Toby Young's “caustic wit” isn’t funny and it sends a terrible message on sexual harassment

Young once wrote about having his “dick” up a colleague’s arse.

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On New Year’s Day, Theresa May made a speech vowing to use the centenary of some women getting the vote as a chance to “eliminate all prejudice and discrimination”.

Hours earlier, it had emerged that the government had appointed Spectator columnist and free school founder Toby Young to its new university regulator, the Office for Students. His appointment has caused controversy — with questions about his suitability for the job ranging from his lack of experience in higher education, to his unpleasant comments about working-class students being “stains” at elite universities, and his seeming mocking of efforts to make schools more inclusive with wheelchair ramps.

However, his appointment has been defended by Boris Johnson — a former editor at The Spectator. Boris is also the brother of Jo Johnson, the minister responsible for giving Young this latest job. He declared that Young’s involvement would bring “caustic wit” to the role — because isn’t the ability to tell a good one-liner exactly what we want from our university regulatory boards?

So what does this caustic wit look like? Is it when Young’s writing about having his “dick” up a colleague’s arse, or is the term wit better used to describe discussing the size of her breasts?

Is it when his tweets congratulate an Oscar-winning director for having a wife with “big knockers”? Perhaps that joke became less funny when another Twitter user pointed out the woman in question was the director’s underage daughter.

Is it wit when Young tweets about the women on Comic Relief, and criticising those women he no longer deems attractive?

How about the LOLs we all had when he wrote a feature about the night he pretended to be a lesbian to try and trick women into snogging him. Maybe Young would accuse me of being a humourless feminist, but sexual contact by deception has never seemed very funny to me.

Toby Young has defended his tweets via a Facebook post, apologising for their ‘sophomoric’ content and claiming he is a supporter of women’s and LGBT rights (although not, it would seem, of teaching LGBT history in school to tackle homophobic bullying). He claims they have been misinterpreted to “paint him as heartless” (which I would disagree with — I’d argue his tweets make him sound sexist not heartless). Further, many of these tweets were recent — they are not from his “sophomoric years” and dug up from a hidden past. They are public statements made over the last few years.

Of course, in normal circumstances perhaps we could brush off these remarks as the ramblings of a boorish columnist who gets paid to be controversial. Young would not be the only journalist who has a different persona online. 

But these aren’t normal circumstances. This is the parachuting of a man who uses his columns and Twitter feed to make nasty and childish comments about women and girls into a role where he’s responsible for student welfare. It’s not defence from his fans that “wit” is a qualifier — this is a deeply serious role. Even if he does not really believe them, his public statements matter. And it’s all happening at a time when Westminster has been rocked by accusations of sexual harassment, and when universities are facing criticism for their failure to handle sexual violence on campus.

Let’s take the first scandal. Over the last few months, Theresa May has repeatedly made commitments to tackle sexual harassment in parliament in response to the multiple accusations against male MPs last autumn. Following the high profile resignations of Michael Fallon and Damian Green, May needs to rebuild women’s trust that she is serious about challenging inappropriate behaviour in Westminster. Young’s appointment does little to reassure that her government cares about women’s equality.

If May is truly serious about ending prejudice in 2018, her government should think twice about offering a job to a man who apparently revels in using his public platform to make discriminatory remarks. 

Then there’s the issue of sexual harassment in universities — which exists between students, and between students and staff. Last year, the Guardian reported that 300 claims against university staff had been made in six years, with that figure believed to be the tip of the iceberg. Sexual harassment and gender based violence is at epidemic levels in UK universities. In 2010, an NUS survey found that seven in 10 students were victims of serious sexual assault or serious physical assault. Meanwhile, a 2016 report by Universities UK found that sexual violence was rife.

Can a man who calls the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations a “moral panic” be trusted to care about the welfare of women students? A man who compares women concerned about harassment to “snowflakes” who “take offence at anything” isn’t going to show much empathy for the serious pressures female students are under not to report sexual harassment and violence within a university setting.

Young’s tweets about women sit alongside his comments about BAME university access and his mocking of efforts to improve inclusivity. If May and her government are truly committed to eliminating prejudice and discrimination, perhaps they could start by swapping this sneering sexist with a feminist who understands both higher education and equality. Women students — women everywhere — deserve nothing less.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.