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?
Emily McMullin writes about her experiences of sexual assault and why comments made by actress Angela Lansbury suggest a cultural change is needed – and fast.
Having been pretty vocal on the matter of sexual harassment since going to university, it got to the point last week where I felt I couldn’t not write something on the topic.
While I’m so glad that this long-awaited shit storm has begun and the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault are finally having to face the consequences of their actions, I have also been horribly frustrated and angered by some of the comments and attitudes that are being bandied about as a result.
This is where it all began… As a student journalist, I wanted to expose the epidemic levels of sexual assault and harassment at universities in the UK and give a voice to sexual violence survivors. Now here we are, addressing those levels and campaigning for change (with a better hashtag #ItsRevolting).
You can read the original article here on our blog, as Epigram, the University of Bristol’s independent student newspaper, is experiencing some technical difficulties with their website.
Our Online Editor Hannah Price carried out a Snapchat project that spotlights the sexual abuse, sexual harassment and sexism that lurks beneath the surface of university life.
We live in a generation where morphing your face into an alien, an animal or even your friend is completely normal. We have Bitmojis that look more like us than we do when we wake up in the morning.
We also live in a society where someone groping you is just as normal. When did the latter happen and why?
Social media is second nature to millennials. Snapchat is a platform that is led by us. While we’ve mastered the filters, the media and businesses have been trying to work out a way to utilise the selfie-taking phenomenon. What if it could be used to powerfully humanise and address more serious issues?
In India they did just that. Using Snapchat, two rape victims captured their stories while still abiding by their country’s restrictive laws in a sombre yet liberating way. The app extraordinarily allowed for raw emotion to radiate through their masked identities. This inspired me into thinking about how, as the generation that has propelled Snapchat into success, we could use a similar innovative approach to highlight and humanise sexual assault on campus.
And that’s exactly what I tried to do with this #RevoltAgainstSexualAssault article.
There was nervous laughter and a few tears as myself and each student picked out a disguise that both captured and empowered their feelings of discontent, anger and pain. However, behind the flower crowns and puppy ears, I watched as the face-tracking software magically boosted their confidence, easing them just enough to find their voice.
Each story that was portrayed through a series of snaps proved to be a tough watch, even beneath a filter, yet, startlingly, the most jarring element of the video project was unseen. When I met with each volunteer, the same question was posed to me: ‘Which incident do I talk about?’, I was asked again and again. The silence that followed is what has stuck with me; the moment where we both soundlessly acknowledged that the distressing account they had chosen was just one of many – without even a sigh of surprise.
Lines seem to be blurred as to what is classed as sexual assault, so let’s be clear – the term refers to forced sexual contact or behaviour, that occurs without explicit consent of the victim, and applies to both women and men. This ranges from rape to unwanted fondling, both of which is addressed by Bristol students that took part in this campaign.
Speaking to me after the completion of the video a Masters student, who wished to remain anonymous, highlighted the importance of sharing her story of sexual assault,
‘While my female friends are always supportive they are never really surprised, but my male friends are. I don’t think they really realise how prevalent this is.’
For many, university is a young person’s first time living independently as an adult. The student bubble differs hugely to any typical school or work-place environment – you are suddenly living, eating, studying and socialising with your peers; day in, day out. This, of course, can provide the perfect setting for a great student experience. However, escapism is much harder to come by, therefore if you find yourself as a victim of a crime you are suddenly far more vulnerable. How do you speak out if the chances of running into your attacker are so high?
That isn’t where the turmoil ends. Throughout all areas of life there are obstacles that make discussing and dealing with sexual assault extremely distressing. For example, the ‘you asked for it’ blame game whereby a female’s attire and alcohol intake takes centre-stage, rather than the traumatising events that they have just endured. This is exacerbated at university, because many assaults happen in a club environment, making victim-blaming all the more common.
During the opening snaps a volunteer speaks on behalf of a Bristol student who was assaulted by her flatmate’s boyfriend, in the safety of her own halls of residence. She draws attention to the hypocrisy of the, ‘it was your fault’ stigma by recounting that the perpetrator, in this instance, justified his actions with ‘substance abuse’.
Less than a week ago, on Tuesday 2 May, a Bristol University student was sexually assaulted, in broad day light, whilst walking past Beacon House. The 22-year-old women spoke to Epigram about the ordeal,
‘We all tell women not to go by themselves to quiet places late at night, but I was with a friend, surrounded by people, in a ‘safe’ area, and during the day. Surely that’s enough to prove that the focus should be shifted from having to protect yourself from being sexually assaulted, to telling boys never to attack women?’
I’m not sure when it happened but sexual assault seems to have become ‘normalised’, within the university environment. The dangers of indifference can easily be overlooked, but should not be underestimated.
It has become less and less common to openly discuss sexual assault because, for many students, it has become the equivalent of a shoulder shrug – an accepted part of everyday life. While using Snapchat could come across as ‘trivial’ for such a serious topic, the stories are presented in a format that we are all so familiar with to starkly contrast ‘normality’ with the severity of the problem.
Several students in the video address the indifference towards sexual assault by recalling the ridicule they received when they objected to groping and harassment. A third-year student reported, ‘The more angry I got, they just laughed in my face’.
So, it is unsurprising that many have accepted these type of actions as ‘normal’.
All of this seems to have gagged us into staying silent, but if the conversation stops how can the myths behind the subject be dispelled?
During the project, the gravity of hearing the word ‘rape’ aloud really resonated with our viewers. Sarah Redrup, choosing no filter, candidly disclosed details about her attacks:
‘Since being a student here I’ve been raped again 3 times and assaulted a lot. Every time it’s happened it’s been someone that I know, I like, I love and that I see all the time.’
The use of the word rape immediately sparked a discussion and opened the eyes of many about the darker aspects of university life, previously unseen, hinting at the promise that more conversation could come.
An anonymous student from the video told Epigram, ‘hearing about the project made me acknowledge what had happened last year. It kind of made me have acceptance for something that I had blamed myself for, for such a long time and made me realise that there are so many other people in the same position’.
While another anonymous contributor shared how the experience affected her:
Telling my story anonymously has been so empowering and I’ve felt safe and in control the whole time.
‘When i was raped I felt so alone and unsupported. I thought bad things like sexual assault didn’t happen to girls like me… I didn’t know how to talk about rape and that made dealing with all my emotions so much more difficult.
‘Establishing safety and control have been significant parts of my recovery process and this was yet another step. The police and the university need to change the way they deal with sexual assault cases.
‘I really believe this project will make them ask more questions and take a more active approach in reforming their systems.’
The six-minute video that we have created, with the help of brave, strong women only touches the surface of the problem facing us, and is far from the full picture or scale of this epidemic.
A male survivor reached out after hearing about the project,
I’m not sure how to write this but I want to say thank you, the article you wrote has touched me, but also 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!’
In a better world, I would have been writing about a video that showcased the untouched faces of the beautiful, intelligent students that sat across the room from me, and as they looked into the camera you would be seeing the same emotion in their eyes that I saw.
Yet, right now, victims’ voices are being suppressed by the environment we have created. But, even underneath the extra layer of filters and emojis, you can see that these women are not just statistics, they are real, and you can hear what they are trying to tell you loud and clear.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling Rape Crisis England and Wales on 0808 802 9999. For more resources on sexual assault, visit The Survivor Pathway and SupportLine.
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