As men we have a responsibility to call out toxic behaviour in male group chats

‘I was as much a victim as I was a perpetrator’

“You don’t want to see what I’ve just been sent.”

Danny looked horrified as he gestured his phone towards me. He’d often told me about the disgusting messages that were sent down the group chat he and his mates (the majority of whom I went to school with) shared, but I could tell this was something different.

He’d just been sent child pornography. His phone started to blow up with messages from the other boys about how fucked up it was that someone had sent it, but amongst the videos of people being torn to shreds by trains and beheaded by terrorists, to me, this latest development seemed like a very horrifying but natural conclusion.

Whether you’ve been the one to post yourself or idly witnessed this kind of content, the truth is that a large percentage of male group chats are often filled with messages that are at best vile and disgusting, and at worst completely illegal. As men, we have a responsibility towards the people who this behaviour inflicts further down the line – our non-white friends, our mothers and sisters, all people, really – to call out this toxic behaviour.

George was recently added to a Whatsapp group with his mates where they’d discuss the usual kind of stuff that you’d find in a boys group chat – football, pints and birds. “At the start, there was the odd rogue comment – calling stuff “gay”, “jew goals” – but it would always get shut down really quickly, and I found there was a big effort in doing that,” he told The Tab. “As a result, the chat has always been really wholesome and there was never any targeted or malicious stuff.

“I think group chats being exposed en masse has made a lot of people in my circle a lot more careful, but clearly not everyone as this is still an issue that seems to occur fairly regularly.”

Indeed, it seems there has been a large shift in group chat etiquette since the likes of the Warwick group chat, where boys sent jokes about raping women on their course to one another. Or how about the Exeter chat, where its participants joked about “n*****s, slaves and p***s? These highly publicised expositions have made men more conscious that their WhatsApp chats can be made public very easily, but has it actually changed their mindsets?

Pete has always been in the popular group of lads, and it’s their antics on nights out and holidays that have often got them into trouble. As you can imagine, their group chats have often been just as hectic. “From the time I was in my first group chat, I found there was huge pressure to try and make someone laugh,” Pete told The Tab. “I would get really anxious or self-conscious if I wasn’t getting as many laughs as others. That in itself completely spirals into something ugly – if you were getting taken the piss out of you then all social boundaries and things you’d say in normal life went completely out the window.”

Finding the environment increasingly competitive, one day Pete decided to tear into a new member of his rugby team. “We have the main group chat as well as a smaller separate group chat for a bunch of lads who have been there for a long time,” Pete told us. “When someone new comes onto the team we’ll always discuss them.

“Recently we had a guy who was quite ‘out there’. I said in the group chat: ‘Who the fuck does this guy think he is? He’s so vocal about being a rugby player on Instagram but he’s shit.’ It turns out he is gay and has received a load of abuse before – he had come from a very challenging background where he was born addicted to heroin, didn’t know his dad, and his mum passed away – yet he had turned his life around. In addition to this, he was dyslexic and had autism.”

Pete was called out by senior members of the club, who had apparently spoken to the new member and knew his history: “They said: ‘That’s not funny. You don’t know what he’s gone through and you haven’t read all of his social media’. And I was like: ‘Fuck, that’s me trying to get a cheap laugh and now I feel hugely embarrassed in front of the group’. A couple of lads said: ‘Mate that’s just not okay.’

“The hierarchy of the group meant that I was constantly looking for these vulnerabilities. I was as much a victim as I was a perpetrator.”

Men like Pete demonstrate that the reform of etiquette can only go so far in stopping group chat toxicity. “Mental health” and the idea that you can negatively affect someone else’s to many seems more like a faraway abstract concept than something that can actually be felt. Speaking with Pete, it seemed as though he had an understanding of mental health as something serious, but couldn’t possibly understand any more than that from a sheer lack of personal experience or introspection.

Many men seem to think that things are getting better because they can discuss mental health and have stopped saying the N-word after George Floyd’s death, but what progress is that if they still partake in hostile and victimising behaviour elsewhere? What good is accepting some wrongs if you can’t alter your broader behaviour? Why does it only make a difference if the victim happens to be open with their past trauma/sexuality/disabilities?

Ultimately, WhatsApp group chats aren’t a place where toxic masculinity is born. The bad stuff is already there, it’s just the platform puts it under a microscope and allows for easier distribution. And that’s a problem that all men have a responsibility to confront when it comes across us.

The Tab’s Do Better campaign is putting a focus on the rising student sexual assault problem. Universities need to do more to support students and the culture around sexual assault needs to change.

If you’ve got a story you’d like to share with us – whether it’s about lack of support from uni, problematic sports socials, assault in lockdown or anything you think needs to be heard, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

Read more from The Tab’s Do Better campaign here:

An expert’s guide on how to support a friend who has been sexually assaulted

Sexual assault reports at UK universities have more than doubled in four years

It’s harder than ever to report sexual assault at uni right now