Content Warning: sexual violence
Sexual violence is something one third of female students in the UK have endured, despite it being an issue that has come into the attention of the public sphere only relatively recently. Statistics like this are thrown around both in criticism and praise of the efforts being made by many in our society to open up the conversation around sexual assault and rape.
Unsurprisingly for some, students at universities make up a large percentage of the cases of sexual assault in the UK. There have been campaigns such as the Breaking the Silence initiative at Cambridge University, and stories are finally coming to the surface from people whose voices had previously been drowned out. A collective anger has risen up amongst students over claims that victims were “asking for it”, and that “boys will be boys”, alongside other throwaway comments. Statements such as these are reflective of the rape culture in which we live and wider attitudes towards sexual violence.
But what is going on behind the marches, the advertising campaigns and the #MeToo hashtag? Perhaps a step back is needed to assess the complexity of the problem of sexual violence and how it actually affects victims for the rest of their lives.
Among young women, it seems that everyone has a story. We’ve all experienced (or know someone who has experienced) the groping in nightclubs, the catcalling, and the unsolicited photos. Almost all of us at least know a story of someone who has been raped – by a stranger, a friend or a partner.
This isn’t something that can be solved by a report or a university campaign, or something that can be pinned on any one group of people. This is the product of a culture in which we crave immediate gratification, a society perpetually entertained, combined with ideas about people and their bodies. This leaves many women constantly comparing themselves to others and seeking the approval of men, and many men feeling an entitlement to women’s bodies. Of course that is a generalisation, but we see it in the way our world is, in the advertising and the social media content aimed at us, and the way we interact with others’ bodies and our own.
Students in the UK have stood up to this injustice in many ways: through campaigns, supporting victims of sexual assault, empowering people to speak up about their experiences and holding perpetrators responsible. This is all valuable work which has provided hope for many people and made our social spaces safer. Here at the University of Edinburgh all venues have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment and have shown support and solidarity towards victims. However, more focus on the individuals who experience sexual violence would be a good step forward. This might involve offering emergency counselling to those who report their experience, or support groups for victims to process what has happened to them.
Of course, preventing sexual violence from happening in the first place is always preferable. Promoting awareness about consent and challenging a patriarchal culture through our relationships with those around us is so important. In particular, universities should encourage men – who make up most, but not all, of perpetrators of sexual violence – to hold each other responsible for the way they treat women, and promote a culture of respect. In general, opening up the conversation around sexual violence and avoiding demonising any one group of people will help us move towards a safer future for sexual violence victims.