Posted on Mon 14 Mar 2016 at 13:12 by Christopher Carter
(CW: sexual assault and rape)
International Women’s Week 2016 has now concluded, and we saw a number of societies at Warwick host their own events in celebration of this. Even though misogyny (specifically a rejection of feminist leadership) is still sorely felt and experienced on campus, I can’t help but walk away from the week’s events with profound positivity.
I was invited to speak on a panel about sexual assault in universities in my capacity as SU Women’s Officer. Sitting alongside some game-changing academics and activists whose work I have come across while researching the issue myself, I was there to represent Warwick students specifically and discuss the problems we have on our doorstep.
Having spent most of the time on the panel furiously taking notes and picking the brains of fellow activists, I can now share some of the most poignant details. 1 in 3 students at university will experience some form of sexual assault during their study, with fellow students committing the vast majority of these attacks. It has happened at Warwick, it does happen, and sadly it will happen again.
We need multi-pronged strategies to both cope with and tackle this. First, we need to work on prevention. Criticisms of schemes such as I <3 Consent point out that university age is too late to start consent training - of course, in an ideal world consent would be ingrained in sex education from a much younger age, but that doesn’t mean that we should discard consent education on campuses. It may not be the answer but, in lieu of meaningful national reform, it is a start. Meanwhile, we also need permanent student-facing campaigns that are funded by the university.
Recommendations coming out of the event recognise that change must come from the ground-up. To quote Dr Helen Mott, we need a student-led culture that decides for itself to reject sexual violence. These actions can be as simple as telling a friend that their rape joke wasn’t cool, or that you didn’t appreciate a sexist comment being made. Raising awareness through the education of bystanders is as important as that of potential perpetrators.
In the SU, we have engaged in frontline staff training for those working in venues to be more aware and considerate of the issues at stake. The cultural discourse around perceived ‘acceptable behaviours’ is often guilty of helping to facilitate assault, in turn creating a cycle in which lad culture is produced and reproduced. We have therefore signed up to the NUS Lad Culture audit and exercise pilot scheme, in a collaborative effort to bring about a reformative ethos nationwide. There is also recognition from the feedback of current workshops that quality control can be an issue, and we need our student trainers to be consistent and on point every time.
While we’re charged with the duty of a ‘lad culture’ overhaul in the student body, then, the University also needs to act. Though work on prevention is an obvious necessity, with sexual violence being such a prevalent reality in society and on university campuses, we cannot be blinkered in our approach and must work on after-care solutions as well. Higher Education institutions often boast policies on Equality and Diversity, but these are redundant if they are not fit for purpose or exclude pathways for responding to sexual assault.
The national guidelines currently in place for universities are police-oriented, demonstrating more concern with safeguarding a university’s reputation and supporting the accused over the victim. All of the above are out of touch, misguided and dangerous. 57% of victims who have the courage to confide in friends and family about their ordeal still won’t go to the police. This is of little surprise when there is still such widespread misunderstanding of sexual violence, specifically regarding agency and who is at fault. It’s often only from reading about the experiences of others and comparing them to your own that victims are able to properly categorise their assaults as just that: assaults. It’s a big, scary word that connotes a certain type of attack between two strangers in a dark place. However, as soon as we debunk these myths and overturn widely-held ideas of what constitutes assault, then we can hopefully begin to see a decrease in the blurring of consent and an increase of reports when assaults do happen.
As it stands, universities are notoriously poor at handling reports. Policies on the issue are neither transparent nor readily available, with no one single point of contact ready to help. Instead, victims who are likely in the midst of a battle with psychological trauma get passed from pillar to post, made to divulge their testimony up to 15 times to 15 different staffers, and then told about what the university can’t do for them. The picture is bleak.
Coming out of this event, though, there is so much hope and determination. Having now been elected to the position of Welfare and Campaigns Officer, and thus in an ideal position to tackle some of the campus-specific problems, I can’t wait to get started on reforming our approach to keeping students safe once my term begins.
If anything that you have read here affects you or you need help, there is support available:
Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (CRASAC) - 02476 277777 or http://www.crasac.org.uk/
Rape Crisis - http://rapecrisis.org.uk/
Survivors UK (for men only) - https://www.survivorsuk.org/
Terrence Higgins Trust – 02476 229 292 or www.tht.org.uk
University information page - https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/tutors/counselling/informationpages/sexual_assault/
Warwick SU Advice Centre - https://www.warwicksu.com/advice/ or visit the second floor of SUHQ.