Sexual assault among students at universities is something that happens regularly but is talked about rarely. A campaign aims to give students back their voice and to inform universities on how best to tackle the problem.
While at university, I and many of my friends were sexually assaulted on a regular basis. This can be a tough statement to accept for some people, but virtually every woman (and some men, too) can unfortunately confirm that it is true.
Sexual assault doesn’t just mean rape in a dark alley by a stranger – it’s groping on a night out, inappropriate comments or being pressured by a friend or partner into a sexual act.
Misconceptions around consent, sexual assault and even rape are inescapable and far too common. It’s almost become normalised, an accepted part of student life.
Report rates at universities in the UK are shockingly low and are not representative of the scale of this epidemic. How do you report sexual assault and harassment when the perpetrator is a friend or a friend of a friend, and you could bump into them at any time?
Revolt Sexual Assault is a national campaign that I set up to expose the nature and extent of sexual assault and harassment experienced by students at university in the UK.
We have launched a survey, the first of its kind in the UK for a decade, in partnership with The Student Room. Current students and graduates who take part will generate insights on the prevalence of sexual violence on campuses, rates of reporting and knowledge of support services.
We have also used Snapchat to give a voice to students who have experienced sexual assault. Students can use facial and voice filters to protect their anonymity while ensuring that others can still hear their story.
This became a powerful tool for addressing the serious issue of sexual assault and harassment, humanising a darker side to university life that is often concealed by a cloak of silence. One of our participants fed back about her experience after filming her story: “Telling my story anonymously has been so empowering and I’ve felt safe and in control the whole time.”
Another male student said of the campaign: “I’m not sure how to write this but I want to say thank you…As a male survivor, I’m glad to see such articles are appearing and that the voice is being raised to say, ‘No, no more, not again’. And thank you for saying it can happen to men as well – that means a lot.”
The current system is under-equipped to deal with the sheer scale of sexual assault and harassment experienced by students. Up until 2016, the Zellick report advised universities that “internal action for rape and sexual assault is out of the question”.
Far too many universities still follow this approach, despite the 2016 Universities UK Changing the Culture report stating that: “the idea of going to the police or through formal disciplinary procedures can be a barrier to reporting and result in a student feeling unable to seek support”.
One of our campaign participants described this experience: “It’s me who has to check whether I share an exam hall with him and if I do I have to explain, normally to a new member of staff, what happened so that they change the room for me. I had to change gyms, I’ve never been on the university ski trip. Rape is a real thing and so was the way I was treated after. Something really needs to change.”
She had reported her sexual assault to the university and the police, who decided not to pursue a conviction because of a lack of evidence.
Universities are reliant on the personal tutor system, but while some individual members of staff can and do act as excellent personal tutors, this is far from universal when many have limited pastoral training and, for some, hearing these stories can cause distress.
However, some higher education institutions are starting to tackle the issue of sexual assault and harassment in the UK, following the Changing the Culture report.
But no student voices were represented in the report and information is not currently available on how often sexual assault and harassment is happening at UK universities and nor are the necessary first-hand accounts from students. Our campaign and survey’s mission is to fill this gap.
Universities must focus on a minimum standard of care for students experiencing sexual assault and harassment. It’s common knowledge that many universities are frightened about approaching this topic as their report rates will inevitably go up, and they will be acknowledging that sexual assault and harassment is happening.
But those same universities should be assured that, for prospective and current students, a university that acknowledges and understands the reality of what we have to go through on a regular basis, that stands up and says that sexual assault and harassment will not be tolerated and that provides clear and accessible reporting procedures and support services, will be one that wins our applications every time.
To help inform universities on the necessary facts needed to inform and shape their handling of the issue, we are offering universities and students’ unions in the UK a chance to engage with our work, and participate in the survey, with universities such as Durham University, City, University of London and the University of Sussex being some of the first to sign up. We are urging other universities to follow the lead of these innovative and proactive institutions and commit to putting the real and raw student experience of sexual violence at the heart of their response.
To female and male students and graduates throughout the UK who have been affected, please do get in touch with me and Revolt Sexual Assault through our website or social media. We hope that the compilation and publication of these videos, alongside the results of our national survey, will lead to more awareness, conversation, engagement and momentum for change: #ItsRevolting.
To fill out the survey please click here https://revoltsexualassault.com/survey/
Originally published in Times Higher Education.