We all have our own reasons for coming to study at university; getting a degree, making friends, having independence…but none of us come to be assaulted or harassed. ‘Rape culture’ has become a vast part of the university experience, in spite of the fact that none of us sign up for it. Unfortunately, the National Union of Student’s (NUS) 2019 report on Sexual Violence in Further Education reveals some unacceptable statistics. Unacceptable, but for many, unsurprising. Their survey showed that over 75% of responders had had an unwanted sexual experience at least once. However, only 14% of those who experienced this reported it. Particularly concerning is the fact that 15% of these students had considered suicide, 13% considered or attempted self-harm, and a staggering 17% attempted to end their life.
Experiences of sexual violence are particularly gendered; with women being more likely to suffer. In the NUS survey, 61% of men have experienced sexual misconduct or violence, meanwhile 78% of women who responded to the survey had experienced it.
There is a normalisation of sexual violence in institutions of further education, and ‘rape culture’ is rising. As this is the case, these acts have become invisible, and therefore harder to prevent and tackle.
It has also been reported that students have varying and inconsistent levels of both knowledge about, and trust in institutional responses to sexual abuse and harassment, and that they had a lack of clarity about the university’s position and protocol when it came to the topic.
I sat down to talk to members of the Leicester University Me Too on Campus committee about the subject, both of whom have encountered experiences of serious sexual assault. They told me about their experiences and its subsequent effects.
“You don’t want to accept that something like this has happened to you…it’s like this only happens to girls in books and films…and then it happens to you…it shook me awake.” The student said that she was “in shock and didn’t know what to do.”
Following her rape, she found support. Juniper Lodge, where she was physically investigated were described by her as being heart-warmingly supportive, attentive and sensitive. Even though she was going through hours of gruelling, exceptionally personal and invasive investigation this was made as comfortable as it could be for her.
When it came down to her reporting the case to university however, she was questioned as to whether she was “totally sure that [she] had had intercourse with him?” and whether she was completely certain that she “didn’t give consent?” She was also asked that classic question: “How much had you had to drink?”
Some of the recurring topics when it came down to their attacks was blackmail, flattery and revenge. One of the girls said that her rapist told her that “she owed him a kiss for walking her home.” The other said that he was constantly telling her she was “beautiful” and that he’d “liked [her] since the first year”, enticing her to consent.
The consequences of their assaults have been life changing for both students, triggering conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I feel like I’m not worthy. I feel dirty. I feel worthless. I feel like everyone thinks I’m weird. I feel so judged by everyone…it’s made me really self-conscious.”
“My self-esteem is really low. I’m super aware of what people might think about me. I feel like everyone’s watching me and saying: ‘that’s that girl”.
“Unworthy” and “dirty”; and to make matters worse, the rapist defended himself by spreading rumours about the girl that he raped.
“He was telling people that I wasn’t right in the head, and that I was weird. But I was just trying to give him signs that he should leave.”
For reasons pertaining to sensitivity, I won’t describe the atrocious injuries that she sustained during her attack.
Yet these girls are strong, and refuse to let their rapists ruin them: “I considered dropping out of uni’, but then I thought: I can’t let him win. I’ve fought so hard.”
“As negative as it was, and as much of a negative impact it’s had on my life, I feel as though I’ve made the best of a really bad situation. No matter what happens to you and no matter how bad it is, you can always make something positive out of it, and that’s what I’m trying to do with the campaign.”
The campaign is ‘Me Too on Campus’. It was started to make a change and provide more fair treatment for victims. ‘Rape culture’, abuse and harassment have become unacceptably normalised in higher education institutions, and this campaign is all about showing solidarity and raising awareness. They are also working on campus to increase and better facilities for assaulted and harassed students, with considerable success.
They have raised the cap on the counselling session limit, enabling people to get the help they need, to the extent in which they need it. As a result of their work, the university now employs an additional 5 counsellors – 2 of which are trauma specialists. The waiting list is still long, but a vast improvement from its previous state thanks to the campaign.
Have you spotted the “NO MEANS NO” and “SILENCE IS NOT CONSENT” stickers and posters around campus? They’re striking, direct and un-ignorable, and makes it plain how easy it is to understand that the word ‘No, really does mean No, and that there is absolutely no excuse to ignore someone saying that.
Taking awareness out onto the sports field, Me Too now offer training kits with their hashtag on them, and offer teams the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and to raise awareness. This is entirely profit free for the campaign, and only aims to increase awareness.
At the moment, the committee are concentrating on education. They are presenting to each individual society on the topic of consent, and what constitutes sexual harassment and assault, ensuring that students are aware of acceptable boundaries and their rights. They aim to make education on these topics more consistent, and are pushing for the ideal outcome of having lectures on consent and assault as part of a compulsory session for students.
They also have a new up and coming campaign: ‘Erase the Grey’, clarifying the ‘grey’ areas with regards to assault, and eradicating myths that need to be removed from people’s minds: “It’s not abuse if we’re in love”, “He came onto me, so I didn’t need consent”, “It’s not his fault, I was drinking.” The messages are on banners around campus to remind us of these, and to give us an extra boost if we’re in doubt of whether our voice is valid.
While the support following assault is increasingly getting better thanks to campaigns like these; there is still a long way to go.
“Part of the big reason people are so cautious around it is because some of the few cases that were actually false accusations made it to the media, they covered those stories so much.”
Spotlighting cases of false accusation inflates suspicion around rape victim complaints. It is undeniably unjust that people are falsely accused of something so serious and vile. But whilst this happens, so do genuine and honest cases, and they need to be relayed, perhaps even more so.
When it happens, it’s something that you won’t forget. “It really changes who you are.”
I feel that university has become somewhere to let your hair down, enjoy being young and your last opportunity to relinquish responsibilities and enjoy life. This hedonistic attitude has encouraged some people too far in believing that achieving this, they can treat people the way that they want to; using them for their own gain and with an utter lack (sometimes complete absence) of respect.
“Rape is not about love. It’s not even about sex. It’s about having power over another person.”
What can we do moving forward?
Let’s make university ‘rape culture’ a phase. A phase that should never have grown so out of control in the first place. Thanks to the people who have used their experiences for good, we are developing a fairer, more aware and sympathetic environment.
We all have the right to wear what we want, drink as much as we want and not to be harassed, assaulted or raped. As it stands at the moment, we’re not there yet, but there are things that we can do:
- Attend Me Too workshops and presentations about consent and healthy relationships. We need to make sure that there is a universal and consistent knowledge about where the line is when it comes to what is acceptable and what is not.
- If you feel like you have been harassed or assaulted and are considering reporting it, make sure you familiarise yourself with the University’s disciplinary process for cases of sexual misconduct. Knowing the University’s stance and procedures will help to ease any anxieties about what you will be about to go through, by providing a bit of certainty and foresight. It’ll also help to be able to know what you’re entitled to as a reporter, and to help to fight your corner until you’ve seen it through. Please find all information about the University of Leicester’s disciplinary process here: https://le.ac.uk/about/equality/standing-together/policy-development/disciplinary-process
- Offer support. If you know someone struggling with the impact of sexual violence or domestic abuse, offer your support. Put them in touch with people of trust or organisations who can help.
- Create a safe environment for yourself. Don’t go on a night out with strangers. Be aware of your surroundings and do not isolate yourself. Try to appear confident and secure.
- Take up self-defence. If you feel particularly vulnerable (e.g. If you have a long walk from work to home and its often getting dark as you’re walking alone) or just want to know how to keep yourself safe, it’s always good to know some basics, and it boosts your confidence. You don’t have to have a black belt to physically defend yourself.
- Carry a rape alarm. You can buy them online or pick one up from your local police station.
- Listen to your intuitions. If your mind is ringing alarm bells, or something just doesn’t feel quite right, don’t bat away any warnings. Make an excuse to leave or somehow escape the situation.
- Don’t reveal too much on social media: your location, if you’ve been drinking etc. These things will make you appear to be a vulnerable and easy target. Turn off the location feature on your phone before going out.
- Create a special code word that signals a need for help and communicate this to friends or family. If you have any way of communicating with them when you’re feeling like you’re in any kind of danger, this will alert them to the fact that you’re in a dangerous situation and need help.
- If someone attempts to rape you, tell them you’re on your period or even that you have an STI. It might have a chance of putting them off.
- Trust your instincts. If your attacker is armed or you feel has the potential to become violent or even that your life is at risk, do whatever you feel is safe. If you feel it unsafe to fight back, follow your instincts. If you feel that you can, then do so.
- Perhaps the two most important preventions are to trust in your intuition, and to remain fully aware of your surroundings when alone and in social settings with friends, at all times.
- Talk to someone you can trust. If you’ve been attacked and you’re injured or in shock, someone with a clear mind will be able to determine more logically what to do than you will at this point. Confide in someone that you feel can help.
We undoubtedly need to stop harassment and assault in its earlier stages, rather than waiting for it to happen and then offering advice and support. Once it’s happened, the effects are irreversible, and it becomes much harder to tackle effectively. This poses both a challenge and an opportunity for further education institutions. The situation as it is needs to be reassessed as a matter of urgency, as criminal offences are becoming normal behaviour.
It’s amazing to reflect on how much difference the people behind Me Too on Campus have made to our safety and validation. These people have taken the most negative of experiences, and used this to create a more positive atmosphere for others: a safer space to be and to talk about sexual assault and harassment.
Other helpful recourses:
- The University of Leicester’s ‘Standing Together’ campaign information page: https://le.ac.uk/about/equality/standing-together
- University of Leicester: ‘Report and Support’ Page: https://reportandsupport.le.ac.uk
- ‘Sexual Assault: What happens after students speak out?’ BBC Radio 4 Podcast: https://open.spotify.com/episode/4kvGGrB3LKP874tgxPhS6y
- The University of Leicester’s Student Union ‘Me Too’ Campaign information page: https://www.leicesterunion.com/voice/campaigns/current/metoo/
- Leicestershire Police’s Advice and Information Page on Rape and Sexual Assault: https://www.leics.police.uk/advice/advice-and-information/rsa/rape-and-sexual-assault/
- NHS Help After Rape and Sexual Assault Page: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/help-after-rape-and-sexual-assault/
- Leicestershire Rape and Sexual Assault Referral Services: https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/Rape-and-sexual-assault-referral-centres/Leicester/Results/136/-1.137/52.64/364/12489?distance=25
- Juniper Lodge (Leicester): www.juniperlodge.co.uk , 0116 273 3330
- The Blue Sky Sexual Assault Referral Centre (Nuneaton): www.blueskycentre.org.uk , 0800 970 0371
- The Topaz Centre (Nottinghamshire): www.topazcentre.org , 0800 0859993 (24 hours)