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In Defence of 'Lads'

Being a misogynist doesn't make you a "lad" – it just makes you a prick.

Photo from ​A Big Night Out with... Britain's Biggest Lads? by Kieran Cudlip

​You should know, in the interests of full disclosure, that I am an awful nerd. An awful, appalling nerd. I once went to the gym and struggled to lift the bar that you put the weights on. When there is a pub quiz question about Star Wars, my teammates turn in unison to me. That's how much of an awful nerd I am: I am the worst one out of a group of people who willingly spend their Tuesday at a pub quiz.

This means that, ostensibly, I am not a lad. I have never, for example, worn a vest. Even for one second. I don't have any tribal tattoos embedded deep and black in my pecs like some sort of inky skin bra. I have never been to Zante. I have never sincerely asked someone to smell my fingers. I have never got my arsecheeks out for a nightclub photo opportunity, and if I did get mine out, it would be pale and lightly haired – like an omelette dropped in a barbershop, just as god intended – and not tanned and waxed. None of my friends have a nickname for me that is either my first name with an "-o" affixed to it – Joelo, Joelio – or a truncated version of my surname – Golbs, Golbinho. I am not a lad.

Which is good, for me, because lads are getting a bad rap at the moment. There are the lads of the London School of Economics, ​whose rugby club was disbanded and all of them given banter workshops after distributing incredibly, incredibly sexist literature – like, "hold the bridge of your nose and just mutter 'fucking hell' about it" literature – at a fresher's event in September. There was ​Magaluf Girl and the lad blowjob marathons in Spain. And then there is ​Dapper Laughs – the LADfather, the character comedian who forgot to be either a character or a comedian, the nearest thing date rapists have to a Pope – who this week swapped his River Island T-shirts for a muted turtleneck to ​renounce his own name on Newsnight. Rest in peaceLAD.

The thread running through all of these cases, cases in which lads have been punished for their lad antics, is simple misogyny. It's probably important to make a quick note here: I am not pro-misogyny. I do not spend my evenings taking up residence on a balcony and shouting moistness assessments of various passing women through a megaphone. This feels like a clarification worth making. I'm not about to say, "Actually, street harassment is alright in my book." I'm not like: "What exactly is wrong with howling at women out of a van and then driving off laughing? If I've got the van and you've got the ass to shout at, why the hell not?" No. This is not what I'm saying or about to say.

But I do think it's time to assess what we truly mean when we use the catch-all term "lad".

In recent months the concept of the lad has been repainted, airbrushed into some sort of monstrous caricature: as though every dude in his early twenties is on some sort of constant arm-swinging fingering campaign

It might just be a case of linguistics, but in recent months the concept of the lad has been repainted, airbrushed into some sort of monstrous caricature: as though every dude in his early twenties is on some sort of constant arm-swinging fingering campaign; every guy who waxes his eyebrows has a Rohypnol nestled in his wallet next to a tired old chocolate-flavoured condom; that every single man with those rosary bead necklaces from Topman says the word "minge" at least twice per minute and has a delicate collage of Nuts centrefolds fanned out in a vista above his bed.

I remember lads the first time round, because lads aren't new. Depending on who you ask, lads were either invented in the '90s, when Liam Gallagher did a lager piss on one of his parkas and a lad came out, or Scotland. For some reason, when the topic of lad etymology comes about, there is always a Scottish dude sat in the corner – even if he wasn't there before, but there's a clap of thunder and somehow he's present, in a LADS ON TOUR ZANTE '08 vest, going, "Ach, we've been calling boys 'laddie' for longer than anyone in England has had pubes." If you want lads so much, Scotland, fine: you invented lads.

But the point is that lads are nothing new. If I'm remembering the 90s correctly, everyone walked around in a bucket hat and that grey Euro '96 England strip, and said "Ulrika Jonsson" and "Gazza!" a lot, had a copy of Loaded about their person at all times, and a tattoo of some barbed wire around their arm, and they were constantly on ecstasy. I mean, I was a kid, but I'm pretty sure that's how it went.

Photo by Kieran Cudlip. It's of a guy with his own face tattooed onto his arse.

Lads sort of went quiet in the early noughties, compared to now, when they are roaring. They rumbled back to life in the past couple years at universities and colleges, where UniLAD and shit banter reigns supreme. And there is a lot to be said for the argument that supposedly smart, savvy 18-year-olds should know better than to turn into howling, awful sexists when presented with a £1-a-pint bar at a Fresher's Week.

But there's another side to university lad culture, and it is pretty simple: when you're away from home for the first time and landed in the company of strangers, the quickest way to make friends is by sinking into a sort of cultural shorthand, a quick way of saying, "It's alright, chap, I'm sound as fuck mate." It's like how sad dads at barbeques always end up talking in some vague way about football: blokes are extremely crap at making friends, and the base pool of topics they can feasibly talk to a stranger about are extremely small, so if you can get people on side by showing them a video on your phone of you puking in a pint glass, then you take what you can get. I'm not saying the ladification of university campuses is a good thing, but I am saying I kind of understand how it has happened. It's a clique that is extremely easy to join. The entry bar is, "Do you like describing things as being 'sound'? Sound."

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A few months ago I went to the pub in a daggy-ass jumper and a satchel, looking for all the world like I actually enjoyed reading poetry. I sat down and was immediately embraced by a group of nearby lads. They tacked me onto their rounds, talked to me about football and then moved it carefully onto their territory to slowly explain to me the concept of rugby; they admitted they felt bad flirting with other girls and enjoyed spending the weekends with their girlfriends; they told me touring Europe with their uni team was one of the best experiences they'd ever had. We talked about crisp flavours for a bit. We spoke in a way two alien social groups do when there's no aggression or friction, just a quiet seeking of some common ground, some vague lingua franca with which to communicate. At the end of the night I left with a promise to look them up on Facebook and an invite to a game at Twickenham. I didn't go because: rugby. But the point still stands.

Does a group of six lads being nice to a nerd once suddenly excuse years of sloping, high-piled misogyny? No. Lads have always been alien to me because I'm not very good at lifting large objects above my head and I can't call someone "chap" without sounding like I'm taking the piss. But the incident reminded me of similar ones in my school days, when I was a fat kid who looked sort of like a miserable shaved teddybear, and the divide I felt with the groups of hard boys who had Adidas trackies and knew how to smoke and had already, at the tender age of 13, achieved tops.

They are all in town, still, doing their decorating jobs or working as mid-level call centre types, or they work in Burtons almost exclusively so they can use the staff discount in Burtons, and they spend their weekends in Barracuda bars talking about the intricacies of Chris Smalling's defensive game, and they go out and they get pissed at night, and they hold each others' arms so they don't fall over in the gutter, and they break up fights and they get chips on the way home, and then they go for a roast with their family the next day in a shirt buttoned all the way up to the collar, and they are lads. They were lads before Dapper and they will be lads after Dapper. They transcend him and they birthed him.

The oft-cited danger in every Dapper Laughs being allowed to push a laddish agenda on TV still is that his antics will be parroted and copied by a generation of lads who think that street harassment is hilarious. It's clear that ITV responded to that by condemning him and yanking him from the air, and I dig that it's hard for me to fully process that danger because nobody has ever yelled "HE KNOWS" at me as I rocked down to the shop for a Twix. 

But in assuming that, you're also assuming that anyone who identifies as a lad or fits the mould of what it is to be one is utterly incapable of their own free will and thought. The subtext is: lads are stupid, and cannot be trusted with the entertainment they enjoy. And in using the term "lad" as a shorthand for sexism – even, at times, as a synonym for "rapist" – we're sort of ignoring the fact being one doesn't necessarily make you the other. It's true too that sexism is absolutely everywhere, at every single moment of every second of every day. It's not just dickheads who drink vodka-soda-lime on a night out who are cultivating it.

Personally, I think Dapper Laughs could have been forged anew as a force for good under the strict eye of ITV PR – sort of like an educational video for would-be rapists, disguised as entertainment. Instead, and understandably, he had to die. But so should the catch-all pejorative "lad". 

Think of it like this: English is a rich, diverse, beautiful language, constantly evolving. And you can use it to call people a prick with. Or a shitheel. Fuckgobble. Dickslice. Turdsinker. Try it: "That rugby team are a bunch of handfuckers." Or: "Yeah, good walk home. A group of men shouted at me but I just figure they're all wound up from forgetting the order of numbers you have to type to make '8008135' show up on a calculator." 

We're losing sight of the fact that, if you repeat Dapper Laughs catchphrases in the street, you're not a lad, you're just a prick. So let pricks be pricks. Let lads be lads.

​ @joelgolby

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