this supposedly civilised, post-feminist age.

Football culture is the petri dish of sexism, the place where undesirable attitudes are allowed to breed like bacteria. Confirming this suspicion was Heather Rabbatts, an independent board member of the Football Association, who said Scudamore's comments revealed "growing evidence of a closed culture of sexism".

Last year, Radio Scotland's presenter Tam Cowan gave another glimpse of the anti-women bias in the football world with his throwaway jibes in a newspaper column about women footballers. Meanwhile, in an otherwise enlightened pub, I have heard men say they have nothing whatsoever against women's football, so long as they forego wearing strips.

It's a mild joke, but it's symptomatic too of the lack of respect women receive, be it in sport or elsewhere. Women are merely objects, of desire or derision, and sometimes both at once. Like Cowan, sports presenter John Inverdale evinced the sort of prejudices held even in the allegedly PC environs of the Beeb when he commented disparagingly on French tennis player Marion Bartoli's looks. And yet he continues to flourish. As does Cowan, though I trust the BBC notes my turning off the dial whenever he has the microphone.

Football commentary is listened to nationwide, by men and boys, and increasingly by women and girls. Aired to millions, it ought to be as sophisticated as the interval chat during a Radio 3 recital from the Wigmore Hall. It is where standards should be set, not just those of sporting analysis but of social attitudes too. After all, this sport is the lingua franca of most British men, from the moment they can say "mummy" till they reach the care home. It is the glue that binds friends and the icebreaker with strangers, and its influence, for good or ill, is extraordinary. Thus the laddishness fostered at the top table of the Premier League, and tolerated on football terraces or in front of the screen, percolates through all ranks of class, and into all professions and workplaces.

Such throwaway sexism fuels a culture of misogyny, which in turn can escalate. Tolerance of low-grade laddishness is an indicator of an ugly climate of disdain and contempt for women. It fosters domestic abuse, rape, and the sorts of degrading and criminal behaviour certain celebrities have thought they could get away with over decades. The roots of sexism go far beyond football, of course. But if that one pernicious source of prejudice transformed overnight, so too would society.

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