I CAN’T remember the name of the module that introduced me to the Simbari tribe of Papua New Guinea, but my memory of the tutorial is strikingly vivid. We were gathered in a small room in Glasgow University’s Adam Smith Building when discussion turned to an unpleasant rite of passage.

I was a decade older than most of the other students, so was always happy to accept my role as breaker of awkward silences to help get the discussion going. The tutor wanted to know our thoughts on young boys being forced to perform fellatio on their elders – a practice said to be rooted in the belief that boys must ingest semen in order to properly mature.

To say the other students did not wish to share their thoughts on this topic is an understatement. Such was their total mortification that not one of them uttered a word.

Other classes were less excruciating, but tutors often still struggled to coax students into participating.

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This wasn’t because they hadn’t done the required reading, or had no thoughts about it. Afterwards they would often share their opinions and insights with me, and I’d ask why they didn’t speak up in the tutorial. They told me they feared being judged for saying the wrong thing, especially in relation to discussions about feminism or racism.

They were unconvinced by some of the arguments they were being taught, but lacked the confidence to challenge them.

These experiences significantly pre-date the mainstream emergence of “cancel culture”, which perhaps explains why these students were willing to share their potentially heretical opinions with me. We had no WhatsApp groups or similar digital spaces in which to compare notes on our lectures, so there is also no digital record of any potential thought-crimes.

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Reading about the campus cultures of today, I wonder how much has changed. Do students feel empowered to speak more freely in and out of class, and if their willingness to discuss contentious issues so diminished even further, what is the point of them being at university at all?

Scientist Dr Zoe Hollowood, who chairs the group Liberal Voice for Women, tweeted this week about her conversations with “gender-critical” young women, i.e. those who resist the conflation of gender identity and biological sex.

She wrote: “Perhaps the most poignant question I have been asked … is ‘what was it like when you were at university?’ because I have to tell them ... none of this existed then. We didn’t have to deal with any of this.”

Certainly I don’t remember any reference to gender identity in our modules about feminism. Sex-based stereotypes were critiqued, not submitted as evidence of gendered souls. The scenes that would play out a decade later at Sussex University – from which Professor Kathleen Stock was hounded out for saying that people cannot change sex – were absolutely unthinkable then.

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But perhaps my fellow students’ instincts that they should not risk questioning those in authority about certain social issues was well-founded, and it was me – with my enthusiasm for frank debates about cultural relativism, sexuality and child abuse – who was naive.

An employment tribunal last week found that criminology professor Jo Phoenix was harassed and discriminated against due to her “gender-critical beliefs” while working at the Open University (OU), and that her treatment by the institution amounted to constructive dismissal.

Phoenix, who began her distinguished career at the OU, took a significant pay cut in order to “come home” to the institution in 2016 in the role of Chair in Criminology. Her research areas include prostitution policy and the experience of women in prisons, and it was on the latter topic that in 2020 she gave advice to the UK Parliament about its proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act.

By that stage her views were well known to her colleagues, and also to students who were keen to smear her with the label “transphobic”.

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A scheduled talk at the University of Essex was cancelled after a group threatened to barricade the room where it was to be held. A group of students, that is – although reading the lengthy tribunal judgment it is often difficult to discern much difference between the behaviour of respected senior academics and hot-headed, immature undergraduates.

The judgment documents a campaign against Phoenix and the Gender Critical Research Network she co-founded, and is starkly critical of some of those who appeared as witnesses for the university.

It notes these are people who have been trained in “the methodology of research and presentation of fact and analysis producing argument”, saying therefore “we expected a certain basic level of rigour in presenting the evidence before the employment tribunal. There were some witnesses ... who did not meet this standard.”

The outcome of the tribunal confirms what had previously been established in the case of Forstater v Centre for Global Development – that gender-critical beliefs are “worthy of respect in a democratic society” and that it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of such beliefs.

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To clarify, Phoenix’s beliefs are defined in the judgment as belief “in the immutability and importance of biological sex which comes from the fact that being female is something the claimant has always believed and is core to who she is.” It goes on: “The claimant believes that biological sex is real, that it is important, that a person cannot change their biological sex, and that sex is not to be conflated with gender identity.”

Some may find it staggering that such statements must be framed as “beliefs”, rather than facts that happen to be at odds with the beliefs of mind-body dualists, but legally we are where we are.

The mind boggles when I contemplate how my former fellow students might behave if they were studying for their social science degrees in 2024. Perhaps they would be even less willing to speak up in class. Conversely, perhaps some would be so infused with the zeal of converts that they would be threatening to barricade rooms to keep invited speakers out.

Depressingly, the Phoenix judgment tends to suggest that if they opted for the latter route, there might well be equally zealous members of staff cheering them on.