Photo by Paul Schlemmer
Every year, incoming freshmen college students dream about an idyllic liberal campus, where everyone recognizes Taylor Swift as a cultural appropriator. A coven of womyn in all-black crop tops, ready to battle the patriarchy and shit on Ernest Hemingway. Once upon a time, the college dream was a reality—some kids even were willing to disagree with their friends during intellectual conversations—but, increasingly, students have found their conversations censored by their most liberal peers: activist-leaning students, who police others' ideas in the name of creating "safe spaces."
Nothing symbolizes the phenomenon better than Cuntry Living, the University of Oxford's most notorious feminist Facebook group. Nearly 11,000 people belong to the digital community. (Some attend, or have attended, Oxford, but others have never even visited the ancient town.) Cuntry Living's page describes it as an "intersectional, sex positive online space in which we can challenge patriarchy and share our experiences of oppression," but its comment section is more confrontational than welcoming. Commenters label articles about the history of the sports bra "cis-sexist," warn other members that the Germans created the term "anti-Semitism" to make Jewish racial slurs sound scientific. The comments have become so notorious in England, someone has created "The Very Best of Cuntry Living" tumblr, which posts the most ridiculous missives without comment.
Cuntry Living wasn't always a hornet's nest of outrage. According to Simon Leahy, the British musician and drag performer behind the gay punk band Bottoms, the term cuntry living originates as English slang."Cunts equal fanny, vagina," Leahy told Broadly. "Usually, [cuntry living is] just used as slang by people from the city who think that [rich people] who live in [the] country are cunts."It's unclear if Cuntry Living's original members know the origin of the phrase (all British women belonging to the group either ignored requests for interviews or declined to comment). According to the Oxford Student, a college newspaper, a group of white cis female Oxford students founded the organization as a feminist zine. Two students, Charlotte Sykes and Georgia Luscombe, served as co-editors.
They intended to create a student-produced magazine for women and men. "Feminism cannot exist in a vacuum of purely women," Sykes told the Oxford Student. "We represent everyone who feels oppressed by patriarchal values. It's great that there are men writing for this issue of Cuntry Living."Where most student publications use InDesign, the girls created their articles by cutting text from magazines and pasting the clippings on new pages to create original stories. The zine looked like a series of ransom letters sent by Patty Hearst, but the publication quickly gained popularity, evolving into the Facebook group, a separate entity."Cuntry Living was a great student magazine that talked about a huge range of familiar feminist battles—sexualization of women in the media, sexual violence, etc—within what's been a bastion of white, male privilege for centuries," Oxford grad Tom Goulding told Broadly. "The Facebook group, designed as a safe space for the magazine's community of writers and readers, became a central forum for female and gender-queer young people to discuss feminism. Being an open group, thousands of members joined over the last few years, with tens of posts every day." The online group currently boasts over 10,000 members.
The Facebook discussions quickly turned into students calling out each other's "privilege." In one recent post, a member asked if she could wear glasses without lenses without being ableist or appropriative. The group reminded her that nearsighted people were victims of historical oppression, because the Khmer Rogue murdered people who wore glasses since they viewed the eyewear as a sign of intellect—hence, wearing glasses when you don't have a vision problem is very, very ableist. One commenter added that the cost of glasses constitutes an oppression at the intersection of ableism and class privilege. At the end of the contentious conversation, the potential glasses owner decided that to wear lensless glasses as a fashion statement would be "disregarding the denigration that that group suffers due to glasses that they can't just switch off like I am able to."
Some students have complained about Cuntry Living's call-out culture spilling off the internet and onto campus. In an article published in the Spectator, conservative blogger Damian Thompson accused members of spying on students during IRL conversations and reporting their "problematic" comments on the Cuntry Living page.
Thomas isn't much of a treasure himself. He discusses "the spirit of Brideshead" and idolizes the seventies as a time when "guys would denounce patriarchy in order to get laid. But they didn't have an internet Stasi to worry about." However, those more liberal than Thomas have echoed his concerns. In an op-ed about her treatment in the group, former Cuntry Living member Louisa Manning said, "Being half Latino, whenever I've become involved with threads discussing race, I've been accused of 'passing privilege' and have been instructed to identify as white when talking to people of color. Needless to say this makes commenting uncomfortable and daunting."Callum Hamilton, a gay Scottish writer in his early 20s, has called out the group for posing as gay friendly and working class, when many members are rich, straight Oxford students."I grew up poor. You always get alienated by idiots in groups like this, because rich people—especially in England—can't tolerate dissent of any kind, so all they do is use it to boost their own egos and have a hissy fit if anyone disagrees with them about anything," Hamilton told Broadly. "They talk about safe spaces, but it's wall to wall with straight guys and girls who call themselves queers and intersectional when their ex-partners look like the staff of a provincial [video game store]. [Cuntry Living is] a safe space for middle-class idiots, not LGBT people."
[Cuntry Living is] a safe space for middle-class idiots, not for LGBT people.
Members have opposed these criticisms, pointing out how, despite the majority of members' backgrounds, the group's main admin, Alyson Cruise, is a trans woman. They say it can be frustrating for admins to educate members with brash opinions. Goulding explained to Broadly in an email, "The central community of relative experts, not surprisingly, occasionally get annoyed at having to do basic education every day. [Our head admin is] a trans woman named Alyson Cruise who seems to be an expert on semiotics in gender politics, [but she can't] explain what cis privilege is to every new member who posts highly simplistic or ill-informed comment."The group's reputation, though, has discouraged students from joining. The Oxford Tab polled 270 students and found that more than half of respondents had never posted in the group. 57 percent of students who had never posted said they refused to contribute to Cuntry Living because they "felt too nervous." The group's remaining members dutifully obey the page's stringent guidelines for acceptable language, allegations of racism, misogyny, and transphobia. The rules seem to have paralyzed some members out of fear of outraging Cuntry Living commenters. A confused member asked the group:
Other members have ignored the culture of fear and paid a price. In April, a female member named Becky Butler took to the page to protest the moderator's decision to ban her male friend because he disagreed with other members."I am completely appalled by the way Cuntry Living currently operates," she wrote. "I have been a very big fan of the group and avidly defended it for sometime, but I find it disappointing now. Whilst I understand that it is a safe space, I have come to think it is counterproductive to feminism, given the plurality of the movement, to ban anyone with a differing opinion."Butler's post received 1000 likes—almost 10 percent of Cuntry Living agreed with her. Despite their support of Butler, few people left the group. When I asked dissenting members for comment, they ignored me, possibly out of fear of retaliation. I had an easier time tracking down people to speak out against the al-Assad regime for a story about a Syrian soap opera star fighting Assad than I did getting people to speak on the record about Cuntry Living. Butler told me she was done speaking about Cuntry Living, but referred me to a blog post about her experiences."When I posted about this in the group itself, the response was overwhelming," Butler wrote. "This suggests that there is a common sentiment: That the group needs to move from a space of exclusion to a space of education and debate. If the group wishes to remain as it is, then I urge people not to conflate the operation of Cuntry Living with feminism as a whole."Additional reporting by Mitchell Sunderland.